Police are supposed to serve and protect, but increasingly special police units are being used to attack with military-style raids to serve search warrants or look for drugs. Sometimes these pumped-up Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) operations target the wrong house or injure children living with a suspect.
Last month in Georgia, for instance, a SWAT team looking for drugs battered down the door of a home in the middle of the night and tossed in a stun grenade that landed in a playpen where a 19-month-old boy was sleeping. The toddler, whose family was visiting the home, suffered serious injury and was put in a medically-induced coma. No drugs were found.
In a report issued this week, the American Civil Liberties Union focused on the rising militarization of local police units.
The ACLU reviewed more than 800 SWAT raids in 20 states, including North Carolina. The ALCUs analysis found evidence of excessive force and a pattern of raids predominantly on homes where the occupants are minorities. In Chatham County, one of several North Carolina counties reviewed, the ACLU found that black residents were 15 times more likely than whites to be affected when the sheriffs Special Incident Response Team was deployed in a drug case.
The report builds on the work of Dr. Peter Kraska, professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, who surveyed police departments across the country on their use of SWAT teams. Kraska found that SWAT teams, once limited to large police departments, are now also a common element of small town forces. By Kraskas estimate, the number of SWAT raids per year grew from 3,000 in the 1980s to 45,000 in the mid-2000s.
That growth would be one thing if it was in response to rising criminal violence or a war on drugs. But violent crime has declined in the United States and the war on drugs has less support among the public. Marijuana, for instance, is being legalized or decriminalized in small amounts and draconian sentences for crack cocaine are being reduced. Yet most of the high-powered raids are undertaken to serve warrants in drug cases.
The increase in police using tank-like vehicles, wearing body armor and carrying high-powered assault rifles reflects an increasing flow of federal funding for such equipment.
The Department of Defense has long provided surplus weapons and equipment to police, but funding for more military-style equipment grew after the Sept. 11 terror attacks as the Department of Homeland Security began providing funds for fighting terror at the local level. Local police, naturally, will take and use free and powerful equipment even if there isnt any local terrorism to fight.
We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs, said Kara Dansky of the ACLUs Center for Justice.
SWAT teams are needed for especially hazardous situations, but such units can be set up on a regional basis and called in for those relatively rare occasions. Meanwhile, the federal government should send money instead of armaments so police can afford to do more to serve and protect. That involves more community policing that puts more officers on the beat who know the community. It also means programs to help drug abusers and mentor teens. Armored vehicles, high-powered rifles and battering rams should be a last resort.