titled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American
Policing,” shedding much-needed light on the emergence of a militarist
ethos in policing across the nation. In a review of public records,
such as incident reports, requested from more than 260 law enforcement
agencies in 25 states and the District of Columbia, the ACLU found
that, from the responses received, 818 SWAT operations from 20 local
law enforcement agencies located in 11 states fully met their research
criteria, which took geographic diversity into account, among other
factors. The SWAT incidents that were analyzed fell in the time period
between July 2010 and last October. Based on the ACLU’s examination,
it was determined that paramilitary policing is neither sporadic nor
isolated; rather, it is widespread and pervasive. Perhaps the most
eye-opening and disturbing aspects of the ACLU’s report are the
revelations of when, why and how Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT)
teams are being used.
The trend toward hyper-aggressive tactics of today’s law enforcement
are having tragic consequences, for both civilians and law officers.
Property is being destroyed. Civil liberties are being violated. SWAT
teams are employing methods and equipment which have traditionally
been reserved for war. For example, roughly 500 law enforcement
agencies now possess Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles
built to withstand armor-piercing roadside bombs. According to the
report, the root causes of the excessive militarization of policing
and its reshaping of cultural values are numerous. They include the
“War on Drugs,” the events of September 11, 2001, and a series of
Supreme Court decisions which have eroded the rights guaranteed in the
Fourth Amendment and given police unprecedented access to private
The report cites several incidents in which crime suspects or their
family members have either been injured or killed during SWAT raids.
These include the killing of a 26-year-old mother holding her infant
son; the killing of a 68-year-old grandfather; a flashbang grenade
severely burning a toddler in a crib; and, the shooting (22 times) of
a 26-year-old Iraq war veteran. The ACLU also learned of various
instances in which SWAT teams deployed when children were on the
premises, sometimes when police had advanced warning that children
would be on site. And it was not uncommon, the ACLU discovered, for
family pets to be needlessly shot during raids.
There are five primary findings presented in the report:
1. The excessive militarization of American policing has largely been
the result of federal programs which have incentivized the use of
“unnecessarily aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the
2. There has been virtually no public oversight concerning the
militarization of American policing.
3. In the majority of cases, SWAT teams were deployed to execute
search warrants in low-level drug investigations, whereas traditional
uses of SWAT (in hostage or barricade scenarios) totaled considerably
fewer cases: According to the ACLU, “SWAT teams were more than twice
as likely to force entry into a person’s home when searching for drugs
than for other deployments.”
4. People of color were disproportionately impacted by paramilitary
weapons and tactics and were the primary targets of drug searches.
5. War-like tactics and equipment are unnecessary and increase the
risk of harm to people and damage to property.
The report also includes a number of recommendations. These include:
—Because the militarization of policing has permeated American
society, systemic reform including a transformation in police culture
—Different agencies of the federal government are responsible for the
trend of aggressive policing. Accordingly, reform should occur
throughout government. Programs that incentivize the militarization of
policing must be curtailed.
—Probable cause must not be the sole justification for SWAT teams to
enter homes, even in cases when a search warrant has been issued.
—Appropriate restraints of SWAT should be developed by state
legislatures and municipalities.
—Local police departments should develop internal policies and
training that restrain officers and discourage a “warrior” mindset.
As mentioned earlier, the ACLU sought public records from law
enforcement agencies nationwide to gain better insight into police
capabilities and behavior. Not every state cooperated. For example,
law enforcement councils in Massachusetts refused to release this
information, claiming that they were not government agencies but
private, non-profit organizations, thus exempt from public record
laws. Law enforcement in the Bay State has ostensibly turned to
privatization of policing to avoid transparency and accountability.
The encouraging news is that in a press release dated June 24, the
ACLU of Massachusetts announced they had filed a lawsuit against the
North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) for
records on their SWAT activities, arguing that the “NEMLEC operates
with all of the privileges of a law enforcement agency, and like a law
enforcement agency, it should be accountable to the public.”
Modern policing, which frequently treats citizens like enemies of the
state, should deeply concern every American, regardless of political
affiliation. Over the past two decades, the violent crime rate in the
United States has decreased sharply. Innovations in computer
technology have provided law enforcement with new crime prevention
tools, especially in surveillance. The excessive militarization of
American policing, then, is counterintuitive. The drug war and
counter-terrorism efforts may represent two of the official
justifications for current trends in policing. Historically, however,
nations have militarized their police to rapidly quell potential mass
civil uprisings against tyranny and injustice. Whatever the reasoning,
abusive, hyper-aggressive policing against communities, particularly
economically disadvantaged communities of color, as well as the
stripping of civil liberties, are real threats to freedom and
democracy and thus urgently require serious national attention and
* * * * *
Brian J. Trautman writes for PeaceVoice, is a military veteran, an
instructor of peace studies at Berkshire Community College in
Pittsfield, MA, and a peace activist. On Twitter @BriTraut.