New ACLU report takes a snapshot of police militarization in the United States

The American Civil Liberties Union has released the results of its year-long study of police militarization. The study looked at 800 deployments of SWAT teams among 20 local, state and federal police agencies in 2011-2012. Among the notable findings:

  • 62 percent of the SWAT raids surveyed were to conduct searches for drugs.
  • Just under 80 percent were to serve a search warrant, meaning eight in 10 SWAT raids were not initiated to apprehend a school shooter, hostage taker, or escaped felon (the common justification for these tactics), but to investigate someone still only suspected of committing a crime.
  • In fact, just 7 percent of SWAT raids were “for hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.”
  • In at least 36 percent of the SWAT raids studies, no contraband of any kind was found. The report notes that due to incomplete police reports on these raids this figure could be as high as 65 percent.
  • SWAT tactics are disproportionately used on people of color.
  • 65 percent of SWAT deployments resulted in some sort of forced entry into a private home, by way of a battering ram, boot, or some sort of explosive device. In over half those raids, the police failed to find any sort of weapon, the presence of which was cited as the reason for the violent tactics.
  • Ironically (or perhaps not), searches to serve warrants on people suspected of drug crimes were more likely to result in forced entry than raids conducted for other purposes.
  • Though often justified for rare incidents like school shootings or terrorist situations, the armored personnel vehicles police departments are getting from the Pentagon and through grants from the Department of Homeland Security are commonly used on drug raids.

Jefferson County, Alabama SWAT team members move down a hallway during an active shooter training exercise at a school in Ketona, Ala., Wednesday, June 18, 2014. (AP Photo/ AL.com, Mark Almond)

In other words, where violent, volatile SWAT tactics were once used only in limited situations where someone was in the process of or about to commit a violent crime — where the police were using violence only to defuse an already violent situation — SWAT teams today are overwhelmingly used to investigate people who are still only suspected of committing nonviolent consensual crimes. And because these raids often involve forced entry into homes, often at night, they’re actually creating violence and confrontation where there was none before.

(Read more: Massachusetts SWAT teams claim they are private corporations)

When SWAT teams are used in a way that’s consistent with their original purpose, they’re used carefully and cautiously. The ACLU report finds that, “In nearly every deployment involving a barricade, hostage, or active shooter, the SWAT report provided specific facts that gave the SWAT team reason to believe there was an armed and often dangerous suspect.” By contrast . . .

 . . . incident reports for search warrant executions, especially in drug investigations, often contained no information about why the SWAT team was being sent in, other than to note that the warrant was “high risk,” or else provided otherwise unsubstantiated information such as “suspect is believed to be armed.” In case after case that the ACLU examined, when a SWAT team was deployed to search a person’s home for drugs, officers determined that a person was “likely to be armed” on the basis of suspected but unfounded gang affiliations, past weapons convictions, or some other factor that did not truly indicate a basis for believing that the person in question was likely to be armed at the moment of the SWAT deployment. Of course, a reasonable belief that weapons are present should not by itself justify a SWAT deployment. Given that almost half of American households have guns, use of a SWAT team could almost always be justified if this were the sole factor.

But we’ve already seen cases in which the mere factor that the resident of a home was a legal gun owner — in some cases by virtue of the fact that the owner had obtained some sort of state license — was used as an excuse to execute a full-on SWAT raid to serve a warrant for an otherwise nonviolent crime. Of the SWAT raids the ACLU studied in which police cited the possibility of finding a weapon in the home, they actually found a weapon just 35 percent of the time.

A 2004 classified memo all but confirms the blurring of the lines between the drug war and the U.S. military by calling the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) The “Other” Warfighter and stating that the War on Drugs “has all the risks, excitement, and dangers of conventional warfare.”

— From the ACLU report on police militarization

The report also finds almost no outside oversight on the use of SWAT tactics. This is consistent with my own research and reporting. The decision to send the SWAT team is often made by the SWAT commander or by fairly low-ranking officials within a police agency. Consequently, factors such as using the minimum amount of force necessary or the civil rights of the people who may be affected by the raid often aren’t taken into consideration. The ACLU, for example, found that although some police agencies in the survey were required to write after-action reports or present annual reports on the SWAT team, “internal reviews mostly pertain to proper weapons use and training and not to evaluating important civil rights implications of SWAT use.”

The report also makes important contributions on other aspects of militarization that will be familiar to people who follow this issue, including the effect that militarization can have on the mindset of police officers, and the role that federal anti-drug grants have played in boosting this trend.

(Read more: Police handcuff man over Nickelback — but not because he’s a fan)

Finally, the ACLU concedes that its report is necessarily incomplete, because “[d]ata collecting and reporting in the context of SWAT was at best sporadic and at worst virtually nonexistent.”

The ACLU filed public records requests with more than 255 law enforcement agencies during the course of this investigation. One hundred and fourteen of the agencies denied the ACLU’s request, either in full or in part. Even if the ACLU had received and examined responsive documents from all 255 law enforcement agencies that received public records requests, this would represent only a sliver of the more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies that exist throughout the United States, and thus would shine only a dim light on the extent of police militarization throughout the country.

This, too, is consistent with my own experience. Among the excuses police agencies gave the ACLU for not turning over records were that the requested information “contained trade secrets,” that turning over such information could affect the effectiveness of SWAT teams and that the information requested was too broad, would cost too much to produce or wasn’t subject to open-records law. In short, we have police departments that are increasingly using violent, confrontational tactics to break into private homes for increasingly low-level crimes, and they seem to believe that the public has no right to know the specifics of when, how and why those tactics are being used.

This report is a valuable contribution to the public debate over police militarization. In some ways, it merely confirms what Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska already documented in the late 1990s (and what I documented in my book last year). But Kraska’s last survey was in 2005, so this is an important new set of data conclusively demonstrating that the trends Kraska first documented nearly 20 years ago have only continued and have in some ways intensified. The most revealing part of the report, however, may be what isn’t in it. That is, that police agencies are using these tactics with increasing frequency but are doing so with sloppy and incomplete record-keeping, little heed for the safety and civil rights of the people on the receiving end of these raids and are troublingly reluctant to share any information about the tactics.

I’m sure that the report will generate lots of media coverage, just as Kraska’s studies did. The mass media seem to find renewed interest in this issue every five or six years. The problem, as the ACLU documents well, is that none of that coverage has generated any meaningful reform. And so the militarization continues. I’ll have more on the ACLU’s recommendations in a subsequent post. In the meantime, the ACLU has also released a series of videos with snippets of raid footage it obtained in its investigation. Here’s one of them:

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."

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Radley Balko · June 23, 2014