Police militarization roundup

Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 — which does some fantastic investigative reporting — looks at police militarization in Tennessee. (Disclosure: NewsChannel 5 interviewed me as part of its investigation.)

McMinn County is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It boasts beautiful scenery, but its sheriff’s department can boast something else.

The department received more military surplus guns than any other local department in the state last year.

“We actually reconfigured the whole armory to accommodate all of this,” said Sheriff Joe Guy.

Sheriff Guy oversees 31 officers and investigators, but his department received 161 army rifles and pistols, including 71 M16 rifles and 71 .45-caliber pistols.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, “Why does your department need all these guns?”

Sheriff Guy responded, “Well, we don’t need this many. There was a little error in the order.”

The Sheriff said the Army surplus program doubled his initial order, but he hasn’t sent the guns back.

“They’re here as our department grows. We’ll have additional firearms for future officers,” Sheriff Guy said.

So they now have two M16s for each member of the force, with nine more to spare. If Georgia ever decides to invade, McMinn County is ready. These police agencies also seem to have a difficult time keeping track of all this stuff:

The Tennessee Highway Patrol reported two M14s missing last year.

A TWRA park ranger had an M16 stolen from his vehicle — it was later recovered.

And at the tiny Bean Station Police Department in East Tennessee, the police chief’s son took an M16 from the program and was arrested for impersonating a police officer . . .

Late Thursday, the Department of General Services told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that it has suspended the state coordinator of the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO).

Elbert Baker is on administrative leave with pay. The Department of General Services stated it discovered that it had given inaccurate and incomplete information to NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

We had asked for documentation involving missing weapons in the LESO program.

The state has alerted its auditors and is conducting a review of LESO files, records and internal controls, a spokesperson said. The auditors have notified the comptroller’s office they are investigating a possible internal deficiency.

Poor record-keeping, no accountability, no real effort to assess need before handing these toys out, and, perhaps worst of all, little to no training. Military personnel get hours and hours of training on some of this gear before they’re permitted to use it on a battlefield. But the Pentagon hands it over to domestic police agencies with no such requirement.

More great reporting on this issue from the Sentinel, in a piece examining the use of SWAT teams in Montgomery County, Md:

Charles Adams (not his real name) woke with a start.

Armed men loomed over him. Guns raised, they dragged the middle-aged father out of bed and threw him to the floor, his body hitting the ground with a resonating thud.

He lay there helplessly, stricken with fear as his wrists were jammed into handcuffs, a gun shoved against his head.

Adams wasn’t being robbed – the gang of men holding him at gun point was the Montgomery County Police Department SWAT team.

Following the raid, Adams was never charged with anything or issued an apology from the department.

“It was something I will never forget, the gun being pointed at my head. Who knows? What if they slipped?” Adams said. “They could have killed me, they could have killed my girlfriend, they could have killed either of the little girls, they could have killed my son. I’m much more scared of the cops than I am of the robbers.”

The article includes another story about a marijuana raid in which police destroyed a couple’s home, even though the wife pulled up as the raid was about to happen and offered to let them in. They went ahead with the battering ram, anyway. They did apparently find some illicit drugs, but it clearly wasn’t much — the couple were never charged. The Sentinel found that SWAT raids are increasing in Montgomery County in just the last few years, from 119 in 2010, to 188 in 2013 — an increase of 58 percent. 

A few other items from the militarization beat:

  • NPR interviewed former drug czar, former Seattle police chief and current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske this week. He had some interesting things to say about militarization and use of force.
  • A Salinas, Calif., family is alleging in a lawsuit that police mistakenly raided its home in search for a suspect police already had in custody. The lawsuit alleges that police trashed the home, pointed guns at a 14-year-old girl and refused to let one resident sit up to insure that his dialysis catheter remained sterile.
  • Finally, a couple in Florida says a team of soldiered-up agents from the Department of Homeland Security staged a mistaken raid on its home in search of child porn. A month later, the family still can’t get anyone from DHS to acknowledge what happened, much less pay for the repairs to the home. Video here.

 

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 · July 18, 2014