If Law Enforcement Gets the Toys, They will Use the Toys

And sadly, that means they will use the toys to disastrous effect…

It’s been just over a year since I had a post about the militarization of law enforcement (see here, here, here, here, here, or here). If you need a quick summary (instead of reading or re-reading my past articles), check out this article from Wired’s Danger Room blog. It provides example after example of military goods going to local police forces that represent only a few tens of thousands of people.

I’m all for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down. But a big side effect of that wind down is that military equipment often comes back home with the troops. As it cannot be sold to civilians, it’s often sold to local law enforcement groups–often at a steep discount or through grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

There are several problems with this. The first is that many local governments are struggling with their finances. And although these transfers look like a great way to get goods on the cheap, the initial low cost is often swamped by maintenance costs. For example, the Danger Room article says:

In Tupelo, Mississippi, home to 35,000, the local police acquired a helicopter for only $7,500 through the surplus program. The chopper, however, had to be upgraded for $100,000 and it now costs $20,000 a year in maintenance.

Another criticism is that the law enforcement groups often don’t spring for the necessary training and regular re-training on how to use (and when NOT to use) these items.

And that’s where the real problems begin. When local law enforcement organizations have access to these tools, they will find a way to use them. And as they get used more often, the accidents and misuses also increase. The first tragedy–the first to catch my attention anyway–was the killing of a Marine vet in a drug raid gone bad. No drugs were found in the home.

Sadly, that was not the last tragedy. As detailed in this Salon article, the tragedies have mounted. SWAT teams are raiding neighborhood poker games with buy-ins of $20. SWAT teams are raiding barbershops to go after people “barbering without a license”–a misdemeanor. SWAT teams are raiding bars and holding people at gun point while they check for underage drinking. Pet dogs are getting shot left and right. And lets not forget how police offers handle big protest movements: suppressing rather than managing.

It’s a long article, but well worth your time. The article goes on to discuss how this has traditionally been a concern of the right, but after the Occupy Wall Street movement, it has increasingly been a concern of the left. So long as these raids and tactics are approved by the courts and police officers get a paid vacation as a result of such raids, I say this should be a concern of everyone. Is this really what you want your local police officers doing? Is this how you want your tax dollars spent? Does it make you feel safer?

If you want the even longer version, the Salon article was excerpted from Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko.