Police militarization began with 1980s war on drugs - Tucson News Now

Police militarization began with 1980s war on drugs

More police forces are acquiring and using military-grade equipment, a fact highlighted by the handling of events after the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. (Source: CNN) More police forces are acquiring and using military-grade equipment, a fact highlighted by the handling of events after the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. (Source: CNN)

(RNN) - As the line between civilian police officer and military soldier has become more blurred, it has also become difficult to determine how it happened and when the use of paramilitary force on city streets is necessary.

Training and armament of police forces increased in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, but it took root far before that.

The use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams goes back nearly 50 years. Most experts attribute the creation of such a unit to the Los Angeles Police Department around 1966 under the direction of Inspector Daryl Gates, who became chief of police in 1978. Gates was still chief when LAPD officers brutally beat Rodney King in 1991.

In the 20 years since the LAPD popularized the use of SWAT teams, the idea spread nationwide, but such force was still used sparingly.

Heavily armed police were only deployed in rare cases like "hostage takings, barricades, hijackings, or prison escapes," according to journalist and former policy analyst Radley Balko.

Balko's research paper Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America outlines an increased use of police force - often unnecessarily or even mistakenly - that coincided with the federal government's "war on drugs."

Among the many significant actions to eradicate illegal drugs from the U.S. during Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 1980s, two stand out.

The first was the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act passed in 1981. The law authorized arming and training municipal police with military grade weapons, free of charge, at the discretion of the Department of Defense.

Some members of Congress originally proposed giving the military arrest powers in drug-related operations, an idea that was scoffed at. Giving police the weapons to counter more dangerous and more elusive criminals such as drug dealers seemed a sensible compromise.

The second action was the passing of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, when the crack epidemic began eroding urban America. This law is tied to a civil forfeiture provision that allows law enforcement to seize assets without a conviction - or even charges - if someone is suspected of illegal drug activity.

Since civilian police aided in the drug war by performing drug raids, those assets were shared with police departments.

In 1988, The U.S. Department of Justice announced plans to use the National Guard in an increased effort to wipe out the domestic marijuana crop, but by the 1990s it was apparent the criminals were dominating the drug war.

In an effort to give police forces more beef, the National Defense Authorization Act was passed in 1990. In the 10 years after that act passed, thousands of tanks, helicopters, grenade launchers and assault rifles were granted to municipal police forces. The extra force and federal incentives to crack down on drug trafficking made SWAT deployments routine in large cities.

"Knock and announce" or "no knock" search warrants became more frequent, often with disastrous results.

A SWAT team in Charlotte, NC, acting on informant information shot and killed 56-year-old Charles Irwin Potts in a raid to break up a cocaine operation. Potts, who was not the target of the raid and carrying a gun legally, drew his weapon after police entered without knocking. Authorities found no drugs and made no arrests.

"Between 1995 and 1997 alone, the Department of Defense gave police departments 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers," according to a 1999 New York Times article.

Ferguson, MO - where police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed teenager Mike Brown on Saturday - isn't a large city. The use of tear gas and an armored personnel carrier (APC) for mostly peaceful protesters in a city of barely more than 20,000 people brings into question why such force is necessary.

SWAT teams are no longer exclusive to major urban areas, and the definition of a "special situation" has obviously changed.

The police department in Doraville, GA, was the subject of criticism this week because of a Facebook video of officers training with an APC. Doraville has a population of less than 8,500.

It is of note that Doraville is located in DeKalb County, whose sheriff's department drew negative attention nationwide last year when a young man posted a YouTube video of deputies raiding his house screaming at his family to serve an arrest warrant to his mother. She was late paying a $1,000 fine.

Also at issue is what made Wilson draw his gun and shoot Brown, who was the suspect in a robbery but had no criminal record.

Ferguson police have said Brown struggled with the officer before the shooting.

Joseph D. McNamara, former police chief of Kansas City and San Jose, described in a 2013 op-ed piece for Reuters the fine line between police and intimidated minorities. A black male, even if innocent, might feel compelled to physically defend himself against a biased officer.

However, proaction almost always suppressed reaction.

"I made it mandatory for beat officers and their superiors to attend and participate in neighborhood meetings," McNamara wrote. "Cops who thought a community hated them and sided with law-breakers quickly learned differently. The local residents also began to see officers as dedicated and caring - not as members of an occupying army."

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