The following is the informative and thought-provoking written testimony of Eastern Kentucky University Professor Peter B. Kraska for the United States Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Tuesday hearing “Oversight of Federal Programs for Equipping State and Local Law Enforcement”:
Professor Kraska: Mr. Chairman, Senator McCaskill, Senator Coburn, Members of the Committee, and wonderful staffers — thank you for inviting me and helping me through this process.
Let me start today’s talk with two Examples of Police Militarization – one old – in fact, pre 9/11, and one new – this year in May.
In September of 2000, federal law enforcement conducted a joint drug investigation with the Modesto California municipal police department. Employing the Military Special Operations model, the Modesto P.D.’s SWAT team conducted a predawn dynamic entry into the Sepulveda’s family home – suspecting the father, it turned out incorrectly, of being involved in low level drug dealing. Their intelligence failed to note that the Sepulveda family had three young children in the house. Deploying percussion grenades, they stormed the house, and rousted the children out of bed onto the floor. One of the children – Alberto – was 11 eleven years old and complied with all of the officers’ screams to get in the prone position on his bedroom floor. A paramilitary police officer – standing over him with a 12-guage shotgun – then accidentally discharged his weapon into Alberto’s back – killing him. This incident devastated the Modesto Police Department, and obviously the surviving members in Alberto’s family. The 3 million dollar judgment paid by the local municipality and the federal government was one of the largest awards given for a botched SWAT Raid.
Now morph forward to May of this year — we all heard what happened in Georgia – when a small city police department’s SWAT team conducted a no-knock drug raid – again on a family’s home suspected of low-level drug dealing. The officers threw a percussion grenade into the home, the device landed in an infant’s crib next to his face, and then detonated. The officers did not allow the Mother to touch or console the wounded infant, so it laid by itself in its crib bleeding while the police waited for the paramedics to arrive. Despite being comatose for a number of days – and receiving severe lacerations and burns – he did survive. Not that it should matter, but the family was not involved in drug dealing.
Some might dismiss these are mere anecdotes, but the facts – based on extensive national level scientific research – are clear:
These examples are emblematic of an historic – yet up until recently little noticed – shift in American democratic governance: The Clear distinction between our civilian police and our military is blurring in significant and consequential ways. This includes what Army General Charles J. Dunlap has called the “police-ization of the military”. But of course what we’re discussing today is the other side of the coin – the militarization of American policing.
The research I’ve been conducting, since 1989, has documented quantitatively and qualitatively the steady and certain march of U.S. Civilian policing down the militarization continuum (culturally, materially, operationally, and organizationally) – despite massive efforts at democratizing the police under the guise of Community Police reforms. This is not to imply that ALL police – nearly 20,000 unique departments across our great land – are heading in this direction. But the research evidence — along with the militarized tragedies in Modesto, Georgia, Ferguson, and tens of thousands of other locations – demonstrates a troubling and highly consequential overall trend.
What we saw played out in Ferguson was the application of a very common mindset, style of uniform and appearance, and weaponry, used everyday in the homes of private residences during SWAT raids. SWAT teams – some departments conducting as many as 500 of these a year – using the Military Special Operations Model (with of course differing rules of engagement) for common and most often very minor drug offenses.
With the emphasis on counter-terrorism post 9/11 – the stage is perfectly set for a militaristic and extreme response not to just the crime and drug problem, but to the overall goal of internal security. And just as in the two examples above, and in the Ferguson situation, it is the poor, and communities of color, that are most impacted.
In short, the appearance and behavior of the police in the streets of Ferguson Missouri is highly consistent with, and representative of, the U.S. Police – with both ideological and material support from the Federal government – moving rapidly and confidently down the militarization continuum. It is critical to note that this trend is not universal by any means. There are many very smart police executives and line- level personnel that completely comprehend the dangers of this blur, and consciously work to keep the line bright.
I began inquiring into the contemporary role the military model has on the U.S. police when conducting a two-year long ethnography of multi-jurisdictional SWAT teams (Kraska 1996). Spending hundreds of hours training and going on actual deployments, I learned a great deal about police paramilitary units (PPUs) – or SWAT teams – at the ground level, and especially police paramilitary culture. I first learned that PPUs derive their appearance, tactics, operations, weaponry, and culture to a significant extent from military special operations units (e.g., Navy Seals). (It’s important to reiterate that PPUs are only closely modeled after these teams – clearly there are also key differences between a police paramilitary unit and a military special operations unit – this is why they are referred to as police para-military).
With battle-dress utilities, heavy weaponry, training in hostage rescue, dynamic entries into fortified buildings, and some of the latest military technology, it became clear that these squads of officers fall significantly further down the militarization continuum – culturally, organizationally, operationally, materially – than the traditional, lone cop-on-the-beat or road-patrol officer.
I also learned that the paramilitary culture associated with SWAT teams is highly appealing to a certain segment of civilian police (certainly not all civilian police). As with special operations soldiers in the military, these unit’s members saw themselves as the elite police, involved in real crime fighting and danger. A large network of for-profit training, weapons, and equipment suppliers heavily promotes paramilitary culture at police shows, in police magazine advertisements, and in training programs sponsored by gun manufacturers such as Smith and Wesson and Heckler and Koch. The “military special operations” culture – characterized by a distinct techno-warrior garb, heavy weaponry, sophisticated technology, hyper-masculinity, and dangerous function – was nothing less than intoxicating for its participants.
I most importantly learned that my micro-level experience might have been indicative of a much larger phenomenon. I decided to test empirically my ground-level observations by conducting two independently funded national-level surveys. These surveys of both large and small police agencies yielded definitive data documenting the militarization of a significant component of the U.S. police (Kraska and Kappeler 1997; Kraska and Cubellis 1997). This militarization was evidenced by a precipitous rise and mainstreaming of police paramilitary units. As of the late 1990s, 89 percent of American police departments serving populations of fifty thousand people or more had a PPU, almost double of what existed in the mid-1980s. Their growth in smaller jurisdictions (agencies serving between 25 and 50,000 people) was even more pronounced. Currently, about 80 percent of small town agencies have a PPU; in the mid-1980s only 20 percent had them.
While formation of teams is an important indicator of growth, these trends would mean little if these teams were relatively inactive. This was not the case. There had been more than a 1,300 percent increase in the total number of police paramilitary deployments, or call-outs, between 1980 and the year 2000. Taking into consideration follow up research in 2007, and extrapolating from the original research, there are an estimated 60,000 SWAT team deployments a year conducted among those departments surveyed; in the early 1980s there was an average of about 3,000 (Kraska 2001). The trend-line demonstrated that this growth began during the drug war of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
These figures would mean little if this increase in teams and deployments was due to an increase in PPU’s traditional and essential function – a reactive deployment of high-risk specialists for particularly dangerous events already in progress, such as hostage, sniper, or terrorist situations. Instead, more than 85 percent of these deployments were for proactive deployments, specifically random patrol work, and no-knock and quick-knock dynamic entries into private residences, searching for contraband (drugs, guns, and money). This pattern of SWAT teams primarily engaged in surprise contraband raids held true for the largest as well as the smallest communities. PPUs had changed from being a periphery and strictly reactive component of police departments to a proactive force actively engaged in fighting the drug war.
As further evidence, a surprisingly high percentage of police agencies also deployed their teams to do routine patrol work in crime “hot spots”; a strong indicator of PPU normalization. In fact, a number of U.S. police departments are currently purchasing, through homeland security funding, military armored personnel carriers (APC’s), some of which are being used for aggressive, proactive patrol work. The Pittsburg police department, for example, purchased a $250,000 APC using homeland security grant money (Deitch 2007). It is being used to conduct “street sweeps” in high crime neighborhoods. The personnel involved are SWAT officers outfitted with full police paramilitary garb and weaponry.
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