Wednesday, January 16, 2008

playing SEALs and robbers.

These days, when you see a picture of a guy in fatigues, carrying an automatic rifle, a pistol in a thigh rig, and doorkicker boots, you usually have to look at the caption of the photograph to tell whether it depicts a member of the U.S. Army's Stryker Brigade on patrol in Baghdad, or a member of the Chattanooga PD SWAT team preparing for a "dynamic" no-knock entry at an American residence.

Now, I don't have a problem with police officers. I know, and respect, many of them, and the profession as a whole is full of decent people who get lousy-to-unspectacular paychecks for dealing with the dregs of society every day.

That said, I am very concerned about the direction into which law enforcement is drifting, especially in the "Special Weapons and Tactics" branch. Don't get me wrong--I don't have a problem with the concept of SWAT. These are the guys that cops call when things go sour, and I am convinced that there's a proper place and purpose for SWAT teams.

The problem here is threefold, however. It concerns the utilization of SWAT teams, their use as budget enhancers, and their mindset.

Utilization is a big issue. Originally, SWAT was established and used only for the hard cases--terrorism, barricaded suspects, and the like. Then the War on Drugs expanded in scope, and then someone in Congress had the genius idea that you can just pad the operational budget of your expensive SWAT team and police department in general by charging property with crimes, because that way you don't have to go through that pesky "due process" business. Find a bag of pot in a car, seize the pot and the car, and auction off the car without even having to charge the owner of the car with a crime. Later on, that concept (called "asset forfeiture") was expanded to encompass anything that might be remotely drug-related, to the point where police can (and routinely do) seize cash from people if they have reason to believe that it was used in drug transactions. The standard of suspicion has predictably decreased to where they seize the cash merely because it's a large enough amount, because why would you have so much cash on you if you're not slinging dime bags at the middle school? Oh, and the burden of proof is reversed, too--instead of the state having to prove that the money was obtained through illicit activity, you're the one who has to prove that it wasn't.

Now, a SWAT team is an expensive budget item. You have highly trained police officers who are issued very expensive equipment. You have to pay the salaries of the officers involved, and their continued training, and in return you get a SWAT team that may find utilization once a week, month, or year, depending on the size of your city and its crime culture.

Naturally, the folks who count the beans and set the policies came up with two ways to make the budget item marked "SWAT" look better on the annual budget request. First, they started utilizing SWAT for jobs other than high-risk situations involving armed subjects. (Not much of a stretch, they said, because when you serve a warrant, you have to assume that the folks inside are armed, anyway.) So now you have SWAT teams serving warrants, too, and they serve them as a SWAT team does, with all the gear and fanfare, lest the chief has to justify just why he needed the money for all the kit if it just gets left at the station every time the boys go out.

Next comes the use of SWAT as a budget enhancer. The War on Drugs is largely about money at this point. What drug cop wants to see an end to it if he'd not only be out of a job (what interest does the DEA have in actually winning the War on Drugs?), but also deprived of a steady source of revenue for the department? You see, under asset forfeiture rules, not only can they seize grandma's house if they find grandson's pot plant under growing lamps in the basement, but they also get a kickback--a portion of the seized assets flow back to the agency which made the arrest and seizure. It has gotten to the point where you have entire departments that are financed solely by asset forfeiture funds--they don't have an annual budget anymore, but rather get their entire annual operating budget from seized money.

Now, every time you tie a financial incentive to the enforcement of a law, it's bad policy. It encourages the enforcers to cast the net as widely as possible. For the police department, it's a no-lose scenario--they get the money to run their shop, and they look good if their arrest numbers are high, tangible and financial proof that they're doing their jobs. Before too long, the mission is no longer "Protect and Serve", but "Find Me Some Cash". The War on Drugs is the perfect alibi to soothe the conscience of the individual officer when he relieves a moving violator of the four thousand dollars in cash he was carrying around for whatever reason when he got pulled over, and it's the ideal moral justification to toss into the faces of those who dare speak up against the practice. (What, you have a problem with the cops taking ill-gotten drug money from the dealers? Are you some sort of doper yourself?)

The problem, of course, is that the state has a piss-poor record when it comes to confining the use of its shiny new powers to the purpose for which they were intended. (Just do a quick Google search on "RICO abuses".) If you hand a club to a police chief or a Federal agent and tell him that he can only use it against terrorists, mobsters, or drug dealers, he will sooner or later try to expand those definitions to justify nearly unlimited use of that shiny new club. Tie a financial reward to the use of that club, and you accelerate the process exponentially.

Then there's the problem of mindset and perception. Gallons of ink have been spilled on the discussion of what some call "The Militarization of Mayberry". Cops usually take offense to that term, saying that they should be allowed the use of any and all gear that lets them get the job done. However, when you use cops as revenue enhancers, and you tell them they're fighting a war, you end up with a police force that is unsuited for its original job, the impartial enforcement of laws. Then the issue is not the gear (which is indeed necessary for commando-style raids), but the necessity of the job that requires the gear.

When you dress like a soldier, carry the same equipment as a soldier, talk like a soldier, train like a soldier (and in many cases, alongside a soldier), and you're told that you're fighting a war, then sooner or later you'll feel like a soldier, and then you'll start acting like one.

The problem with that is that the mission of the soldier and that of the cop are fundamentally incompatible. The soldier is there to kill the enemy and break his stuff. The cop is there to impartially enforce the law with the least amount of force necessary for the job.

Lastly, there's a psychological aspect to cops that look like stormtroopers. When even the non-criminal element of society raises an eyebrow at the sight of a cop who looks like the soldier of an occupying army, then you have a perception problem. Our boys and girls in Iraq and Afghanistan have learned that you can get the population riled up against you if your bearing and appearance are overly aggressive. They're taught to not kick in doors that don't need kicking, to remove the dust goggles or sunshades before talking to locals (making the eyes invisible depersonalizes an individual), and generally try to avoid losing the goodwill of the populace through moderation of force. Now, if our soldiers have learned the value of even these small measures to avoid alienating a foreign populace, why are so many cops still in denial about the cumulative psychological effect of hundreds of incidents where a SWAT team busted into the wrong place, dragged the wrong folks out of bed with the aid of automatic rifles, flashlights and balaclavas, or shot the wrong people dead?

I don't want my police to look like they're an occupying army. More importantly, I don't want to feel as if they are. I don't want to feel apprehension when I see a cop by the side of the road or in my rear view mirror, even though I have no reason because I have done nothing wrong. In a day and age where so many cops are focused on finding something wrong at any price, whether it's for monetary reasons or simply to save face, and where cops openly refer to non-cops as "civilians", I simply don't trust the motives of the officer underneath those blue lights unconditionally. That's mostly the fault of the politicians who passed the laws which made the officer a creator of criminals and a revenue generator rather than an impartial enforcer, but that is the fallout of the War on Drugs, I'm afraid, and it won't go away while we encourage our police at all levels to wage that war. That's because the War on Drugs is a war against ourselves, and you can't win that one, no matter how hard you try.


  1. Great post. I couldn't agree more and this gives me even more to think about. I hadn't pondered some of these points before. Thanks.

  2. You are quite right. PDs have this gaudy, very expensive tool that Chiefs and civilian oversights think they must use it to justify it... and they expand SWAT usage beyond the limited and necessary roles it was created to play. In fact, I suspect the public would not know or care if that expensive tool stayed in the shop except when it was actually needed and utilized for the purpose underlying its design.