The Militarization of American Cities

Today the U.S. has thousands of SWAT teams. A team prepares to enter a house in Vallejo, Calif., on March 20, above.
Today the U.S. has thousands of SWAT teams. A team prepares to enter a house in Vallejo, Calif., on March 20.

By RADLEY BALKO

On Jan. 4 of last year, a local narcotics strike force conducted a raid on the Ogden, Utah, home of Matthew David Stewart at 8:40 p.m. The 12 officers were acting on a tip from Mr. Stewart’s former girlfriend, who said that he was growing marijuana in his basement. Mr. Stewart awoke, naked, to the sound of a battering ram taking down his door. Thinking that he was being invaded by criminals, as he later claimed, he grabbed his 9-millimeter Beretta pistol.

The police say that they knocked and identified themselves, though Mr. Stewart and his neighbors said they heard no such announcement. Mr. Stewart fired 31 rounds, the police more than 250. Six of the officers were wounded, and Officer Jared Francom was killed. Mr. Stewart himself was shot twice before he was arrested. He was charged with several crimes, including the murder of Officer Francom.

The police found 16 small marijuana plants in Mr. Stewart’s basement. There was no evidence that Mr. Stewart, a U.S. military veteran with no prior criminal record, was selling marijuana. Mr. Stewart’s father said that his son suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and may have smoked the marijuana to self-medicate.

Early this year, the Ogden city council heard complaints from dozens of citizens about the way drug warrants are served in the city. As for Mr. Stewart, his trial was scheduled for next April, and prosecutors were seeking the death penalty. But after losing a hearing last May on the legality of the search warrant, Mr. Stewart hanged himself in his jail cell.

The police tactics at issue in the Stewart case are no anomaly. Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

The acronym SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. Such police units are trained in methods similar to those used by the special forces in the military. They learn to break into homes with battering rams and to use incendiary devices called flashbang grenades, which are designed to blind and deafen anyone nearby. Their usual aim is to “clear” a building—that is, to remove any threats and distractions (including pets) and to subdue the occupants as quickly as possible.

The country’s first official SWAT team started in the late 1960s in Los Angeles. By 1975, there were approximately 500 such units. Today, there are thousands. According to surveys conducted by the criminologist Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University, just 13% of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team in 1983. By 2005, the figure was up to 80%.

The number of raids conducted by SWAT-like police units has grown accordingly. In the 1970s, there were just a few hundred a year; by the early 1980s, there were some 3,000 a year. In 2005 (the last year for which Dr. Kraska collected data), there were approximately 50,000 raids.

A number of federal agencies also now have their own SWAT teams, including the Fish & Wildlife Service, NASA, the Consumer Products Safety Commission and the Department of the Interior. In 2011, the Department of Education’s SWAT team bungled a raid on a woman who was initially reported to be under investigation for not paying her student loans, though the agency later said she was suspected of defrauding the federal student loan program.

The details of the case aside, the story generated headlines because of the revelation that the Department of Education had such a unit. None of these federal departments has responded to my requests for information about why they consider such high-powered military-style teams necessary.

Americans have long been wary of using the military for domestic policing. Concerns about potential abuse date back to the creation of the Constitution, when the founders worried about standing armies and the intimidation of the people at large by an overzealous executive, who might choose to follow the unhappy precedents set by Europe’s emperors and monarchs.

The idea for the first SWAT team in Los Angeles arose during the domestic strife and civil unrest of the mid-1960s. Daryl Gates, then an inspector with the Los Angeles Police Department, had grown frustrated with his department’s inability to respond effectively to incidents like the 1965 Watts riots. So his thoughts turned to the military. He was drawn in particular to Marine Special Forces and began to envision an elite group of police officers who could respond in a similar manner to dangerous domestic disturbances.

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