“War Comes Home” study reveals shocking costs of police militarization

War Comes Home

UL questioned earlier this month the need for law enforcement agencies in small towns like Neenah, Wisconsin, to acquire military-style weapons and vehicles to combat crime. Increasingly, these local police departments are purchasing armored vehicles, aircraft, machine guns, and other weapons of war to police relatively peaceful streets.

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a report titled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” By examining 800 SWAT deployments across 20 agencies — from local to state to federal — the ACLU noted a disturbing trend in unnecessary and dangerous militarization due, in part, by federal grants:

Across the country, heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams are forcing their way into people’s homes in the middle of the night, often deploying explosive devices such as flashbang grenades to temporarily blind and deafen residents, simply to serve a search warrant on the suspicion that someone may be in possession of a small amount of drugs. Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies. However, the ACLU encountered this type of story over and over when studying the militarization of state and local law enforcement agencies.

Radley Balko at The Washington Post’s “The Watch” blog pulled out some of the highlights of the 96-page report, and here are just a few:

  • Just under 80 percent [of SWAT raids] were to serve a search warrant, meaning eight in 10 SWAT raids were not initiated to apprehend a school shooter, hostage taker, or escaped felon (the common justification for these tactics), but to investigate someone still only suspected of committing a crime.
  • In fact, just 7 percent of SWAT raids were “for hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.”
  • In at least 36 percent of the SWAT raids studies, no contraband of any kind was found. The report notes that due to incomplete police reports on these raids this figure could be as high as 65 percent.
  • 65 percent of SWAT deployments resulted in some sort of forced entry into a private home, by way of a battering ram, boot, or some sort of explosive device. In over half those raids, the police failed to find any sort of weapon, the presence of which was cited as the reason for the violent tactics.
  • The report is alarming, and conservatives skeptical of big government policies in Washington should be concerned that Washington’s big government is funnelling money, equipment, and other resources to police departments across the country, oftentimes with little or no public oversight.

    There are certainly legitimate reasons why police should be able to overpower the most dangerous criminals, but the results of the report reveal that police departments are breaking out the big guns for some pretty minor infractions.

    The Cato Institute has an interactive map of botched SWAT raids across the U.S., with each instance broken into one of six different categories. Though limited government advocates should be wary of all over-militarization of police, it’s the failed ones that result in the deaths or severe injury of innocent citizens that garner headlines.

    As this author noted in the UL post earlier this month about over-militarization of local police departments, “Keeping the peace in Mayberry isn’t the same as waging war in Afghanistan. It’s important that we keep that in mind when local police departments attempt to buy these weapons of war.”


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