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Opinion | Growing police militarization is increasingly a concern in U.S.

Milam's Musings

By Brett Milam
On April 14, 2014

Police forces in the United States have grown increasingly militarized and that growth has caused gross violations in civil liberties and the unnecessary loss of life.

This thesis put forth by Washington Post journalist, Radley Balko, is supported by evidence over the past two decades of a 1,500 percent increase in SWAT team use. SWAT team deployment in the '70s only numbered in the hundreds, but now every year they're deployed 50,000 times or about 100 to 150 times a day.

The Department of Homeland Security helped bolster this militarization by giving local police departments' military-grade weaponry, armor and tanks. Since 9/11, over $35 billion has been spent in grants to these localities.

At their inception, SWAT teams were mostly deployed for emergencies, like a hostage situation or rioting. Now, they are mostly the force fighting the War on Drugs and small-time crimes like credit card fraud, poker games and cracking down on under-age drinkers.

In other words, as is usually the case with any facet of government, the mission for SWAT teams gradually grew over time to entail a plethora of other activities.

For one example of how ridiculous it has gotten, The Economist mentioned Keene, a small town in New Hampshire, which only saw three homicides between 1999 and 2012, now has something called a BearCat. It's a mere $286,000 armored personnel-carrier. Better known as a tank.

More importantly, the real problem in the overuse of SWAT team deployments and the reliance upon military-grade weaponry and armor, is that it creates an "us vs. them" mentality in police culture.

"So when you arm a cop like a soldier, when you dress 'em like a soldier, when you tell 'em to fight in a war and then send 'em out into a neighborhood that he has no stake in and doesn't consider himself a part of, you get a very antagonistic, us-versus-them relationship between the officer and that community," Balko said.

In this space, I've talked often about rape culture. Erin Whiting postulated this analogy to police culture and I find it apt.

"Just as rape culture normalizes sexual violence, cop culture normalizes police violence and reinforces the notion - to police and those judging their behavior - that a badge is a license to kill," she said.

It should come as no surprise, then, when we see case after case of police misconduct. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the allegations of misconduct had gotten so bad, the Department of Justice had to investigate the APD.

Their findings - just released - should be disturbing to anyone that cares about civil liberties and holding accountable those in a position of authority.

"Based on our investigation, we have reasonable cause to believe that APD engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. We have determined that structural and systemic deficiencies - including insufficient oversight, inadequate training, and ineffective policies - contribute to the use of unreasonable force," the report stated.

From 2009 to 2012 (the time span of the DOJ's investigation), 20 officer-involved shootings occurred, resulting in fatalities in Albuquerque. The DOJ report stated "a majority of these shootings were unconstitutional" and that "officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others."

Even more damning than that is their finding that it was the officers involved that escalated the situation, which necessitated the use of deadly force, not the victims. Moreover a "significant amount" of these incidents involved those with mental illnesses.

Officers and department policies have long been inadequate and insufficient in safely handling those with a mental illness. The data on officer-involved shootings, especially of mentally ill individuals is terribly inadequate, but the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sherif's Association estimate that half the number of people shot and killed by police have mental health problems, according to the New York Times.

The idea that police misconduct is only the result of so-called "bad apples" should be blown apart by these findings regarding the APD. Not only do the findings show a pattern of abuse, but that abuse involved Fourth Amendment violations, unnecessary use of deadly force and a particular problem in dealings with mentally ill individuals.

If the DOJ opened similar investigations into other big city police departments, I'm willing to wager they'd find a similar pattern of abuse and inefficient accountability. It goes without saying that officers often face high-pressure situations and have to make split-second decisions, but we should not let that blind us to systematic problems that are evident.

In particular, Balko pointed out that the threat to officers is grossly exaggerated. For instance, 2012 was the safest year for police officers since the 1960s. Assaults on officers are down as well. Such an exaggerated threat only exacerbates the previously mentioned police culture of "us vs. them."

Being a police officer means being a public servant, but serving the public - sacrificing for the public safety - has been lost in the quest to militarize.

"But cops assume a risk when they sign up for the job. That risk involves putting the safety of others above their own," Balko said.

Instead, officer safety seems to trump all else.

Perhaps the most frustrating component to all of this is the lack of criminal accountability. The city of Albuquerque paid out $24 million in legal settlements to victims' families since 2010. Put another way, taxpayers covered the tab for police misconduct that resulted in the needless death of numerous individuals.

Officers are no different than the rest of us. Given a little power, a big gun and no oversight, abuses are going to be predictably rampant.

It is time politicians, courts and the American people stopped giving them the benefit of the doubt and instituted real reforms aimed at quelling violent police culture.

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