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15. SWAT Teams Replace Civilian Police: Target Minority Communities

Source: COVERTACTION QUARTERLY (CAQ), Title: “Operation Ghetto Storm: The Rise In Paramilitary Policing,” Date: Fall 1997, Author: Peter Cassidy

SSU Censored Researchers: Michael McMurtrey and Jason L. Sanders
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Robert Lee Nichols

In the 25 years since the creation of the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams in Los Angeles, police forces across the United States have become increasingly militarized. Paramilitary police teams originally only operated in urban areas, but in recent years the number of special task forces throughout the country, including rural police departments, has dramatically increased. A study by Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Police Studies shows that these forces are now responding to many call-outs that could have been handled by regular police officers, and some 20 percent of departments have reported that their special forces are used for community patrols.

The first SWAT teams were begun in the mid-1960s by the then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates and were used during civil disturbances in the 1960s and 1970s. As the war on drugs escalated in the 1980s, paramilitary forces were used against drug dealers in many cities. Police agencies around the country organized SWAT or Special Response Teams (SRT) that operate in battle dress uniform with automatic assault rifles, percussion flash-bang grenades, CS gas, and armored personnel carriers.

Experts partially blame the militarization of police forces on the proliferation of military-style weapons in the general public. As gangs and drug dealers became much more heavily armed, the police became increasingly militarized. Cheap war-surplus material was made available as a result of the military spending cuts at the end of the Cold War, and the abundance of military hardware facilitated the trend towards high-tech weaponry on both sides of the drug war.

Professor Peter Kraska, of Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Police Studies, believes that the increasing amount of police violence against citizens will be answered by greater force from armed lawbreakers. This may result in a Cold War-style escalation of arms in the streets of United States. As a result of this increased armament, paramilitary forces have begun maintaining a semi-permanent presence in “dangerous” neighborhoods in order to keep control.

According to the author, paramilitary forces now specifically target minority groups and communities. Joseph McNamara, of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, points to the racism evident in many of the incidents occurring where paramilitary forces are used. Most of the paramilitary operations occur in inner-city neighborhoods. During an “Operation Readi-Rock” raid in North Carolina, an entire block of an African-American neighborhood was isolated. Nearly 100 black individuals were detained, while all whites were allowed to leave the area.

A 1990 raid in Albuquerque started with a commando-style attack on an apartment building and resulted in the death of a suspect who had two marijuana joints on the premises. In 1994, a wrong address raid resulted in the heart failure of a 75-year-old minister in Boston who was chased to his death, and died handcuffed in his own apartment.

On the Mexican border, law enforcement is being reinforced by the U.S,. military. In May 1997, U.S. Marines killed a teenage shepherd tending his flock near the Texas-Mexican border. Police are required by law to announce their presence and fire only if their lives were in danger. Yet in this case, the Marines remained hidden and unannounced as they stalked the high school student for several hours.

The link between community-based civilian police departments and military/paramilitary operations raises serious questions regarding civil liberties in the United States.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR PETER CASSIDY: “The state’s monopoly on force is a privileged commission discharged every day by local law enforcement, an institution which is being increasingly militarized by misdirected government programs and, of course, the highly cultivated perception that crime, civil unrest, and terrorism are out of control, requiring extraordinary measures-even those that resemble artifacts of martial law.

“Few media outlets noticed the story. It resulted in an interview with a Boston Globe reporter who needed a national perspective for a report on a SWAT raid that destroyed a home in Central Massachusetts, and a radio interview in Philadelphia with a talk show host who feared the racist aspect of police paramilitarism. I shared his alarm.

“Drug War-funded training programs that expose local police to military culture continues to expand, acculturating the police to thinking like soldiers. (Also, the President’s budget includes $52.1 million in Fiscal Year 1999 for the Department of Defense [DOD] to continue to provide emergency preparedness training to local police and service agencies in U.S. cities.) Material transfer programs continue to flood police armories with war-surplus weapons that have little law enforcement utility—everything from bayonets to grenade launchers.

“The DOD, meanwhile, is feeling ever more comfortable discussing its new role in providing what one DOD called ‘homeland’ defense (against civil disturbances, biological attack, and terrorist incidents) in a Congressional hearing last summer, and in waging information warfare, enterprises that bring it directly into civil affairs and into plain confrontation with our American traditions.

“The militarization of local law enforcement is but one part of an overall fusion of the law enforcement and defense institutions in the United States that is the greatest threat of the Cold War. Tolerate it much longer and the people will forget that there is a difference between being governed and being garrisoned.”

Here are some links that might provide further perspective on the subject:—Essay on SWAT from veteran cop and police commissioner.—Profile and analysis of Fresno’s full-time, patrolling SWAT team. Features/cops.html—News story on recent-November 1998-SWAT operation in San Francisco.—Drug war discussion with a number of items about SWAT victims.—SWAT Team association. Check out titles of study papers-including case studies on offshore military operations.—Abridged index of state and local SWAT teams. Check out the machine gun graphic.—On-line pictorial SWAT fanzine.—Essay on the military’s induction into law enforcement with a segment on the military’s training role in training local cops.

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