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.

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28 thoughts on “playing SEALs and robbers.

  1. Blackwing1 says:

    Marko:

    I agree with everything you have said. I am curious about one thing, though:

    “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.”

    Could you point me to a link that would document such a department? I’d be fascinated to know what part of the country to avoid completely.

    I’m also assuming that you regularly read Balko’s “The Agitator”…a great site documenting the abuses of the militarized police forces of the nation.

  2. MadRocketScientist says:

    Geez, I just wrote a post along the same lines last night, although I tried an analogy instead of being so blunt, and I was trying to make a different point. But still, more people need to speak out against such police tactics, or they will continue with the implied consent of the citizenry.

  3. Mark says:

    Wow – awesome post. It seems that more and more the police are setting themselves up like Judge Dredd. Do as I say or else…and after reading about the recent tasering incidents, like the one in the Florida Best-Buy where the woman was tasered for not “complying to demands from an officer” (justification by the Police Chief), it seems to be getting worse all the time.

  4. jimbob86 says:

    Good stuff, as usual, Marko.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Yet another home run, Marko, excellent!

    cb

  6. BobG says:

    Excellent analysis and summary of a growing problem. The day of the neighborhood cop seems to be over; these days it is becoming divided into Us and Them, which is an unhealthy perception from both sides in which to run a society.
    Just my opinion.

  7. Jason says:

    Interesting. Would you mind pointing out which pieces of equipment that you think are unnecessary, and their price tags? I’m sure that any department that utilized unnecessary equipment would love to trim their operational costs by removing said useless items.

  8. Anonymous says:

    You fault elected officials as the main cause of the problem and do not mention the hired help, the administrators and managers and in the end electorate that is willing to just go with the flow. We must all look in the mirror and realize it’s us.

  9. Jim Sullivan says:

    Marko,

    I wish I could have put it so well.

    I tried, unsuccessfully, to come up with the right words the other day when I read this article:

    http://www.postindependent.com/article/20080108/VALLEYNEWS/248366321

    Very good post.

  10. Windy Wilson says:

    “Interesting. Would you mind pointing out which pieces of equipment that you think are unnecessary, and their price tags? I’m sure that any department that utilized unnecessary equipment would love to trim their operational costs by removing said useless items.”

    I think the point of the post is that it’s not the costume but the attitude the costume and task encourages.

  11. Jeremy says:

    The problem with giving the Police access to military equipment and training is that sooner or later they will want to test out their new toys and skills.(gotta justify it to the bean counters) Guess who gets to be the guinea pig for Barney Fife’s new Jackboots? When cops start to think and act like soldiers, citizens become the enemy and “protect and serve” turns into “intimidate and terrorize”. Nothing good will come of this trend.

  12. Tom says:

    While I think there is plenty of blame to be passed around, we ultimately need to look to the rightful source of all power. You guessed it: We The People.

    The degree to which power can be used against us proportional to that which we have abdicated to our ‘ruling class.’ We need to take back that power at the ballot box before things get really ugly and our only recourse becomes the cartridge box.

  13. Gregg says:

    Tom,
    Sadly I’m afraid that it is too late toa take it back at the ballot box. I fervently hope that it is not too late for the soapbox to work.

  14. Matt says:

    Well written, sir!

    This seems to me to be the biggest distinction between “peace officers” and “law enforcement agents”. One might best be able to enforce the law by kicking down doors in the middle of the night, but I can’t see how that helps one maintain the peace.

  15. Who is..... Carteach0? says:

    Well written, as usual.

    You have echoed thoughts I’ve had for years, and done it well.

    I’m a fairly staunch police supporter, recognizing how thin the veneer of civilization really is. On the other hand, I also understand how fast the we vs them mentality can make a situation go really bad.

    In fact, it’s the leading cause of revolution back through history.
    The ‘them’ got fed up, and had a little surprise for the ‘we’.

    My own thoughts, an honest officer comes to my door and knocks, he’ll have full co-operation. Heck, I’ll go out and help him in a bad situation, freely. But… knock down the door without asking, without ID’ing in a reasonable manner, and that person is no longer on the side of right.

    That would be a shame.

    Asset seizure has been an on-going issue since the ’70s, and only getting worse. I’m afraid John Ross might be right in the direction this is going.

    That too, is a shame.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I am unimpressed, myself. The war on drugs doesn’t infringe on my rights in the least. And in case ya hadn’t noticed, some of the druggies out there are toting serious fire power too.

    I think the post is childish and stupid. This guy will be the first to complain when some creep is trying to sell his kids drugs too.

    This is just more of the same from the usual bedwetters. This is going to grate alot of you because it is a truth so many would rather deny: there is a price to be paid for security.

  17. Jason says:

    While I agree that it is a well written piece, I’ve been trying to think of how I wanted to present my arguement to the contrary. Problem is, I don’t think it would be well recieved, nay, hardly even considered. That, in my opinion, is one of the biggest problems with the internet as a communication device. It tends to create ultra-inclusive cliques, and amplifies the “with us or against us” attitude.

    Marko, I’m sorry I never got to meet you when you lived in Knoxville. Enjoy the great white North.

  18. Tam says:

    Dear anonymouse,

    This is just more of the same from the usual bedwetters.

    I’d say that the “bedwetter” is the pu55y too scared to use his name on teh w3b. But that’s just me.

    Coward.

  19. MarkF says:

    One problem anonymous has overlooked – innocence is no longer a defense. I’d say being shot to death would infringe his rights all to hell, as has happened too many times, too many cities – and all connected to the ‘Drug War’.
    Politicians, prosecutors and police have discarded the concepts of innocence and guilt in favor of political advantage and property values.

    When this perception becomes widespread – that you may be ‘detained’ or shot in your own home at random, that your lawfully owned and obtained property may be taken or destroyed at any time with little or no recourse, that the police don’t really care if you are innocent, only if you have something they want…
    At that point the police may well need all those armored cars.

  20. mvoncannon says:

    The problem is this: You are assigned to a raid on drug dealers or gang members. You know from experience these people carry gun. If you have firepower, tactics and equipment available, you will use them to enhance your chance of surviving the incident. Sometimes due to bad information or sometimes the suspect isnt there when the raid happens, you wind up looking stupid.

    The reason officers on raids look alot like soliders on patrol in Bagdad is that if things go sour, all they have is what is on them. Put yourself in that position, you want to be sure you have enough and how you look is secondary.

    Do SWAT teams overreact somtimes? sure, just like officers sometimes overreact. When that happens there are layers of accountability locally (through the department up to city council) and federally (if you’ve never had the FBI read you your rights, it is a treat) and through the courts.

  21. mdmnm says:

    Marko wrote: “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?”

    That’s analagous to asking “What research scientist has an interest in actually coming up with a cure for cancer?” and, I don’t doubt, about as offensive to most DEA or other law enforcement types. They’re the folks who get to see the consequences of drug use and addiction most frequently (along with various health care workers and court workers) and are most likely to view “winning the War on Drugs” as a good thing. For that matter, drug dealing typically comes with a host of other criminal acts. I don’t know which comes first, the dealing or the other stuff, but smugglers and dealers generally have other crimes on their records (and I say this after viewing many hundreds of files on folks in prison).
    Like another commenter, I’d be really interested to see a source showing a police department that relies solely on asset forfeiture for its budget.

    On the other hand, I completely agree that the culture of policing has changed and the general militarization of that culture is a bad thing.

  22. Kristopher says:

    The war on ( non mala per se act of the week ) is the problem in its entirety.

    End the drug war, and let idiotic addicts kill themselves. This will have the same effect as the end of prohibition did … deflating the gangsters money source.

    Stop trying to save us from ourselves at gunpoint.

    Reserve SWAT teams for controlling terrorists, and insane situations like the North Hollywood shootout.

    Peace Officers should be keeping the peace … not declaring war on us.

  23. […] Update: Ah, Marko is moving to WordPress.  That explains it.  And here is the link to the same article at the new digs. […]

  24. Tam says:

    Dammit. Staghounds had a thoughtful comment that got lost in the move. I was all primed to discuss, too. 😦

  25. galeH says:

    I retired as an LEO in ’93. The author’s post is dead on(no pun intended).

    Behavior that is measured gets rewarded.

    Bean counters and administrators have to justify every line item, or program, with proof of success.

    How do I know? Don’t ask. I speak with the benefit of hindsight.

    Munchkin has nailed this issue.

  26. Blamb says:

    “What research scientist has an interest in actually coming up with a cure for cancer?”

    Speaking as one I think that the Nobel prize, the financial rewards as well as the personal reward of curing one of the oldest scourges known to man would be kind of neat.

    Not sure that that the same applies to the DEA or other drug warriors.

  27. edward short says:

    “After peaking at 277 in 1974, officer fatalities have generally declined over the past three decades, with the exception of the increase in 2001. The annual average number of officers killed was 228 in the 1970s, 190 in the 1980s, 160 in the 1990s and 167 from 2000-2006.”
    Source: http://www.nleomf.com/TheMemorial/facts.htm

  28. edward short says:

    There are many reasons that can contribute to the data on my previous post-better equipment, better initial and subsiquent training, a more armed public- but one thing is for sure. ALL of us, police and citizens alike, need to stop looking at this as an us vs. them situation. Dept’s need to hold thier officers to a high standard of conduct and John Q Public needs to do thier part to curb crime in thier community. It takes all of us to ensure that peace is maintained.

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