Monday, December 5, 2011

Interesting Story On Police Usage Of Force

The Huffington Post has a very interesting (and disturbing) cover story today about the increased use of "SWAT" teams (with raids up from a few thousand per year nationwide 20 years ago, to well over 50,000 a year now) and the general use of unnecessary violence for all kinds of law enforcement activity. The author documents (with links) how SWAT teams were sent to all kinds of places where no potential for resistance would normally be considered... such as the house of a person who had defaulted on student loans, or the Gibson guitar factory (over suspicions of illegally imported wood), or even on a group of vacationing Tibetan monks who had overstayed their visas.
Dress cops up as soldiers, give them military equipment, train them in military tactics, tell them they're fighting a "war," and the consequences are predictable. ... [I]t has become routine to use force that is disproportionate to the laws the police are enforcing. Because it has happened gradually over the course of about 30 years, the public has become accustomed to it.

Today, SWAT teams are routinely deployed against people who pose little to no threat at all. It's hard to come up with a legitimate reason that the federal government needs to send heavily-armed, heavily-armored SWAT teams to raid medical marijuana clinics, for example. ... There's also little justification for sending SWAT teams to raid the offices of doctors accused of over-prescribing prescription painkillers, co-ops accused of selling unpasteurized milk, or for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to send paramilitary squads into businesses suspected of employing undocumented immigrants.

At the 2008 GOP Convention, police staged preemptive raids on the homes of possible protesters and rabble-rousers. There were mass arrests of protesters and journalists, few of which resulted in any actual charges. At the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh, camouflage-clad cops deployed sound cannons and arrested protesters, students and even onlookers. This was not because they broke any actual laws, but on their potential to cause disruption.

In 2009, I wrote an article for the Daily Beast about the odd phenomenon of cops shooting dogs. In drug raids, killing the dogs in the targeted house is almost perfunctory. We also see stories about cops killing dogs while chasing suspects across the property of a third party, or killing a dog who growls at them after they were called to a house on an unrelated matter. ... The often cold reactions from police departments to these incidents also show a certain indifference to the people they are supposed to be serving -- again, more the way a soldier interacts with citizens in another country than as with a police officer serving his community.

The amount of force the government uses to uphold a given law is no longer determined only by the threat to public safety posed by the suspect. Now, it appears to give an indication of how serious the government is about the law being enforced. The DEA sends SWAT teams barreling into the offices of doctors accused of over-prescribing painkillers not because the doctors pose any real threat of violence, but because prescription drug abuse is a hot issue right now. The feds sent SWAT teams into marijuana dispensaries not because medicinal pot merchants are inherently dangerous people, but because officials believe the dispensaries are openly defying federal law. It is, to put it bluntly, a terror tactic. Sending a couple cops with a clipboard to hand out fines and shut down a dispensary doesn't convey a strong message. Sending a bunch of cops dressed like soldiers to point guns at dispensary owners and their customers certainly does. ... The amount force government authorities use, then, is no longer based not on what sort of threat a suspect poses to the government or those around him, but on the political implications of the laws being enforced. It isn't difficult to see how we get from here to pepper-spraying and beating peaceful protesters, particularly if the protesters are becoming a thorn in the side of politicians or are losing support from the public.
The author summarizes with a good point: Back in the 1990s, political conservatives were the ones decrying the excessive use of law enforcement firepower at Ruby Ridge, Waco Texas, and even in the Elian Gonzalez raid, while liberals were mainly silent. With the Occupy protesters now being targeted for excessive use of police violence, the Conservatives are nodding their heads in satisfaction and offering congratulations to the cops for a job well done. When the pendulum swings back again, and it becomes Tea Party activists being beaten by police for waving guns around at a political rally, or it is Christians protesting gay marriage who are pepper sprayed because they were "outside of a protest zone", or abortion protesters who are tasered for blocking a sidewalk... will those same congratulations offered before still be forthcoming? Somehow I doubt it.

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