I can no longer remember a time when New York City’s police force was not informally referred to by NY politicians as “OUR FINEST.” Understandably, they never told us Finest What. Surely, they could not have meant NY’s finest citizens, thereby putting down the firefighters, emergency ambulance squads, and the people themselves. In truth, they had nothing in mind. It was a slogan that the public willingly accepted – a deep insult that New Yorkers had been battered into accepting uncomplainingly and unthinkingly.
If we must have a catchphrase for NY’s cops, it ought to be this: OUR WORST. I have argued for years that police everywhere are, institutionally, a disaster. Now and then we are glad for their interventions but on the whole they do more harm than good and, it may even be maintained, that they exist for the purpose of making ordinary people miserable. Outlandish as that sounds, there is some evidence for it.
We all know the horror stories concerning police brutality but few of us know how systemic it is and most of us would be reluctant to do away with police altogether because we have no grasp of what alternatives there can be. Philosopher Robert Nozick, arguing on the basis of libertarian principles, once upon a time, proposed neighborhood security teams in lieu of government-sponsored police. On its face, this proposal seems to leave lot to be desired but, while Nozick himself never elaborated, there are ways to make it practical. That is not my concern in this essay. I want to document our decline into a police state, a frightful state that foolish champions of police fail to fully appreciate. I am not going to explore the depth of police corruption nor even the extent of police brutality. These matters have been investigated hundreds of times, and more fully than I can hope to emulate. Reports have been issued dozens of times and to some extent they do good. The most famous is the Knapp Commission Report on Corruption. For starters, but by no means finishers, take a look at the laconic article about the Knapp Commission in Wikipedia.
Far less publicized than corruption and overt instances of brutality, is the militarization of police forces everywhere. This has been an insidious encroachment into our lives for decades beginning in the 1960s when Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates first conceived the idea of the SWAT team in response to the Watts riots and a few mass shooting incidents for which he thought the police were unprepared.
Gates’ idea quickly grew popular in law enforcement circles, particularly in cities worried about rioting and domestic terrorism. From Gates’ lone team in LA, the number of SWAT teams in the U.S. grew to 500 by 1975. By 1982, nearly 60 percent of American cities with 50,000 or more people had a SWAT team. By 1995, nearly 90 percent of cities with 50,000 or more people had a SWAT team. According to Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University, the total number of SWAT raids in America jumped from just a few hundred per year in the 1970s, to a few thousand by the early 1980s, to around 50,000 by the mid-2000s.
Police no longer reserve SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics for events that present an immediate threat to the public. They now use them mostly as an investigative tool in drug cases, creating violent confrontations with people suspected of nonviolent, consensual crimes. In 1988, Congress created the Byrne grant program, which gives money to local police departments and prosecutors for a number of different criminal justice purposes. A large portion of Byrne grant money over the years has been earmarked for anti-drug policing. Competition among police agencies for the pool of cash has made anti-drug policing a high priority. And once there was federal cash available for drug busts, drug raids became more common. Politicians love the Byrne grant program. Congressmen get to put out press releases announcing the new half-million dollar grant they’ve just secured for the hometown police department. Everyone gets to look tough on crime. The old lady on the street is thrilled because, through it all, “the nice officer on the beat” stops to help her cross the busy intersection. (Three miles away, her son is being harassed by a cop wearing dark glasses. Her son’s crime? Dirty license plate and being disrespectful.)
Roving bands of drug cops are often entirely funded with asset forfeiture, and usually don’t report to any single police agency. Lack of real accountability has produced catastrophic results, like the mass drug raid debacles in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, in the late 1990s. In Hearne, for example, police raids were nothing else than a crackdown on black Americans because black Americans were black Americans. It remains one of the great scandals of criminal “justice” in America. Dozens of African Americans were rounded up in para-military drug sweeps and dozens of others were harassed and injured as “collateral, unintended damage.” The ACLU got nowhere in seeking a court order to prevent the Task Force and local law enforcement from conducting drug “sweeps” targeting African-American residents in Hearne and the unlawful arrest, detention, and prosecution of residents based solely on their race.
During the Clinton years, Congress passed what’s now known as the “1033 Program,” which formalized and streamlined the Reagan administration’s directive to the Pentagon to share surplus military gear with domestic police agencies. Since then, millions of pieces of military equipment designed for use on a battlefield have been transferred to local SWAT teams — machine guns, tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, bayonets, and weapons that shoot .50-caliber ammunition. Clinton also created the “Troops to Cops” program, which offered grants to police departments who hired soldiers returning from battle, contributing even further to the militarization of the police force.
The ACLU is, for now, not trying to do more than gather information about the extent of militarization but its efforts are being blocked. In 2009, Maryland passed a SWAT transparency law. It requires every police agency in the state with a SWAT team to provide data twice per year on the number of times the SWAT team is deployed, the reason for the deployment, whether any shots were fired, and whether the raid resulted in criminal charges. The effort to get the law passed was led by Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md., who was the victim of a highly publicized mistaken raid on his home in which a Prince George’s County SWAT team shot and killed his two black Labradors. The bill puts no restrictions on SWAT teams or how they’re used. Its only purpose is transparency. Still, it was vigorously opposed by every police agency in the state. The National Sheriffs Association and the National Association of Chiefs of Police do not respond to requests for data. Why should they? As Stalin asked about the Pope, “How many divisions does he command?” That question may also be put to the ACLU.
The great champion of civil rights, Barack Obama, has expanded the Byrne and Community-Oriented Policing Services program (COPS) by giving them $1.55 billion, a 250 percent increase over its 2008 budget under Bush. (For that much money, Obama can inveigle me into wearing a good pair of storm trooper boots, good for kicking doors down.)
ACLU spokesperson Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU’s Center for Justice, is only seeking information. Once it gets the information, Dansky said the organization will analyze the figures and recommend policies to minimize the effects of police militarization on civil liberties. “We’re also concerned that these tactics are disproportionately used against poor people, and in communities of color,” Dansky said. “SWAT is really only part of it. The effects of militarization also happen beyond and outside of just an increase in SWAT deployments.”
“I wish the ACLU success,” abused mayor Cheye Calvo said. “And I suspect that once they force the police agencies to cooperate, they’ll find that this problem is even more dramatic and pronounced than most people know. But then the question is, now what? Even if you can show that people are being victimized and terrorized by these tactics — and to no good end — if no one cares, then what does it matter?”
Yes, now what? So far as I am concerned, the first step to end police viciousness does not like with the ACLU but with the public’s quitting the nonsense of thinking the police are our friends. And if nobody cares, as Calvo suspects, what does it all matter? We get the treatment we deserve and beg for.
A solid lead for this article was provided by Dr. Ted Drange.