Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Militarization of the Police

[After writing this, I found this video interview. Warning: violent sequence.]

Here is an excellent article by Radley Balko on a very disturbing trend: More and more, police forces across the US are using military-style weapons, tactics, and body armor in raids on the homes and businesses of citizens suspected of breaking the law. To some extent, this trend is powered by the "war" (note the word choice) on drugs, but ...
[P]aramilitary creep has also spread well beyond the drug war. In recent years, SWAT teams have been used to break up neighborhood poker games, including one at an American Legion Hall in Dallas. In 2006, Virginia optometrist Sal Culosi was killed when the Fairfax County Police Department sent a SWAT team to arrest him for gambling on football games. SWAT teams are also now used to arrest people suspected of downloading child pornography. Last year, an Austin, Texas, SWAT team broke down a man's door because he was suspected of stealing koi fish from a botanical garden.
I grew up thinking that the degree of force used by the police is proportional to the threat posed by the suspect. The cops only "come on like Gang Busters" if they are busting an actual gang. But that, Radley explains, was then, and this as now:

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.

There's also little evidence that people who consume child pornography pose much of a violent threat to police officers, yet the federal government now routinely sends SWAT teams to apprehend them. The amount of force, again, isn't dictated by the threat posed by the suspect, but by the disgust the government wants to register at the alleged crime.

If he is right about this, this is a very dangerous trend indeed.

If the police are using such tactics in order to intimidate and terrify the suspect, mainly because they hate the alleged offense, then these tactics are in effect part of the suspect's punishment. That is, what we have here is a case of summary punishment by the police, without due process of law. In some societies, the police apprehent people for (possible) punishment by others, in others, your encounter with the cops is actually part of your punishment. Surely, this one of the sharpest differences between a free society and a police state.

It violates or threatens at least two basic principles of a free society:

1. Procedural rights. In a free society, citizens have a right against the state, not merely that they not be punished more than they deserve, but that the question of their desert be decided in the right way. This generally involves a careful weighing of the evidence, a right to defend oneself, and a heavy burden of proof for the acusers. Obviously, if the police have probable cause to look for marijuana in your house, this standard has not been met.

2. The rule of law. This complex idea means a number of different things. It means that the law does not merely constrain the citizens of the state, it constrains the officers of the state as well. It means that when the state inflicts punishment, it is based on legal considerations and not on political ones. If Radley is right, the police are choosing to use these terror tactics on the basis of political considerations like the fact that the populace hates your alleged crime (eg., downloading child pornography) or that your activities threaten the power of politicians to keep their jobs (eg., the OWS demonstrators).

This would be a very big step in a very bad direction.

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