published Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Police militarization should alarm Americans

Even small police forces, such as the East Ridge Police Department, have armored personnel carriers.
Even small police forces, such as the East Ridge Police Department, have armored personnel carriers.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Alberta Spruill was a 57-year-old devout churchgoer; a hardworking city employee who had never been in trouble with the law. At 6 a.m. on a May morning, Spriull was preparing to leave her Harlem apartment for work when a group of police officers broke down her door and threw a concussion grenade into her home.

The officers had received a tip from a confidential informant who told them that a convicted felon was selling drugs and guns from Spriull's apartment. The tip, it turned out, was a lie. Spruill suffered a heart attack during the traumatic police raid of her home and died two hours later.

Raiding the wrong home was nothing unusual for the NYPD. In 2003, the department admitted to 540 no-knock drug raids on the wrong address.

As Radley Balko, a Tennessee resident who serves as a senior writer and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post, points out in his troubling new book, "Rise of the Warrior Cop," botched law enforcement raids -- and the death and destruction so frequently associated with them -- have become commonplace. (Disclosure: Balko is a personal friend of Free Press opinion page editor Drew Johnson.)

In recent years, according to Balko, America's police forces have become increasingly militarized, "the result of a generation of politicians and public officials fanning and exploiting public fears by declaring wars on abstractions like crime, drug use and terrorism."

The trampling of the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure by lawmakers and courts, as well as the flood of military-grade equipment into local police departments, means that police are more powerful -- and citizens are less protected -- than ever before.

•••

Over 100 SWAT raids take place every day in America. Most of them, as Balko notes, are to enforce laws against consensual crimes. Small-scale drug possession, underage drinking, prostitution rings and gambling are common excuses for SWAT teams to smash into homes and businesses with their guns drawn.

The SWAT raids frequently involve flash grenades and pepper spray, officers routinely shoot dogs and force children and innocent bystanders to the ground -- often erroneously or without a proper warrant.

"Rise of the Warrior Cop" recounts a raid on the home of Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md. A Prince George's County SWAT team blew Calvo's front door down with explosives and filled his home with gunfire. They held a gun to his mother-in-law's head, who had been cooking pasta sauce when the invasion began. The SWAT officers then shot and killed Calvo's two black labs, Payton and Chase, and tracked the dogs' blood throughout the home as they dumped Calvo's drawers and scoured his belongings.

Calvo had been targeted, wrongly, in the SWAT raid because drug traffickers were mailing packages of marijuana to Berwyn Heights addresses, including his, so a FedEx driver could intercept the packages and sell the drugs.

•••

The degree to which the militarization of police forces has taken place is evident in how SWAT teams and police departments dress and in the weapons and vehicles they use.

"In many cities," Balko writes, "police departments have given up the traditional blue uniforms for 'battle dress uniforms' modeled after soldier attire. Police departments across the country now sport armored personnel carriers designed for use on a battlefield. Some have helicopters, tanks and Humvees. They carry military-grade weapons."

Federal giveaways of retired military equipment are putting weapons and vehicles that simply don't belong in the hands of local police officers in cities and towns throughout America.

Balko discloses that the Chattanooga Police Department has a .50-caliber machine gun. Even small-town police forces are getting in on the act. The East Ridge SWAT unit has an armored personnel carrier and a military-grade Hummer.

That heavy duty equipment is often misused. For example, Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," allowed actor and wannabe lawman Steven Seagal to drive a tank into the living room of a suspected chicken fighter. Seagal claimed the extreme force was justified because, "animal cruelty is one of my pet peeves."

A dog was killed in the raid and the suspect's chickens were subsequently euthanized.

•••

"Rise of the Warrior Cop" offers several solutions to turn the tide away from police militarization and toward more reasonable policing policies.

Stopping the assault on those involved in consensual crimes, increasing the filming of cops and eliminating policies that make firing police officers almost impossible in certain areas are all steps that should be taken.

Ultimately, however, the most effective way to curb the use of military tactics by police officers is to put a stop to bad legislation that encourages police militarization.

Voters need to elect public officials who refuse to allow police officers to, as Balko notes, drive tanks on American streets, break into homes, kill dogs and engage in "commando raids" for white collar and even regulatory offenses.

Principled governors, mayors and members of Congress must be willing to protect the rights of Americans and restrain the excessive and unnecessary militarization of police in our country.

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inquiringmind said...

You make a great point but good luck changing political policies put into place by mostly very conservative Republican governments who value security over liberty and hire police who harbor desires to be the new Rambo.

July 14, 2013 at 7:04 a.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

After the military-style police debacle depicted in the infamous Tennessee Highway Patrol roadblock video, it's obvious that soon we will all be asked to produce our "papers".

http://tinyurl.com/q4tq4l2

It did appear that the State Storm-Trooper was moments away from an aneurism when his authority was challenged. The looked of incredulity on his face was priceless. Did I detect steam erupting out his ears?

Continue to video law enforcement every opportunity. Know your rights, continue to express those rights, and remember that some crooks wear uniforms with government authority.

July 14, 2013 at 9:19 a.m.
librul said...
July 14, 2013 at 9:39 a.m.
soakya said...

Local officials are also trampling 1st amendment rights. Two Cleveland officials didn't like the message on a few of yard signs criticizing the governor so they removed the signs. How dare someone criticize the governor when he comes to town with federal tax dollars.

July 14, 2013 at 9:49 a.m.
klifnotes said...

There have been a number of similar disturbing incidents locally over the years that were kept out of the news. Some very very recent. But unlike the media and organizations in cities like NY, local media tends to be either complicit or downplay the problem. The militarization of America's police force has been noted, even locally, for quite a number of years now, but the collateral damage has usually been some poor soul and community that no one gives much attention to, or feel such tactics were justified.

July 14, 2013 at 10:20 a.m.
librul said...

Exactly Kliff - Chattanooga's local media are paper tiger puppets of the local elite. They would never get in the face of any of the local politicos or social elite because they would suffer an immediate and total blackout on access to "public" officials and figures.

But have you ever noticed that the "news" cycle between 5:00 and 6:30 on local media is rife with puff pieces and reports of events in remote cities that have NO relevance to the lives of the people in the Chattanooga area? IMHO they are a mockery of what journalists should be - even thought they make a big deal about their "citizen hot lines", if the story will embarrass one of the local power brokers, it ends up on the cuting room floor.

The reality is we do not want an hour of video police reports - we want the police chief, the mayor and our legislators standing in front of cameras and telling reporters what they are going to do to bring peace to our neighborhoods, and it shouldn't be to just get another armored personnel carrier from "Homeland Security".

July 14, 2013 at 10:52 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Exactly Librul, The TFP in the past has been Raindrops on Roses journalism, and has enabled corruption with their silence.

Very well stated, "Chattanooga's local media are paper tiger puppets of the local elite. They would never get in the face of any of the local politicos or social elite because they would suffer an immediate and total blackout on access to "public" officials and figures."

Here is how local media portrays local gov. No wonder the public doesn't have a clue how bad they are being robbed.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dw2VX5wQYQg

July 14, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

I'm in complete agreement with everything the editor says here, and I believe that the expanding militarization of our police is something that most people, libs and conservatives alike, passionately object to. But inquiringmind's comment is spot on - it is mostly conservative Republican governments, valuing security over freedom, that have enabled these new Rambo-type cops to proliferate. The one-percenters, the people in the gated communities, have nothing to fear. They are in fact pushing for increased militarization. When the breakdown in our society happens, due to the next inevitable depression and/or outright revolution, the cops will be on the side of those with the money and power.

Notice that most of the SWAT raids revolve around drug enforcement. This is yet another sign of how wasteful, stupid, and destructive our "war on drugs" is. The fact that innocent people are broken into, injured, and killed just so the cops can notch another whack-a-mole "win" in the drug war should make all of us boiling mad but it seems that most police departments, while feigning remorse and spewing empty apologies, in reality just consider it collateral damage (yet another sign of military mindedness).

I still maintain respect for cops as a whole because I know that there are a lot of good ones out there, trying to do the right thing and putting their lives on the line every day. But I have no respect whatsoever for the DEA and vice squads who squander all their time, energy, and our tax dollars in basically trying to legislate morality. I can't imagine any occupation that is more destructive, pathetic, and a complete waste of time than theirs. And yet we continue to glorify them in our movies and TV shows, as if they're modern-day heroes. They are not. They are dupes and pawns, oftentimes as corrupt as those they target. If they had any sense or integrity at all, they would not last a day in that "profession."

If we would end this stupid "war on drugs" and make it a health problem (which it is) and not a crime problem, we would end 90% of the need for this militarization of our cops. But too many people, industries, and institutions stand to lose too much money if we ended it, so that is likely not going to happen. In 21st century America profit is all that matters.

We ain't seen nothin' yet - drones in America are on the horizon. Drones can certainly serve a useful, constructive purpose, but with the growing militarization of our police, you can bet that they will become a threat and a danger far greater than anything we have seen thus far. Being caught up as we are in the frenzy of the "war on terror" and the "war on drugs," wherever there is a way to use them nefariously, our police departments will surely do so.

July 14, 2013 at 12:25 p.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

Let's drug and alcohol check law enforcement every week. Check for steroids, prescription meds, beer, bourbon, pot, amphetamines, and all those substances for which they raid people's homes, shoot dogs, lock-away the non-violent, and kill for suspicion.

Let's put drones over cop shakedowns (stop and frisk), cameras in police locker rooms, run audio all the time in cop cars, have police wear transmitting devices that keeps roof-mounted cameras on police cars always trained on them, wear ankle bracelets so we always know where the cops are, bug their homes with cameras and audio devices to hear what they're doing at all times, and subject law enforcement to random vehicle stops to search their cars for contraband.

In return, they can wear those snappy uniforms, shave their heads, become overweight, moan about low salaries, and drool over the good-old days when cops could beat the crap out of people just because they could.

July 14, 2013 at 1:23 p.m.
klifnotes said...

2012 Cherokee County Georgia: When Lisa Messina, mother of 16 year old Georgia teen Andrew Messina, called cops she honestly thought they'd send police out to help calm the suicidal teen who was threatening to kill himself. In fact, she asked if they could just send out one police officer. Instead the local police sent out an army, cut the phone lines so he couldn't continue to talk to his father and Andrew would be killed by a sniper bullet fired through their Towne home window by one of their SWAT members. Lisa would later say if she had it to do all over again, she wouldn't call 911.

July 14, 2013 at 1:44 p.m.
gjuster said...

rickaroo - nice to be in agreement with you

July 14, 2013 at 7:41 p.m.
GratefulDawg said...

"You make a great point but good luck changing political policies put into place by mostly very conservative Republcian governments..." --inquringmind

I have no interest in or desire to defend conservative Republicans in this debate. The "war on drugs", where this militarization of police forces started, was kicked off by Nixon and cranked to eleven by Reagan. The Republicans are up to their neck in it. However, President Obama has not done the American citizens any favors in this fight against neighborhood storm troopers.

If anything, Obama is leading the charge in the effort to militarize the police. His policy of handing down military surplus items, such as grenade launchers and Blackhawk helicopters, to local police forces is an example. Some local police forces even acquired .50 caliber machine guns from the feds; A weapon so powerful the military has strict restrictions concerning battlefield use is now a local SWAT weapon. Sleep tight America.

The Byrne Grants that create unaccountable cross-jurisdiction drug task forces have benefited greatly from the Obama administration. When G.W. Bush took office, Byrne Grants received a half-billion dollars of federal funds annually. By the end of the Bush administration that had been scaled back to under a quarter-billion. The Byrne Grants receive over two-billion in federal funds now under Obama, the largest in the history of the program.

I genuinely tried to believe that President Obama would change the course of the wars on drugs and terror. I hoped the American citizenry would be taken out of the cross-hairs of militarized police forces. I now realize that having hopes and beliefs in any establishment candidate is an exercise in futility.

July 14, 2013 at 11:40 p.m.
joneses said...

Actually it is the wealthy democrats and republicans that are promoting this military style buildup of our police departments to protect people from the continued deterioration of our society caused by the liberal policies that reward bad behavior. We now have hussein obama who is the most divisive occupier of the White House ever that is pitting black against white, rich against poor, gay against straight and causing more resentment towards each other. The liberals including hussein obama are nothing but race baiters and are in the same category as jesse jackson and al sharpton who would love to see a law forbidding whites to protect themselves against black thugs. Why do these race baiters never and I mean never voice their outrage against the black youth killing each other?

July 15, 2013 at 7:33 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

There's no denying that Obama is "leading the charge in the effort to militarize the police." He has toned down the rhetoric and often given the impression that he is of the opinion that the drug war is a failure but his actions indicate otherwise. He is nothing if not a complete hypocrite in this regard.

For anybody who hasn't seen it yet I recommend a documentary I recently saw, "The House I Live In" (Netflix streaming). It takes a long hard look at the drug war and the countless lives it has destroyed, the wasted resources of money and manpower, and the horrific consequences that have resulted from this war that has been going on for over 40 years.

Prohibition lasted 13 years (a relatively small time frame compared to how long we have allowed the "prohibition" on drugs to endure). It didn't take all that long for Americans back then to come to their senses and see how prohibition was only making things worse...much worse. I have wondered what it was that, 80 years ago, we could act upon our better nature, readily see the error of our ways, and alter our course. We had the good sense to see the vice and corruption that prohibition was causing and to acknowledge that the consequences of prohibition were far greater than the legal use of the substance (alcohol) it was trying so hard to stamp out.

But today too many people, institutions, and industries have a vested interest in the drug war itself and are making too much money off of it to let it slip from their grasp. They have such a stranglehold on our politicians, apparently even the POTUS himself, that nothing is going to change - at least not as long as we continue to allow them to place profits over justice and common sense.

July 15, 2013 at 12:13 p.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

The Drug Wars support: politicians, lobbyists, DEA, Law Enforcement, military operations, anti-drug czars, lawyers, judges, DAs, Public Defenders, liquor, wine, and beer industries, violent criminals, pharmaceutical companies, bail-bondsmen, State prisons, private prison corporations, AA, judicially ordered "recovery" programs, psychologists, psychiatrists, hospitals, insurance companies, gun manufacturers, welfare programs, restaurant and beverage industries, religious fundamentalism, drug testing organizations, blackmailers, forced prostitution, child prostitution, government bureaucracies, and tired and worthless "Don't Do Drugs" advertisements and promotions.

"Let's Keep the Money Train Running and Full of Paying Clients. If the First Hundred Years of Prohibition Didn't Work, Give Us a Hundred More. With Your Money, We Can Stop Drugs!" (This advertisement paid for by the people making big money by continuing the never-ending Drug Wars.)

July 15, 2013 at 12:18 p.m.
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