When the FBI finally located Whitey Bulger in 2010 after searching for 16 years, the reputed mobster was suspected of involvement in 19 murders in the 1970s and ’80s, and was thought to be armed with a massive arsenal of weapons. He was also 81 at the time, in poor physical health, and looking at spending the rest of his life in prison. Of all the people who might meet the criteria for arrest by a SWAT team, one might think that Bulger would top the list.
Yet instead of sending in a tactical team to tear down Bulger’s door in the middle of the night, the FBI took a different appraoch. FBI officials cut the lock on a storage locker Bulger used in the apartment complex where he was staying. They then had the property manager call Bulger to tell him someone may have broken into his locker. When Bulger went to investigate, he was arrested without incident. There was no battering ram, orflash grenades, there was no midnight assault on his home.
The peaceful apprehension of a known violent fugitive,stands in stark contrast to the way tens of thousands of Americans are confronted each year by SWAT teams battering down their doors to serve warrants for nonviolent crimes, mostly involving drugs.
Today in America, SWAT teams are deployed about 100 to 150 times per day, or about 50,000 times per year — a dramatic increase from the 3,000 or so annual deployments in the early 1980s, or the few hundred in the 1970s.
Add to all of this a Pentagon program that gives surplus military equipment to local police agencies, a Department of Homeland Security program that cuts checks to police departments to buy yet more military gear, and federal grants specifically tied to drug policing and asset forfeiture policies, both of which reward police officials who send their SWAT teams on drug raids, and it isn’t difficult to see how we reached the point where SWAT teams are deployed so frequently.
The question is, how could the U.S. roll all of this back? numerous former police chiefs, police officers and federal officials, all of whom were concerned about the militarization of America’s police forces have commented. Here are some of their suggestions for reform:
End The Drug War: the damage inflicted by the country’s 40-year drug fight goes well beyond prisons. It’s also been the driving force behind America’s mass police militarization since at least the early 1980s, and the best way to rein in the trend would be to simply end prohibition altogether. decriminalization, would take away many of the incentives to fight the drug war as if it were an actual war. The federal government could also leave it to the states to determine drug policy, and with what priority and level of force it should be enforced.
End The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program:The federal HIDTA program is another inducement for more aggressive enforcement of drug laws. Once a police department reaches a threshold of drug arrests, the agency becomes eligible for yet more federal funding as a region with high illicit drug activity. This then becomes an incentive for police departments to desire the high drug trafficking label, which means they’ll devote even more resources to drug policing, which means more raids.
End The “Equitable Sharing” Civil Asset Forfeiture Program: Under civil asset forfeiture, police agencies can seize any piece of property — cash, cars, homes — that they can reasonably connect to criminal activity. In most places, the proceeds of the seizure go to the police department. Since civil asset forfeiture is used overwhelmingly in drug investigations, this has created a strong incentive for police to send their SWAT teams to serve routine drug warrants.
End The 1033 Program: The so-called 1033 program, passed in 1997, formalized a Pentagon policy of giving away surplus military equipment to domestic police agencies, which had been going on since the Reagan years. The new law also set up a well-funded, well-staffed office to facilitate the donations. Millions of pieces of equipment have since been given away — $500 million worth in 2011 alone. Once they get the gear — tanks, armored personnel vehicles, guns, helicopters, bayonets, you name it — police agencies in tiny towns have used it to start SWAT teams.
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