Are Police Domestic Soldiers Terrorizing Communities?

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Here’s an excerpt from an interesting USA TODAY article discussing the dangers of high-speed police chases:

“Innocent bystanders account for one-third of those who are killed in high-speed police chases, a USA TODAY review has found. The deaths have several communities around the USA wrestling with whether to restrict pursuits only to suspects in violent crimes.

About 360 people are killed each year in police chases, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Proponents of more restrictive chase policies say the fatality numbers are lower than the real toll because there is no mandatory reporting system for deaths in pursuits.

Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina who has studied police pursuits since the 1980s, says the actual number of fatalities is “three or four times higher.” Another complicating factor: bystanders killed after police stop chasing suspects — even seconds afterward — are not counted.

About 35%-40% of all police chases end in crashes, Alpert says. He says the nation’s 17,000 police departments are moving toward more restrictive chase policies “because chasing someone for a traffic offense or a property offense is not worth the risk of people’s lives and well-being.” [Larry Copeland, “Deaths lead police to question high-speed chase policies,” USA TODAY

In fact, things are even worse than this brief sketch makes them out to be. It fails to account for non-lethal injuries, psychological trauma, loss of income due to injuries or trauma, and property damage resulting from high-speed police chases.

That so many innocent people are harmed by these chases shouldn’t really come as a shock to anyone. If you frequently drive aggressively and at high speeds while creating an incentive for someone else to do likewise, it’s inevitable that you’re going to harm innocent bystanders.

Incidentally, my parents were almost victims of a police chase earlier this year. They were at an intersection when a car, followed by two police vehicles, barreled through and came very close to hitting them. They were later able to find out (through a local newspaper) that the police were chasing someone because of cannabis possession.

Apparently, the same people who hand out speeding tickets — supposedly to protect us from reckless driving — thought it just and prudent to drive recklessly in order to catch someone who wasn’t even suspected of a violent crime.

To serve and protect, indeed.

* * * * *

Reckless behavior from police isn’t solely limited to car chases. In fact, police seem to make a habit of acting recklessly and instituting policies that are guaranteed to harm innocent people. Probably the most disturbing policy of this sort is the regularized use of “no-knock” SWAT team raids. The use of these raids is extremely problematic for a number of reasons.

First, SWAT teams often raid the homes of innocent people due to bad information or incompetence. Warrants for raids are often acquired using information provided from informants. In many cases, these informants are convicted criminals who are being offered lesser sentences in exchange for information, giving them incentive to fabricate stories.

Police have also been known to fabricate information themselves. It shouldn’t be too surprising, considering that police have “civil asset forfeiture” powers that let them seize property without due process and for personal benefit.

But who cares about civil asset forfeiture when cops conducting raids have been known to steal or otherwise abuse property even without it? The Philadelphia Daily recently mentioned a number of stories in which Philadelphia’s narcotics squad raided stores — claiming the small plastic bags they sold were “drug paraphernalia” — and stole cash, candy, and cigarettes (Jennifer Chou, “Police loot and destroy shops, keep cash, candy and cigarettes for themselves,” Cop Block).

Isn't it nice of that officer to cover his face with a black mask so that if you can't identify him if you witness him commit a crime? I wonder if he learned that trick from watching security tapes of burglaries. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Isn’t it nice of that officer to cover his face with a black mask so that you can’t identify him if you witness him commit a crime? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

No-knock raids also pose a significant safety risk to the officers involved and the people being raided. Raids on homes, especially those conducted at night, generally surprise the occupants. When raid victims make sudden movements out of surprise or try to defend themselves from SWAT members who they reasonably believe to be burglars (burglars without badges, anyway), the results usually aren’t pretty.

All of these problems are amplified by the lack of accountability for police.

The Cato Institute’s interactive “Botched Paramilitary Police Raids” map describes dozens of these raids (conducted between 1985 and 2008) during which SWAT teams have terrorized innocent people, used excessive force, killed innocent people and nonviolent criminals, and/or lost the lives of members.

Here are a few excerpts:

    • “Police conduct a blanket commando-style raid on Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina. Students are ordered at gunpoint to lie face-down on the floor while police search their lockers and persons for drugs. Some are handcuffed, while K-9 units deploy dogs to search students, lockers, and backpacks.

“The incident is captured on videotape by the school’s security cameras and makes national news. Media outlets report that the school has one of the best academic reputations in the state. A class-action lawsuit is pending and the principal of the Stratford school who helped organize the raid has since resigned.”

    • “Police in Horn Lake, Mississippi raid a home after a tip from an informant that someone’s operating a meth lab inside.

“Once the paramilitary unit arrives at the scene, however, they find two houses on the property instead of one. They decide to pick one, and conduct the raid anyway. They end up waking up, terrorizing, and injuring a couple in their 80s, leaving the man with bruised ribs and the woman with a dislocated shoulder. They later locate the meth lab in the other house.

“Police chief Darryl Whaley insisted that his officers ‘acted properly’ and ‘followed procedures’ in guessing which home was correct before commencing with the raid.”

    • “In March 1992, police in Everett, Washington storm the home of Robin Pratt on a no-knock warrant. They are looking for her husband, who would later be released when the allegations in the warrant turned out to be false.

“Though police had a key to the apartment, they instead choose to throw a 50-pound battering ram through the apartment’s sliding-glass door. Glass shards land inches away from the couple’s six-year-old daughter and five-year-old niece. One officer encounters Robin Pratt on the way to her bedroom. Hearing other SWAT team members yell ‘Get down!’ Pratt falls to her knees. She then raises her head briefly to say, ‘Please don’t hurt my children.’ At that point, Deputy Anthony Aston fires his weapon, putting a bullet in her neck, killing her.

“Officers next entered the bedroom, where Dep. Aston then put the tip of his MP-5 assault sub-machine gun against Larry Pratt’s head. When Pratt asked if he could move, another officer said that if he did, he’d have his head blown off.

“Though a subsequent investigation by a civilian inquest jury found the shooting ‘unjustified,’ the officer who shot and killed Pratt was never charged.”

* * * * *

The SWAT team raid horror stories I’ve mentioned aren’t a random sample, but you still probably noticed the pattern: they all have to do with drugs. Not every paramilitary police raid is about drugs, but fighting the drug war has been the primary purpose of SWAT raids.

In a Briefing Paper for the Cato Institute, Diane Cecilia Weber (“Warrior Cops: The Ominous Rise of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments”) details the rise of paramilitarism in law enforcement during the 80’s and 90’s. As she explains, the Posse Comitatus Act was passed towards the end of the Reconstruction era as a reaction to the occupation of the South by federal troops. The Act made it a criminal offense to use the Army for domestic law enforcement purposes without the consent of Congress (other parts of the military were subsequently added). It was revised during the 80’s to allow numerous exceptions for the purposes of enforcing drug prohibition. As Weber writes, the changes

encouraged the military to (a) make available equipment, military bases, and research facilities to federal, state, and local police; (b) train and advise civilian police on the use of the equipment; and (c) assist law enforcement personnel in keeping drugs from entering the country. The act also authorized the military to share information acquired during military operations with civilian law enforcement agencies. [“Warrior Cops”]

Since these changes were instituted, there has been a huge increase in the number of SWAT teams in the United States largely for the purpose of enforcing drug laws.

According to one estimate, SWAT teams now conduct approximately 40,000 raids every year (cited in Radley Balko, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Units, p. 11).

In Maryland, SWAT teams were deployed 804 times over a sixth month period in 2009 — an average of 4.5 times per day. Only 6% of these raids involved the special situations (e.g. bank robberies, hostage situations) that SWAT teams were originally created to deal with; the remaining 94% of the raids were conducted to carry out arrest or search warrants. More than 100 of these raids were conducted on people suspected of nonviolent crimes (Radley Balko, “4.5 SWAT Raids Per Day,” Reason Magazine).

* * * * *

I’m not sure I want to bring any of my views about the occupation of Iraq into this discussion (since many people probably see it as unrelated to police), but I can’t help but see a parallel. Recently, WikiLeaks released a video of American soldiers in an Apache helicopter massacring number of civilians in Iraq including a Reuters photographer and his driver. Although some of the people were armed, none of them did anything to provoke the soldiers. When a van showed up to help the wounded, the soldiers open fire again killing more people and wounding two children.

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the video was the attitudes of the soldiers. Their voices sound calm throughout the video. A gunner laughs after killing one of the men trying to escape. One of the men happily describes a pile of dead bodies as “Nice.” While the helicopter circles over a wounded man, the soldiers, apparently eager to finish him off, taunt “C’mon, buddy.” “All you gotta do it pick up a weapon” (the Rules of Engagement require people to be armed before they can be “engaged”).

When the van arrives, the soldiers immediately seek permission to shoot even though the men in the van were clearly there to rescue the wounded. One trigger-happy soldier anxiously exclaims “C’mon, let us shoot!” because it takes a few seconds for the permission to be granted. After they fill the van with bullets, one of the soldiers gleefully celebrates: “Oh yeah, look at that. Right through the windshield! Ha ha!”

When reinforcements show up and inform the soldiers in the helicopter that they wounded a child, the best one of the soldiers can come up with is “Ah damn. Oh well.” After a soldier in a tank drives over the body of one of the victims and laughs about it, two of the soldiers agree that “it’s their [the victims] fault for bringing their kids into battle.”

Shortly after the video was released, The New York Times ran a story mentioning the video that discussed the psychology of soldiers.

In recent days, many veterans have made the point that fighters cannot do their jobs without creating psychological distance from the enemy. One reason that the soldiers seemed as if they were playing a video game is that, in a morbid but necessary sense, they were.

Isn't indiscriminate killing hilarious? No? Then you must need more training! (Source: Collateral
Isn’t indiscriminate killing hilarious? No? Then you must need more training! (Source:

“You don’t want combat soldiers to be foolish or to jump the gun, but their job is to destroy the enemy, and one way they’re able to do that is to see it as a game, so that the people don’t seem real,” said Bret A. Moore, a former Army psychologist and co-author of the forthcoming book “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life After Deployment.”

Military training is fundamentally an exercise in overcoming a fear of killing another human, said Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of the book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” who is a former Army Ranger.

Combat training “is the only technique that will reliably influence the primitive, midbrain processing of a frightened human being” to take another life, the colonel writes. “Conditioning in flight simulators enables pilots to respond reflexively to emergency situations even when frightened.” [Benedict Carrey, “Experts Explain Psychology of Iraq Airstrike on Video,” The New York Times]

Two of the soldiers in the video recently published an apology for their actions. In it, they claim that the violence depicted in the video is commonplace in occupied Iraq (Josh Steiber and Ethan McCord, “Soldiers in ‘WikiLeaks’ Unit Apologize For Violence,” truthout).

I mention all of this because I think there’s an important lesson that should be obvious. Training people to think with the soldier mindset is dangerous.  And it’s especially dangerous to train cops, the people who are supposed to protect our safety, to think like soldiers. But this is exactly what’s happening. As Weber writes,

[t]he sharing of training and technology by the military and law enforcement agencies has produced a shared mindset, and the mindset of the warrior is simply not appropriate for the civilian police officer charged with enforcing the law. The soldier confronts an enemy in a life-or-death situation. The soldier learns to use lethal force on the enemy, both uniformed and civilian, irrespective of age or gender. The soldier must sometimes follow orders unthinkingly, acts in concert with his comrades, and initiates violence on command. That mentality, with which new recruits are strenuously indoctrinated in boot camp, can be a matter of survival to the soldier and the nation at war.

The civilian law enforcement officer, on the other hand, confronts not an “enemy” but individuals who, like him, are both subject to the nation’s laws and protected by the Bill of Rights. Although the police officer can use force in life-threatening situations, the Constitution and numerous Supreme Court rulings have circumscribed the police officer’s direct use of force, as well as his power of search and seizure. In terms of violence, the police officer’s role is—or should be—purely reactive. When a police officer begins to think like a soldier, tragic consequences— such as the loss of innocent life at Waco—will result. [“Warrior Cops”]

I think it’s worth quoting Rad Geek, who refers to this attitude as the “siege mentality”:

Cops believe that they are “domestic warriors”, a class separate from mere “civilians” like you and your neighbors. They are fighting a battle in your hometown’s streets, as part of an ongoing occupation of hostile territory. They believe that they are in the midst of several “Wars,” wars which are like the United States government’s occupation and counter-insurgency campaign against South Vietnam, and that they need to be freed from restraints on the tactics that they can use in order to “really fight” like a military force engaged in total war. [Charles Johnson, “How cops see themslves (#2),” Rad Geek People’s Daily]

Consider that their crusade against victimless crimes is so important to many cops that they believe the lives of everyone else who happens to be on the road become forfeit as soon as people allegedly in possession of cannabis try to drive away from them. Consider that the crusade is so important to some cops that they will dress up like Nazi stormtroopers, break into homes at night, threaten the occupants with military-grade weapons, and possibly even murder them — even if they don’t have an iota of credible evidence that any of the residents committed a crime.

Suddenly, cops don’t seem so different from the soldiers in the WikiLeaks video, do they?

* * * * *

Do you ever feel like we’re an occupied population and police are an invading army?

If it looks like a duck... (Source: The New York Times)
If it looks like a duck… (Source: The New York Times)

When newspaper articles distinguish between police officers and “civilians”; when the police train with the military; when they are armed with weapons designed for the military; when many of them use military-style tactics in their everyday work; when many cops are ex-military personnel; when they are told that they’re fighting “wars” against drugs, terrorism, and more; when they shoot peaceful protesters (whom one officer endearingly refers to as “scurrying cockroaches”) with rubber bullets and then laugh about it and use tasers to torture pregnant women who haven’t done anything wrong; it seems impossible to conclude otherwise.

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Dylan Donnelly

Artist and Photojournalist from Fresno, CA Editor at Fresno People's Media & admin of Cop Block Fresno, CA Follow me on Twitter and Facebook Subscribe to my Youtube Channel