War Comes Home – The Excessive Militarization of American Policing [ACLU Report]
War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing
Across the country, heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams are forcing their way intopeople’s homes in the middle of the night, often deploying explosive devices such as flashbang grenades to temporarily blind and deafen residents, simply to serve a search warrant on the suspicion that someone may be in possession of a small amount of drugs. Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies. However, the ACLU encountered this type of story over and over when studying the militarization of state and local law enforcement agencies.
This investigation gave us data to corroborate a trend we have been noticing nationwide: American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.1 Using these federal funds, state and local law enforcement agencies have amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities of color. But these arsenals are by no means free of cost for communities. Instead, the use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.
This report provides a snapshot of the realities of paramilitary policing, building on a body of existing work demonstrating that police militarization is a pervasive problem. Analyzing both existing secondary source materials and primary source data uncovered through the ACLU’s public records investigation, this report examines the use of SWAT teams by state and local law enforcement agencies and other aspects of militaristic policing.2 As explained in the Methodology section, our statistical analysis included more than 800 SWAT deployments conducted by 20 law enforcement agencies during the years 2011-2012.3 SWAT was created to deal with emergency situations such as hostage, barricade and active shooter scenarios. Over time, however, law enforcement agencies have moved away from this original purpose and are increasingly using these paramilitary squads to search people’s homes for drugs.
Aggressive enforcement of the War on Drugs has lost its public mandate, as 67 percent of Americans think the government should focus more on treatment than on policing and prosecuting drug users.4 This waning public support is warranted, as evidence continues to document how the War on Drugs has destroyed millions of lives, unfairly impacted communities of color, made drugs cheaper and more potent, caused countless deaths of innocent people caught up in drug war-related armed
conflict, and failed to eliminate drug dependence and addiction. The routine use of heavily armed SWAT teams to search people’s homes for drugs, therefore, means that law enforcement agencies across the country are using this hyper-aggressive form of domestic policing to fight a war that has waning public support and has harmed, much
more than helped, communities…