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SWAT Politics: Law Enforcement and its New Critics

The Mueller investigation and its surrounding silly partisan atmosphere have at least created some new bedfellows. On one hand ostensible liberals stand firmly with the FBI while conservatives rant about draconian repression. In the aftermath of the January 25th pre-dawn raid on the home of Roger Stone, Trump political advisor and overall reptilian, an unlikely chorus raged about disproportionate force. Disgraced former governor and Trump’s luckless toady Chris Christie labeled the raid ‘overkill.’ Stone, despite his back tattoo of Nixon emerging without a scratch, was quick to shout ‘To storm my house with greater force than was used to take down bin Laden or El Chapo or Pablo Escobar, to terrorize my wife and my dogs is unconscionable.’ Bin Laden and Escobar were of course was shot in head.

Newt Gingrich, commenting on an earlier raid, that on the New York office of former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen in April 2018, the days before this same chorus tagged Cohen as a liar and a rat, righteously proclaimed ‘It ain’t the rule of law when they kick in your door at 3 o’clock in the morning and you’re faced with armed men. And you have no reason to be told you’re going to have that kind of treatment. That’s Stalin. That’s Gestapo in Germany. That shouldn’t be the American FBI.’ Former FBI man Rudy Giuliani, a man never shy on ‘law and order’, who back in 1992 stood in front of a drunken police riot against an independent Civilian Review Board and who later as mayor pettily unsealed Patrick Dorismond’s juvenile record, Dorismond was an unarmed security guard who was murdered by police, Giuliani gushed that Dorismond wasn’t ‘an altar-boy’ yet labeled the agents that hit Cohen’s office as ‘stormtroopers.’ World class blowhard Lindsay Graham called the Stone raid ‘inacceptable’ and questioned just how common such tactics are and whether usual procedures were followed.

As is seemingly always the case, the apparent principled outrage on the part of politicians mainly serves the purpose of proving the sheer depth of their reactionary brains. How likely is it that any of the above would reference the May 2014 SWAT team raid on a home in Georgia in the middle of the night that left a 19 year old baby critically injured after a stun grenade fired into the house landed in his playpen? The police had the wrong house and the family, though eventually receiving a settlement, was left with a $1 million medical bill. None of the officers, who that early morning were packing Colt submachine guns, light-mounted AR-15 rifles and Glock .40-caliber sidearm, along with a door-breaching shotgun, a battering ram, sledgehammers, Halligan bars for smashing windows, and a ballistic shield, would be charged.

Nor was there a conviction for Detroit police officer Joseph Weekly, part of the city police department’s Special Response Team, who shot and killed 7 year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones as she slept on a living room couch with her grandmother in May 2010. The police were apparently in pursuit of a murder suspect. Weekly had trouble seeing after another officer tossed a flash grenade into the house.

There are thousands of these ‘dynamic entry’ episodes a year. A New York Times investigation revealed that from 2010-2016 at least 81 civilian deaths resulted from these raids with scores more maimed or wounded. The Times found that the raids ‘led time and again to avoidable deaths, gruesome injuries, demolished property, enduring trauma, blackened reputations and multimillion-dollar legal settlements at taxpayer expense.’

This past July the city of Bloomington, Indiana put its first armored vehicle on public display. Mayor John Hamilton was quoted that day saying, as if to clear up any public anxiety, ‘We hoped it’s never used but it will be used in highly dangerous situations.’ Less than two weeks later the vehicle saw its first action during a home welfare check that ended with a man’s suicide.

Stephen Graham, in his important book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Humanism, shows boomerang effect of the War on Terror on policing in Western cities. Drones are now involved in crime patrol. Security Zones, based on efforts to build Green Zones in Baghdad, are prominent in big cities. Temporary Security Zones are set up around sports events and political conventions. Under 1033 Program, named for a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, allowing, according the to the Law Enforcement Support Office, ‘all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission’, over $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment has been transferred to police departments across the country.  During the Obama years, before limits were put in place, since rescinded by the Trump administration, police departments received tens of thousands of machine guns, thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment, along with hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft. SWAT teams were originally established to deal with hostage situations and heavily armed criminals. Yet the number of SWAT teams and their usage has skyrocketed since the 1980s, an epoch when crime has been consistently in decline. SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times a year, mainly for drug searches (well glamorized by the corny CBS show S.W.A.T.). In 2018 there were about 1000 fatal police shootings in America.

A few years ago when New York, with its crime rate falling to historical lows, needlessly hired 1000 more police officers then commissioner Bill Bratton caused a stir when he said a new counterterrorism unit would also be used to deal with protests. Bratton backed off before later saying that indeed the unit would receive bike and scooter training for lessons in crowd control. We saw the kind of confrontations this militarization could lead to in 2014 in Ferguson.

Meanwhile we wait in vain both for law enforcement’s newest allies and critics to stem the flow. One interesting place to begin would be the question of why Republicans and Democrats fight over who gives the military more funding if the military has all these weapons to freely transfer to police departments. The absurd logic of claiming to manufacture and possess weapons that are never meant to be used misses the obvious point that once possessed such weapons will inevitably be used. Equally inevitable is that poor and marginalized will bear the brunt of it, all with the full support of law enforcement’s latest critics.

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Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.

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