Sadie’s Tank: A look back at How our police became militarized

I wrote this article for the Iguana back in 2012 and have been thinking lately that it can provide some background on the militarization of US police. It starts with an interview of the commander of the Alachua County SWAT team.

The Bearcat, one of the Alachua County Sherriff Office’s armored vehicles, is an impressive piece of hardware. Sergeant Terry Crews, SWAT team commander for Alachua County, explained Bearcat armor will stop rounds from an assault rifle that would penetrate all the way through a regular vehicle 90% of the time.  The Bearcat is also equipped with night vision capabilities, a ram for breaking down doors and room for about a dozen members of the County Swat team who use this vehicle regularly.  The Bearcat and its new tracked armored companion the Rook reside in Alachua County but are on call to assist in a 13-county threat response region from Marion Country to the South to Duval County to the North.  The response regions were set up by Homeland Security after 9/11 and with them came federal grants for armored vehicles like the Bearcat which cost $254,332.  The Rook is a more recent purchase using 150,000 dollars in Drug confiscation funds that Sherriff Sadie Darnell recently authorized after a trial period in which the rook, built by Ring Power, which is part of Caterpillar Corporation, was used in a raid in a neighboring county.  The Rook is a tracked vehicle with hydraulic attachments which can be used to remove vehicles from a scene to prevent suspects from fleeing, has a bullet proof shield for approaching a siege scene safely and has the capability to literally remove the walls of a frame house where a suspect has barricaded himself.  This last tactic was employed recently and led to the purchase of the vehicle.  The suspect in this case committed suicide.  Sergeant Crews says that his team uses the Bearcat several times a month on average and expects to use the Rook less often.  The Bearcat is deployed for hostage situations, to remove suspects who have barricaded themselves inside a structure and accompanies officers delivering drug warrants.  The vehicle responds to any request by other departments for the SWAT Team and would be held in the rear on call in any large protest situation.

Around the Country local police are acquiring military inspired hardware like the Bearcat largely with the help of the Federal Government.  This trend started with the War on Drugs in the 1980s and has continued this decade in response to the War on Terrorism.  The Department of Homeland Security has handed out 34 billion dollars in grants for equipment since 9/11 and Police commanders like Sergeant Crews take them gladly because they see the immediate benefit of keeping their men safer in dangerous situations.  However, the public sometimes sees another side to this story.   There were questions when the tiny town of Jasper Florida, just north of Gainesville on I-75, got a federal grant for a Bearcat.  Citizens of that town, where there has not been a murder in over a decade, asked what use such a small community would make of an armored vehicle.  More recently in Keen New Hampshire the impending purchase of a quarter million dollar plus Bearcat for a peaceful town of 23,000 from another Homeland Security grant fueled a firestorm of criticism.  Roberta Mastrogiovanni, owner of a newsstand downtown. was quoted in the local paper: “It promotes violence,” Mastrogiovanni said. “We should promote more human interaction rather than militarize. I refuse to use money for something this unnecessary when so many people in our community are in need.”  A group called the Free Staters who moved to Keen recently pointed out that the video game-like clip set to the music of AC/DC advertising the vehicle on the website of manufacturer Lenco Industries stresses violence rather than negotiation in a crisis situation.  Companies like Lenco, who may also sell military hardware, are seeking to profit from the flow of federal money into local police departments. 

  So the issue of how military grade hardware and equipment already in the hands of police across the country will be used is really the question of “who do the police work for and how will they use this equipment?”.   If you are part of the middle class white power structure you may see the police as working to protect you, while Americans who do not clearly belong to that power structure often have other experiences, as can anyone when they step outside it as protestors.  Sergeant Crews describes the training for his SWAT team members who are drawn from the regular police force.  They receive two days a month in house training plus a week once a year at Fort Blanding in a mock city set up for practicing different siege scenarios.  The training includes role playing and simulations plus training on the psychology of SWAT deployment.  When SWAT teams began in Los Angeles 30 years ago the only training available was from military special forces like the SEALS .  A military unit’s mission is “to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.” Local Police are expected “to protect and serve”.  Sergeant Crew’s SWAT Team has a mission to “preserve human life” and it follows the rules of engagement of the regular police force.  But with tactical training from the military continuing and the increase in military equipment in use in every day policing the mission and attitudes towards that mission of our local police become literally life and death for its citizens.  The CATO institute has a Google map showing “Botched Paramilitary Raids” in the US.  Florida has its raids mostly clustered around the larger cities with none recorded for Gainesville.  Each of the hundreds of incidents shown on the map is a tragedy for a citizen and or a police officer and for their families.  In cities like New York where Mayor Bloomberg has boasted that the police force is his “private army” airports and city streets are commonly patrolled by police officers in battle gear armed with automatic weapons.  When Arthur Riser, a reporter for the Atlantic and Iraq combat veteran, returned from Iraq he met a police officer standing in the Minneapolis Airport armed with a M4 carbine assault rifle, the same weapon he had carried in Fallujah.   These weapons, bought at great cost in a time of great need for funding for education and social services, are a symptom of a larger disease that infests our culture where the people are divided and distrustful and the answer to problems are posed in terms of threats and violence rather than seeking more creative and peaceful solutions.  They are an outward sign of our priorities and of our view of the world.  Ironically, movements like Occupy whose dream is to build more peaceful communities across the country have become victims of these weapons and the military mindset that they can bring with them.  Witness the violence in Oakland and New York recently against Occupy and remember President Eisenhower’s warning to “Beware the military industrial complex” as our tactics of Empire come home along with the weapons used across the world to maintain that empire.