25 July 2013, 13:32

Militarization of SWAT: to have elite team that responds to violent situations as quickly as possible

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Senior writer for the Huffington Post Radley Balko joins Jamila Bey and co-host Ed Brayton to discuss his book on the state of policing in America. Balko says he’s hoping to spark a larger conversation and some questions about policy that’s put SWAT teams in more and more police jurisdictions around the country, this despite proof that they overreach in their scope and, frankly, do not tend to deter or prevent crime.

We've heard so much of these things that the book touches on in terms of the right of security. What is the role of law enforcement in terms of maintaining order in a community? How do you fairly enforce those things? Who gets searched? When we look at the rise of SWAT teams which really is the linchpin in that “before and after”, when law enforcement looked at itself as the servers and the protectors and those who maintain peace. The militarization really happened around the SWAT team. Let's talk a little bit about how those even came to be?

In the mid to late 1960s, there was a lot of civil turmoil in the country. There were riots, there were protests that often turned violent. These were the seeds of the SWAT team and they were sown in Watts riots in 1965. Daryl Gates at that time was an inspector at LAPD and he was basically in charge of the department's response to the Watts riots. Gates was in the thick of it and the Watts riots were actually unlike any previous riots we've had in this country. They spread throughout the city, rioters were specifically shooting at firemen and policemen. And for Gates, this was like an urban warfare basically and he was worried that the LAPD didn't have an adequate way to respond to these kinds of emergency situations, and at the time it was all that certain that this was going to continue happening for a while. So he got this idea of responding to an urban warfare situation more militaristically and put together this elite police team where you'd have officers who receive specialized training - one would be in anti-sniper strategies, one would be in crowd control. The idea was to have this elite team that could respond to these violent situations as quickly as possible.

We've now seen SWAT teams being developed in towns of 30,000 people. They don't have a murder or even a serious robbery for sometimes a decade. Do you object to the whole concept of this or they should be used in circumstances, where their use is justified?

Yeah, it's the latter. I think the appropriate use for a SWAT team is when the government is using violence to defuse an already violent situation where your life eminently is at risk. A problem, as I get to it later in the book, is that the overwhelming majority of SWAT raids today are against people suspected of non-violent drug crimes. So you're not using violence to defuse an already violent situation, you're actually creating violent confrontation where there was none before. And that's really the problem.

There is a story of Betty Taylor who was from Lincoln County, Missouri. She was the only female member of a SWAT team there. I’ll read you an extract from the book:

"The SWAT team would often avoid raiding a house if they knew there were children inside, but Taylor was troubled by how little effort they put into seeking out that sort of information.

That afternoon the police had bought drugs from the stepfather of two children, ages 8 and 6. Both were in the house at the time of the raid. The stepfather wasn’t.

"They did their thing," Taylor says. "Everybody on the floor, guns and yelling. Then they put the two kids in the bedroom, did their search, then sent me in to take care of the kids."

Taylor made her way inside to see them. When she opened the door, the 8-year-old girl assumed a defense posture, putting herself between Taylor and her little brother. She looked at Taylor and said, half fearful, half angry, "What are you going to do to us?"

Taylor was shattered. "Here I come in with all my SWAT gear on, dressed in armor from head to toe, and this little girl looks up at me, and her only thought is to defend her little brother. I thought, ‘How can we be the good guys when we come into the house looking like this, screaming and pointing guns at the people they love? How can we be the good guys when a little girl looks up at me and wants to fight me? And for what? What were we accomplishing with all of this? Absolutely nothing.’"

"I think there are a few reasons for optimism and a few reform also that we can institute. One is that we need to cut out these federal anti-drug grant programs. It's absurd that the federal government is giving police departments' money not for arresting murders or rapists, but for arresting drug offenders. And that skews the priorities of police department and makes them lose too many resources on these consensual crimes. In terms of optimism and reasons for optimism, I think, part of it is just awareness. In the book I talk about a raid in Columbia, Missouri that was recorded and posted online and went viral. It was a very standard raid. It was extraordinary violent and very difficult to watch. They shot and killed a dog, they're wrecking the place."

They meant to kill the other dog and they killed the wrong one.

"No, no, they killed the one they intended and accidentally shot and wounded the other one. There was an 8-year-old kid in the house who very easily could have been hit. But it was a very standard raid. And it went viral and people went crazy. The police department had to shut down their e-mail and phone lines, they were getting death threats. And it was almost as if the internet generation had for the first time seen how the drug war is actually fought on the ground."

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