Militarized Police, Overreaction and Overkill: Have You Noticed It In Your Town Yet?
SOTT Special Correspondent
From Signs of the Times
|SWAT team descends on man with a nervous disposition. Wouldn't that make you nervous? Don't show it or you'll be next.|
"I can't get home," a co-worker emailed me from the office, "The police have blocked all the streets downtown. And I can't get my kids because all the schools are locked down."
What?! I turned on the TV to see, on all local stations, live, uninterrupted news coverage of bizarre scenes from the quiet suburb nearby. Police were swarming around a downtown location, their cars barricading the streets, State Police SWAT teams deployed, their sharpshooters perched on rooftops. The TV voiceover repeated again and again that all schools in town were locked down.
Two hours earlier, the town had experienced its first murder in two decades when a mentally disturbed contractor beat his 78-year-old employer to death. But police caught the perpetrator who had fled on foot and didn't get very far.
So what was a SWAT team doing downtown? Well, in an entirely unrelated incident, an employee of a pizza parlor called police because he was afraid of a customer who was acting "jittery" and "very agitated" and thought he "may be armed."
The massive police response was inexplicable. It was termed a "standoff" that went on for half an hour before police entered the restaurant, guns trained on the suspect who, unaware that he was even the object of their attention, dove under a table. Traumatized, he was walked outside, backwards, and made to kneel on the sidewalk, hands in the air, a policeman's gun pointed at his head. He was not armed. But, he was arrested anyway and charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace. The school lockdowns were lifted shortly thereafter.
The man was, in fact, the executive director of Geneva-based U.N. Watch, Hillel Neuer, who was visiting Boston to deliver a speech. Fortunately, charges against him were dismissed by the local Clerk Magistrate, who found no probable cause even to have arrested the man. Thus, the charges sound like a weak attempt by police to save face.
No probable cause and yet a SWAT team was called in.
Just who was it that was "jittery?"
This incident was both appalling and baffling. Nearby Boston suffers multiple murders per week, yet very little is heard about police response reaching truly massive overkill like the case in Needham, even if the the murderer and jittery Hillel Neuer were confused. Is it because the Boston murder victims are overwhelmingly non-white and killed in poor neighborhoods? Needham is 94% white, after all, and the average house costs $717,000.
Or was there more to this?
The police overreaction spawned the intense TV and radio coverage, ultimately sending a fearful message of what to expect if you so much as dare to be jittery in a restaurant.
Was this is a message that suburbia was intended to hear?
Why was a dangerous SWAT team deployed to manage an "agitated" restaurant customer who "might be armed"?
Such a vague, subjective allegation. What happened to orderly police investigation of such matters?
Well, America itself has certainly been driven to jitters since 9/11 by the constant scare tactics of the government and media. Osama is under your bed and anyone could be a terrorist, and all that. SOTT readers are aware of the informant networks the government is building and the encouragement of everyone from firefighters to highway truckers to be on the lookout for "suspicious activity."
So I had a glimpse of the insanity in that town nearby, but it wasn't the first time.
One sunny-day lunch break a few years ago I walked up to the empty top floor of the parking garage for a view of the city. I wasn't there five minutes before private security men drove up and asked for identification. They had been called by a maintenance worker who saw me from his own roof across the street.
Recently I was browsing some of my employer's workplace policies and found that the sight of a car merely driving into the parking garage and passing empty spaces is considered grounds to call security. So is seeing someone unrecognized walking in the garage – in a building complex with over a thousand automobile commuters!
This craziness isn't imaginary or localized. Bruce Schneir wrote in his blog on security matters:
We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats. 
It seems that Americans have been programmed to jump at the sight of their own shadows and are now grossly overreacting to just about anything out of the ordinary. And unfortunately, that effect is especially notable in our local police forces, with frightening consequences.
Headline-making incidents of deadly police overreaction against unarmed people like Amadou Diallo (41 shots), Sean Bell (50 shots), and Kheil Coppin (20 shots) make a striking point. All of these just in New York City, and they describe nervous overkill in proportions that would be comic if not so horrific.
It might even be considered that shooting to death unarmed teenagers is overreaction in almost any case, such as occurred recently in Hartford, Pittsburgh, Gary, Santa Rosa, Wharton, Los Angeles, Wilmington, and many more.
It's not just lethal force that is out of control, either. SOTT readers are familiar with the rapidly escalating rate of taser abuse by police officers, resulting in some 300 deaths in the USA and Canada in just the past three years. Without any sign of pullback in the phenomenon, the next-generation, wireless taser is nearly ready for release. It will deliver a shock that lasts four times longer than current tasers, and from up to 90 feet away!
Coming to light are more and more cases of police tasering, beating, or shooting people who were already restrained, in defensive postures, or already cooperating with police instructions. And they're not all victims of suspected racism like Rodney King. Consider the Chino CA officer who shot an Airforce MP (who was a passenger in a car stopped for speeding) four times at close range while he was trying to get up off the ground.
Some concerned citizens have taken to logging reported incidents of police brutality. One web site lists 400 recent cases of killing and other brutatlity against non-whites.
There is no question that police have a dangerous and sometimes scary job, and that many do highly commendable work. But, there is something driving an attitudinal shift among police, en masse, that is prompting zealous overreaction even to minor disturbances. It goes way deeper than just the cases that result in massive injury or death, and it is distressing when brought to light.
Consider the two people who sprinkled flour in a parking lot to mark a trail for their running club. They were charged with a felony for creating a "bioterrorism" scare.
In Fort Worth, TX, a patrolling policeman saw a young man smoking a cigarette outside the home of his parents. The policeman, suspicious that the man was underage, spoke out to him, but he was by then going back into the house and didn't realize the officer was speaking to him. This perceived failure to follow police instructions led, in the absence of any crime, to seven carloads of police descending on the home , the arrest of two people, and parents in tears. 
It appears that police from coast to coast are being heavily drilled to demand the public to "follow orders." Failure to follow orders is usually given as the justification for the use of tasers, clubs, or other force, even if the person of interest presents no threat or is already restrained.
A case in point is the 19-year-old woman arrested recently at Boston Logan Airport for carrying a work of art made of Play-Doh and a computer circuit board. Although there was no threat and no threatening action, the police responded in a decidedly hostile tone.
"She's extremely lucky she followed the instructions or deadly force would have been used ,'' State Police Mr. Scott Pare told The Associated Press. ''And she's lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue.'' 
In Atlanta, Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a famous historian and author, crossed the street. A young man approached and told him he was jaywalking. The professor, seeing no uniform, asked for identification. The officer took offense and "kicked the professor's legs out from under him, smashed him to the pavement with the help of four other officers, crushed his neck, bloodied his head, yanked the slight 56-year-old man's arms behind him, handcuffed him and sent him to jail in a fetid paddywagon... and was given no chance to explain himself." 
On his Monday, November 5, 2007 radio program, Michael Herzog was speaking with Doug Owen of BlacklistedNews, recounting an incident he witnessed near his home in Phoenix, AZ:
Herzog: I guess there was a couple of teenagers or guys in their early twenties. I don't know what they'd done – they'd got in a fight or maybe shoplifted from the local store down the street – I don't know what they did, but, you know, twenty years ago if the police were chasing a couple guys, you might see 2, 3, 4, 5 cop cars, maybe 5, 6, 7 cops. Do you know there were thirteen cop cars out here and about 25 cops that were subduing two teenage boys or maybe early twenties?
Doug: Sounds like a bit of an overreaction .
Herzog: Talk about overkill, Doug. I've never seen anything like it.
Herzog went on to describe his own experience of retrieving an impounded car at his local police station:
"...the attitude that these people have! ... They talk down to you like you're some sort of an insect... As I look around here and I'm starting to see what's going on... I can't count how many times I've seen somebody pulled over and within five minutes there's three cop cars and six cops for a routine traffic stop. It's unbelievable.
Doug Owen: Yeah, we had a guy here a couple of months ago. He had stolen a car and he was on ... (Route) 620... They had a lockdown of fifteen school campuses ... sixteen miles from there. As I was driving home, the first thing I saw was two helicopters in the air, and I'm like, wow, this guy has stolen a Geo Metro – the thing's probably worth, at most, 4 or 5000 dollars, and there was, literally, probably twelve unmarked cars, there were at least nine black and whites that I could see, not to mention two helicopters for a car theft....
So, what is driving increasingly tense and hostile overreactions by police? Is it merely the climate of fear that the government and media have deliberately cultivated in America, leading to more pressure on police officers? Is there pressure because police see the polarization of Americans, and fear the first whiff of chaos? Or, is a new attitude being instilled in them across the board, from the top?
You see, another disturbing trend is the deployment of police, en masse, by mayors and police chiefs against public gatherings.
Rudy Giuliani, known as an authoritarian personality with a prosecutor's mentality, reportedly encouraged police overkill while mayor of New York City. Community Service Society of New York reported:
A recent example of Giuliani's overkill is his response to an AIDS demonstration a few weeks ago. First, it took a federal court order before the city would grant a permit for several hundred demonstrators to march. Then the marchers were not allow to congregate on City Hall steps. Instead, the police forced them into spaces between concrete barricades, videotaped the proceedings, and positioned snipers armed with rifles on the roof of City Hall looking down on them. This is the sort of reaction we would expect of a third world dictator. 
The St. Petersburg Times, reporting on an anti-globalization rally in Miami, described a scene that is becoming increasingly common in the USA when people gather to protest corporate agendas.
Eyewitness accounts ... suggest that free-speech rights were routinely trampled. Thousands of police in riot gear were dispatched to contain about 8,000 protesters. Officers allegedly responded with excessive force to mild provocations. Witnesses said rubber bullets and pepper spray pellets were indiscriminately shot into an otherwise peaceable crowd when one person threw an object at police. As a consequence, dissent was shut down, protesters were injured and harassed, and baseless arrests were made. 
Documentation abounds that suggests police are prepared by their leaders to expect trouble at such public events and encouraged to be perhaps excessively firm. For example, it was reported that Boston police underwent special training in "large-scale civil disobedience" in preparation for a planned rally against the dangers presented by the biotechnological experimentation. This was despite the fact that organizers of the event approached police beforehand to emphasize the peaceful intention of their gathering.
Try googling 'police overreaction' for yourself. Hundreds of cases of individual and group police actions will present themselves.
Regular readers of SOTT are familiar with articles describing the ongoing development of new, "non-lethal" weapons (sound, microwaves, etc.), the potential for their abuse, and the suspicion that they are ultimately to be used against the demonstrating American public. This despite the usual claim that such weapons are only for "military domain".
Well, that leads us to perhaps the most telling trend of all -- the militarization of police forces and the blurring of the line between police officers and soldiers. Documentation of this alarming development is growing, as is public notice.
John W. Whitehead, writing for the Christian Post, penned, "Once upon a time, the motto emblazoned on police cars was 'To Protect and Serve.' However, as police forces are transformed into pseudo-SWAT teams, complete with riot gear and a take-no-prisoners attitude, the fear that cops are overstepping their limits is on the rise." 
This trend, more than any other, appears to be at the root of the cultural/mental shift of police officers across the country, and powerful psychological forces are behind it.
Incidents of massive police overkill caught the attention of policy-research analyst Radley Balko, too, which led to a year of research culminating in a detailed, copiously footnoted white paper entitled Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.
Balko's paper is highly recommended reading, illuminating not just the rise of paramilitary police in America, but the drivers of the trend and the dangers that it presents to Americans. It helps explain that crazy scene I saw on local TV.
The SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team is said to have been invented in Los Angeles in 1966. In 1972, there were 300 SWAT raids per year in America. In 2001, there were 40,000. That's over 100 every day!
Balko says these are "no-knock" or "quick-knock" raids typically conducted on homes "usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers," and that they exemplify troubling, inherent characteristics, such as:
* The militarization of domestic policing, not just in big cities, but in small towns, suburbs, and exurbs like Sunrise.
* The increasingly frequent use of heavily armed SWAT teams for proactive policing and the routine execution of drug warrants, even for simple marijuana possession.
* The use of anonymous tips and reliance on dubious informants to obtain no-knock search warrants in the first place.
* Executing warrants with "dynamic entry" diversionary grenades, and similarly militaristic "tactics once reserved for urban warfare."
* A tragic outcome resulting from these circumstances. 
The raids usually target drug offenders, even including those suspected of misdemeanors. And the "tragic circumstances" include terrorizing the residents at wrong addresses, and unnecessary deaths and injuries of offenders, policemen, innocent suspects, and bystanders of all ages.
Balko shows that the upswing in the use of SWAT teams has been going on since they were invented, but was really stepped up in the 1980s thanks to Reagan's escalation of the so-called "war on drugs," and classification of it as a "national security" issue.
Over the course of a decade, "get tough on drugs" policies swept the country, weakening Posse Comitatus and adding a military component to state and local police forces. Within the scope of these changes, the Pentagon started giving away free or discounted military hardware to police forces across America. Needing something to do with all these goodies, SWAT teams formed by the thousands , received military-style training, and the frequency of their use skyrocketed. This was noted by the media from the New York Times to The National Journal to 60 Minutes. Now, SWAT teams are even used for routine, full-time patrolling in high-crime areas of some cities .
Balko argues that SWAT proliferation continues to introduce non-paramilitary police to the military culture and mindset, considered cool and glamorous by many police. It has an allure powered by the American reverence of the military, encouraged by the government and media.
There are even SWAT magazines, which refuse subscriptions to civilians. These periodicals feature articles with titles like Polite, Professional, and Prepared to Kill alongside "cool" photos of men in full military gear and enticing advertisements from high-powered weapons manufacturers, blurring the line between police and military activity.
Compounding the encouragement of military culture are our most powerful corporations, those of the military-industrial-congressional complex, who love the successful opening up of this new market for their tools of death and destruction.
Popular Mechanics magazine, in an article on police militarization, stated, "Soldiers and police are supposed to be different... But nowadays, police are looking, and acting, more like soldiers than cops, with bad consequences." PM reinforced the idea that cool toys are hard to resist, stating, "Once you've got a cool tool, you kind of want to use it."
And those tools are seriously deadly. Balko states that in 1997 alone, the Pentagon handed over more than 1.2 million pieces of military equipment to local police departments. We're talking about machine guns, grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers, airplanes, helicopters, etc. Police chiefs have admitted being offered tanks, bazookas, virtually anything, and some have accepted them.
The white paper brings to light a pattern of police SWAT teams taking advantage of legal loopholes and even ignoring the law. Over half the document details cases that have gone wrong, resulting in the deaths of innocents.
Readers of the PM article, several of them conscientious police officers, agree with the deadly seriousness of the situation:
"A big part of the problem are federal gov't programs such as LEAA which train and propagandize local, county and state police. Police have become more like a buffer between the public and gov't elite always tilting in favor of the elite. The average cop on the beat today has the attitude that everyone is guilty of something ...they just haven't caught us yet."
"I was scared by what I read, and as a 3rd year law student whose interned locally I've seen just how corrupt and deceitful law enforcement has become ..."
"I've been a police officer for nearly 30 years and have watched my profession become militarized beyond any rational justification. Young cops all want to blouse their combat boots and wear BDUs and kevlar helmets. They should be forced to spend 4 years in the military before becoming police officers. Let them get their impulses for military glory out of their system BEFORE becoming police officers."
"I'm a former cop and SWAT team member... I know first hand what it's like to shoot a man and watch him die. I have been shot at, stabbed and even had explosive devises used against me. ... Our unit had access to explosives, the type I was trained to use in the military. I feel these are necessary tools for what could happen nowadays in the real world, but I know they are over-used. Along with no-knock warrants and 'them against us' attitudes of officers'... The high-handed tactics of law enforcement and prosecutors puts a lot of innocent citizens at risk. It is fast becoming a police state here in the USA .
"Constitutional rights are being taken away, mostly under the color of fighting terrorism. Police in many departments have become the terrorist or gangs. They are human. They will lie and deceive like anyone else. ...
"For all the complacent individuals who think it not their problem, I tell you just live long enough and you'll wish something had been done to stop what's going on. ....
"The law enforcement agencies for a long time haven't followed the rule of 'innocent until proven guilty'. And some lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels support this type of behavior. ...
"Folks, when most officers I know get new tools, they want to use them. This could have fatal consequences, and lives of the public are at risk. ...
Yes, soldiers and police officers are supposed to be different. Police were never intended to be trained killers. Kathleen F. Phalen, writing on the militarization of police, quoted U.S. Air Force Col. Charles Dunlap, "In its most basic iteration, soldiers are trained in killing." How is one trained to overcome the natural aversion to killing? Phalen's article states:
Brutalization, desensitization and operant conditioning, or doing a task repeatedly, often thousands of times. Frank Morales, a New York minister and Covert Action Quarterly writer, likens it to mind control. "When training for paramilitary units is done by special forces people, there has to be a transference of these values," he says. "Once they've got the mindset, they see it as a war, couple that with fear, and quick reflex training, they'll shoot before they even realize it." 
Morales cites the influence of FATS (Fire Arms Training System), a life-sized interactive video simulation system used to train police -- and the FATS CEO, who was a Technical director at the CIA.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, former Army Ranger and paratrooper and author of On Killing who teaches psychology at Arkansas University, believes FATS makes it so real that, once on the streets, cops shoot as a conditioned response, many not realizing it wasn't simulation until they see the stain on the sidewalk. 
Where is this training, this killer's mindset, coming from? Continued discussion on Michael Herzog's radio show went like this:
Herzog: This administration has tripled the size of the BATF. Years ago they talked about putting 100,000 additional police officers on the street. But this is literally turning into a police state, everywhere you look, it's everywhere you go. And ... they're not Officer McFriendly anymore . What they're doing is they're looking for any reason they can find to arrest you and to get you into their system. They're no longer peace officers, they're law enforcement officers.
Doug Owen: You can usually beat the rap, but you can't beat the ride, and I think that's the mentality of a lot of them. You know, they'll just pull you over, find any kind of misdemeanor or any reason to pull you in, get you in the system, get you booked. They might release you and drop charges later, but they've still kind of bagged and tagged you, and you're in the system – and that's the mentality of a lot of the police forces. And it's no surprise.
I mean, you look at companies like Triple Canopy... they are another military-industrial complex contractor and they specialize in training police forces, and they also train military special forces as well, so your Barney Fife here in Round Rock, Texas is getting the same training, with the same mentality as, you know, Green Berets... ... in some 5000-person small town, you don't need military-grade cops on the street trying to quell the public. I mean, it's such a huge merger between the military and the police force...
Herzog: Well, this is why George Bush enacted the presidential order to get rid of Posse Comitatus ... During this implication I went through last week with the Phoenix Police Department, when you go in there, they want all of your documentation up front, and before you ever walk in the front door they've done a warrant check on you 'coz they want to find a reason to arrest you... 
Triple Canopy, based in Herndon (home of the CIA), Virginia, is another security/mercenary corporation, like Blackwater, with personnel in Iraq and enjoying a growing business. On their web site they advertise tactical training for "law enforcement, military, and corporate organizations ." They also offer "crisis management " and a host of other security-related services.
They claim "quality and integrity," though the Wikipedia entry on the company notes they allegedly fired employees who blew the whistle on co-workers engaged in alleged cold-blood killings of Iraqi civilians. They are also reported to operate training facilities for Latin American mercenaries in Honduras. 
The connections, business and cultural, among the military, mercenaries, poiticians, arms makers, and local police forces are now obvious. Government, the media, and even the American people have roles in encouraging the growing militarization of police. And it is not confined to the USA. It is, in fact, quite remarkable to find that similar laws and policies seem to hit all the industrialized nations at the same time these days, as if directed to act in concert by an even greater power.
America has sunk to a new ethical low by condoning the policies of lawless, pre-emptive war, to be waged at the whims of its conscience-free leaders, and which curtails freedoms at home. And there is no end in sight as Americans prepare to support new candidates for president who have committed to continuing the same brutal, bullying foreign policies of the current administration, and policies of restricting freedoms of their constituents. Through it all, the military culture spreads where it does not belong, to our local police, further endangering the public.
Have you noticed it in your town yet?
The process described in this article is part of what is known as the Hysteroidal Cycle, the cycle from good times to bad times and back again. The bad times, which the US is certainly in the throes of today, results in increasing hysteria throughout society. Incidents of the use of excess force by the police are on the rise.
The negative consequences are mounting and the danger is spreading faster than awareness of it is growing. Even brave members of the police community who recognize the threat are speaking out against the trend of rising violence and lawlessness by police. It's not necessarily the fault of individual officers, but of a corrupt system encouraged by self-serving leaders and ultimately condoned by citizens. Is this what you want? If not, speak out. Do something to change it before the door or your house comes crashing down or one of your loved ones accidentally steps out of line, fails to follow orders, or catches a stray bullet. But, at the very least, be aware of what's happening.