One of the most disturbing developments in the ever-changing relationship between government and citizens is the militarization of federal agencies that have no apparent need for such overt displays of force.
Regardless of how people feel about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management over his cattle’s grazing rights, a lot of Americans were surprised to see TV images of an armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary wing of the BLM deployed around Bundy’s ranch.
They shouldn’t have been. Dozens of federal agencies now have Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams to further an expanding definition of their missions. It’s not controversial that the Secret Service and the Bureau of Prisons have them. But what about the Department of Agriculture, the Railroad Retirement Board, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Office of Personnel Management, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? All of these have their own SWAT units and are part of a worrying trend towards the militarization of federal agencies — not to mention local police forces.
As readers know, Bundy, obviously not a glib, teleprompter-reading smoothie, found himself the object of public scorn when he engaged in a clumsy comment about the relationship between government and minorities. That Bundy is hardly media savvy, and may—I stress “may”– hold ideas some consider racist, the issue of the abuse of power by government is far more important and is not going away, thanks to the age of Obama with its exponential growth of government and disdain for individual liberty.
As Fund notes, why should agencies like the Department of Agriculture, the Railroad Retirement Board, the Office of Personnel Management and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have armed personal at all, let alone SWAT teams? This would seem absurd, and profoundly dangerous to citizens and liberty on its face.
SWAT teams fielded by genuine law enforcement agencies are often misused when they are employed to serve warrants that may be routinely handled by a detective and a few patrol officers, or when sent on missions that do not require the use of overwhelming, and sometimes uncontrolled, deadly force.
Remember that when a SWAT team is employed, the inherent danger for the members of the team and for citizens is dramatically increased. A single consideration will illustrate the danger. Police officers are taught to always protect their handguns. Because they are exposed, it’s always possible they can be taken and used against an officer. Therefore officers are given specific training to increase their awareness of this danger and to fend off attempts to take their handguns.
SWAT officers commonly carry handguns in drop holsters strapped to their thighs. This is not so because it looks “cool”—though many cops think exactly that—but because the wearing of heavy body armor and tactical vests with all of their equipment makes wearing a belt holster impractical. Unfortunately, this makes handguns harder to protect and more prone to snatching. Add a long arm of any kind and the situation is worse. Not only do long arms essentially occupy both of an officer’s hands, using them makes it harder to keep track of their handgun.
As a result, SWAT teams should not be employed unless they are entering a tactical situation where they will be applying overwhelming force, speed and violence of action such that no one will have more than a minimal chance of stopping them or snatching any of their weapons. Use them for common patrol officer duties and for this single reason, the danger to them and the public is substantially increased. Fund continues:
The proliferation of paramilitary federal SWAT teams inevitably brings abuses that have nothing to do with either drugs or terrorism. Many of the raids they conduct are against harmless, often innocent, Americans who typically are accused of non-violent civil or administrative violations.
Take the case of Kenneth Wright of Stockton, Calif., who was ‘visited’ by a SWAT team from the U.S. Department of Education in June 2011. Agents battered down the door of his home at 6 a.m., dragged him outside in his boxer shorts, and handcuffed him as they put his three children (ages 3, 7, and 11) in a police car for two hours while they searched his home. The raid was allegedly intended to uncover information on Wright’s estranged wife, Michelle, who hadn’t been living with him and was suspected of college financial-aid fraud.
The year before the raid on Wright, a SWAT team from the Food and Drug Administration raided the farm of Dan Allgyer of Lancaster, Pa. His crime was shipping unpasteurized milk across state lines to a cooperative of young women with children in Washington, D.C., called Grass Fed on the Hill. Raw milk can be sold in Pennsylvania, but it is illegal to transport it across state lines. The raid forced Allgyer to close down his business.
If these examples sound extreme, perhaps cherry-picked, be assured, they are hardly unusual. During my police service, to even suggest a SWAT team be used for such mundane duty would have caused my fellow officers to question my judgment and fitness to serve as a police officer. In the first case—and this would have required the services of an unarmed Department of Education functionary, not an armed police officer–I would have simply knocked on Wright’s door when I was sure he was home, told him I was running down some paperwork issues relating to his ex-wife, and proceeded from there. There would have be absolutely no need—no justification for—an application of armed force. In the second, a few state police officers—or a local sheriff’s deputy accompanying a federal functionary could easily have handled such a lactose-tolerant desperado. Fund again:
Many veteran law-enforcement figures have severe qualms about the turn police work is taking. One retired veteran of a large metropolitan police force told me: ‘I was recently down at police headquarters for a meeting. Coincidently, there was a promotion ceremony going on and the SWAT guys looked just like members of the Army, except for the police shoulder patches. Not an image I would cultivate. It leads to a bad mindset.
This is an important point. It is certainly reasonable for SWAT officers to wear military style, daily utility uniforms. Not only are they designed to be worn with the body armor, tactical gear and other accessories SWAT officers commonly have to use, they allow greater freedom of movement and are more comfortable than daily police uniforms. However, this too causes potential problems. Tactical gear makes it difficult for citizens to identify legitimate police officers. There is little room on their chests for identifying insignia—which may not be recognizable by most citizens anyway—and such small, frontal insignia is commonly covered by their arms or weapons. Shoulder patches are difficult to see from many angles, and large “Police” logos on officer’s backs are invisible unless one is behind that officer, which is highly unlikely when SWAT officers are coming through one’s front door by surprise.
SWAT officers, of course, know who they are, their purpose, and their insignia and what it means. This does not, however, mean that citizens, particularly when confronted, unexpectedly and at odd hours in their own homes by heavily armed men, often wearing balaclavas that cover their faces and mute their voices, screaming at them, will immediately recognize them as police officers and know what they are saying and what those officers want them to do.
Police officers screaming “police,” “get down” and similar commands while charging into a citizen’s home through their shattered door all too often fail to realize that stunned and unprepared citizens need time to understand what is happening and to respond in any meaningful way. Yet SWAT teams try to use the element of surprise, in effect, causing the kind of stunned hesitation and confusion that poorly trained teams use to justify shooting unarmed citizens in their own homes when those citizens don’t respond precisely as demanded as quickly as officers think they should respond during their hyped-up charges.
In effect, SWAT teams manufacture, through their presence and very tactics and procedures, the circumstances that allow them, under color of authority, to kill citizens, whose only crime is often trying to respond to an unimaginable attack on their home. This is particularly horrific when the police murder innocent people or people guilty of no more than violation of minor, non-violent crimes or even bureaucratic regulations. Of course, any citizen with the presence of mind to take up a firearm to protect themselves, their family and their home against armed intruders they often do not recognize as police officers could find themselves on the receiving end of a panicky and uncontrolled barrage of gunfire.
Police executives will often arrogantly proclaim “anyone that points a gun at cops is going to get killed.” Unfortunately, the courts often let them get away with that kind of mindless, blanket action. There is no question that there are circumstances so dangerous to the public and the police that SWAT teams and what are essentially military-style tactics and rules of engagement are justifiable, but those circumstances are rare indeed and should be easily articulable before and after the action. Contrast this with SWAT teams violently attacking citizens in their homes acting only on the possibility that any citizen might be armed and might be moved to use firearms to defend themselves and those they love. Any citizen manufacturing a situation that will give the appearance of legal justification to kill another will surely be charged with premeditated murder. How is a SWAT team doing the same thing any different in intention or outcome? Kenneth Wright and Dan Allgyer are lucky to be alive.
SWAT teams should be employed only in very narrowly construed circumstances where military tactics, equipment and rules of engagement are highly likely to be necessary and fully lawful. They should be employed only after obtaining fully competent and carefully reviewed warrants. And the officers should be highly trained and competent to a degree that renders the accidental shooting of citizens doing nothing more than trying to protect themselves against an unknown threat unlikely rather than a certainty. Assaults on ranchers over grazing fee disputes, women whose student loan payments aren’t current (particularly when they don’t actually live at the place being attacked), and dairy farmers do not qualify.
Fund has several suggestions
There are things that can be done to curb the abuses without taking on the politically impossible job of disbanding SWAT units. The feds should stop shipping military vehicles to local police forces. Federal SWAT teams shouldn’t be used to enforce regulations, but should focus instead on potentially violent criminals. Cameras mounted on the dashboards of police cars have both brought police abuses to light and exonerated officers who were falsely accused of abuse. SWAT-team members could be similarly equipped with helmet cameras.
After all, if taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill and cede ground on their Fourth Amendment rights, they have the right to a transparent, accountable record of just what is being done in their name.
I suppose one can argue that cheaply selling surplus MRAPs to local law enforcement agencies can contribute to an overly-military mindset, but it’s more an appearance vs. substance issue. Police agencies aren’t rolling in cash. If they can get useful vehicles cheaply, they’ll jump at the chance. There are issues of far greater import, and Fund hits on one: federal SWAT teams should be used only to enforce the most serious violations of law, and only under the circumstance’s I’ve outlined. The arrests of the majority of felons may be safely carried out by only a few federal agents, and rightfully so. When the Department of Education doesn’t have a SWAT team, it will be far less likely to improperly employ that kind of force because actual law enforcement agencies will be forced to make the final deployment decision. I am assuming, of course, that federal agents are sufficiently competent to realize that a SWAT team is not necessary—and entirely the wrong means—of collecting student loans in arrears, rounding up cattle or dealing with the sale of milk the Feds don’t like.
Fund’s camera idea—which is surely not unique to him—does have merit, with one caveat. The technology surely exists to do this, and there is no good argument against it, with the exceptions of some counter terror or organized crime situations where it may be necessary to keep identities secret. For all other actions, what better evidence that a team did everything by the book and that deadly force was actually necessary and not recklessly applied?
The caveat is tactical. Any real time video system will carry with it the essentially irresistible temptation by bureaucrats and chairborn commando/leaders to micromanage actual assaults. Imagine a police chief yelling confusing orders in officer’s ears during an assault. Worse yet, imagine a lawyer doing the same. Such interference would actually put everyone involved in greater danger. The solution isn’t the elimination of video, but video without real time micromanagement.
Deciding when to properly use a SWAT team shouldn’t be hard for any professional possessed of average common sense. Unfortunately, when even small towns have SWAT teams, the temptation to use them inappropriately will always be powerful. It is not politically impossible to refuse to establish, or to decommission unnecessary SWAT teams, but it does require integrity and intelligence on the part of elected officials to whom police agencies answer.
On the other hand, maybe it is impossible.