Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The War Zone at Home

By Amanda Petteruti

States are changing sentencing laws, reducing the number of people in prison, and decriminalizing marijuana. All of this while crime has fallen to the lowest levels it has been in decades. And, yet, at the risk of undermining the reforms and the cost-savings of reducing the number of people in prison, we continue to invest in police. And not just any police, armored and battle-ready police. As a nation, our overall spending on police protection has grown 445 percent since 1982, with the federal government experiencing the most growth in spending. 

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
The militarization of police in Ferguson, Missouri has been on full display since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed on August 9, but it isn’t the only police department that looks an awful lot like an infantry. In 2005, 80 percent of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a “Special Weapons And Tactics,” or “SWAT” team. Since one of the early SWAT teams was formed in Los Angeles in response to the Watts riots in 1966, federal funding streams, like the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, and programs, like the National Defense Authorization Act, have funneled money and weapons to local police departments. The intention was to bring some real firepower to the war on drugs – a battle that is now widely understood to be ineffective and costly.

Since JPI released its report, Rethinking the Blues, in 2012, the ACLU conducted a more in-depth analysis on militarized policing with public records requests to 260 law enforcement agencies in 25 states. They found that 79 percent of SWAT deployments were to execute search warrants, not to address emergency situations. Police forces are using a sledgehammer to drive a nail and it is not without consequences. In his blog for the Washington Post, Radley Balko documents the frequent and devastating effects that mistaken raids and the excessive use of force have on families, from mistaken arrests and property damage, to the death or injury of children, family members, and pets.

People of color are also disproportionately affected by the continued investment in police, especially related to drug offenses. Even though Blacks and whites report using drugs at similar rates, Blacks are arrested at three times the rate of whites. In addition, the ACLU reports that 42 percent of people impacted by SWAT deployment to execute a warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino.

There’s also no evidence that this approach is doing anything to public safety, and, in fact, may be making communities less safe. A safe neighborhood is the result of trust between neighbors, and this includes police. As in Ferguson, when police show up to a daytime demonstration with Kevlar vests, riot gear, vehicles designed to withstand a blast from a mine, and then launch tear gas into groups of demonstrators and journalist, it’s not likely that the police will be viewed as partners in community safety. Perhaps, treating a community like a war zone, makes the community act like a war zone.

Members of the U.S. Congress and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder are deeply concerned about the use of military tactics by police forces around the country. The result will hopefully be relatively swift policy changes that will limit or end local police access to military style weapons. At the same time, however, with crime at the lowest levels it’s been in decades, we should consider whether what we need is not just less investment in a militarized police force, but, rather more resources toward building communities over policing communities.

Amanda is JPI's Senior Research Associate.

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