Bad Police Work

“Once a town gets a SWAT Team, you want to use it.” Radley Balko — who writes on criminal justice, the drug war, and civil liberties for The Washington Post — was speaking to Slate about his recent book “The Rise of the Warrior Cop: the Militarization of America’s Police Forces.” And what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, this month was a police response that succeeded in escalating a bad situation into a nightmare. This is bad police work.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — of which I am a member — has long been discussing this increased militarization of local police departments as one of the many evils resulting from our failed war on drugs.

Not only have police departments become addicted to federal Drug War grant money (a negative feedback loop of more money leading to more arrests, resulting in more funding) but through the legal fiction of civil asset forfeiture certain “lucky” departments could suddenly find themselves awash in funds that had to be earmarked for drug enforcement. One of the most notorious cases occurred in 1998 here in Little Compton, population 3400. The Baltimore Sun wrote then,

When Congress revived asset forfeiture under the 1984 Crime Control Act as a major tool in the war on drugs, it didn’t intend to transform local police departments such as Little Compton’s into mini-juntas. In fact, as a result of Little Compton, the law has been amended for cases of “windfalls,” where the forfeiture money exceeds 25 percent of a local police department’s budget. Too late to help poor, rich Little Compton, whose forfeiture fund yields in interest alone nearly half the value of its police budget ($419,000 this year).

What is the result of staffing decisions based on budget windfalls rather than actual need? Too many cops with too much time on their hands and lots of shiny new toys just screaming to be used.

In 2001 the Patriot Act kicked this trend into overdrive via Homeland Security grants and a military recycling program that distributes tanks and grenade launchers to local police who can then “safely” execute search warrants, HuffPo.) And never underestimate the cosplay value of those bad-ass stormtrooper outfits. Complete anonymity, just like Comic-Con, but with real bullets.

Whatever happened to “serve and protect?” Police officers are not supposed to be soldiers. Radley Balko adds,

. . . when you arm a cop like a soldier, when you dress ‘em like a soldier, when you tell ‘em to fight in a war and then send ‘em out into a neighborhood that he has no stake in and doesn’t consider himself a part of, you get a very antagonistic, us-versus-them relationship between the officer and that community.

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