David Goldman / AP

ACLU: Militarized SWAT teams treat citizens as an enemy

Report finds little oversight, racial disparities and federal policies that encourage military-style weapons, tactics

The increasing use of military-style tactics and weapons by police forces across the United States puts civilians at needless risk of death and injury, according to a strongly worded ACLU report slamming the development.

The study, called “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” warned that police departments across the country have been offered incentives by the federal government to arm up, and now risk alienating communities as a result of heavy-handed raids.

Federal policies that allow the military to distribute unwanted military hardware to local jurisdictions are a big part of the problem, the ACLU found.

Employed primarily to search for drugs, military-style SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) raids happen far more often in poor and minority communities.

“It is widely known that policing tactics across the country often unfairly target communities of color,” the ACLU said. “According to our investigation, the use of paramilitary weapons and tactics appears to be no different.”

A training manual from the National Tactical Officers Association included in the report reveals that police officers are increasingly using language more common among commandos.

“STEEL YOUR BATTLEMIND,” one slide reads.

“TALK — FIGHT — SHOOT — LEAVE,” reads another.

By employing a shock-and-awe style of serving search warrants on suspects in low-level drug cases, the ACLU said, authorities risk alienating communities. Serving a search warrant accounted for 79 percent of raids the ACLU reviewed for the report.

The ACLU said SWAT teams are not being used for their original purpose — confronting the armed and dangerous.

“When SWAT teams were created back in the 1960s, they were created for true emergencies like active shooter situations,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU and the report's author. “With the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s, police started using paramilitary tactics to wage the war on drugs.”

SWAT squads often employ armored personnel carriers (APCs), high-powered rifles, battering rams and flash-bang grenades designed to stun and disorient people in apartments and homes raided by police officers, according to the report.

Propelled in part by the increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the stockpile of weapons in Arizona's Maricopa County stands out, with “1034 guns, 712 of which are rifles, 17 helicopters, 64 armored vehicles, 704 units of night vision equipment, 120 utility trucks and 830 units of surveillance and reconnaissance equipment.”

SWAT units contend that they need the military-grade weaponry to fight armed individuals who may have barricaded themselves inside a building with innocents or to take on heavily armed drug dealers. But the ACLU report argued that the targets of these squads are mostly suspects in nonviolent, low-level drug offenses.

And even supposedly nonlethal parts of a SWAT team’s arsenal can cause severe injuries.

In May, a SWAT raid near Atlanta ended with a flash-bang bomb exploding near a 19-month-old baby, Bounkham Phonesavanh. The child suffered burns, a gashed open chest and wounds to his face.

“After breaking down the door, throwing my husband to the ground, and screaming at my children, the officers — armed with M16s — filed through the house like they were playing war," the boy's mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, told the ACLU.

The raiding team that Phonesavanh holds responsible for the child’s injuries found none of the drugs they’d hoped to uncover. Meanwhile, the baby remains hospitalized. The SWAT team subsequently arrested the person they were looking for at another location with a small amount of drugs on him.

The sheriff who oversaw the raid reportedly apologized for injuring the baby and asked for prayers for the child, his family and the Cornelia, Georgia, police department. 

The report also mentioned people killed by SWAT raids, including a 26-year-old Ohio mother, Tarika Wilson, shot to death while she was holding her 14-month-old son as heavily armed police burst into her rented home. 

“The SWAT team had been looking for Ms. Wilson’s boyfriend on suspicion of drug dealing when they raided Ms. Wilson’s rented house on the south side of Lima, the only city with a significant African-American population in a region of farmland,” the report stated.

Dansky says that another disturbing element in the growth of SWAT teams is how it has happened with very little oversight from any government authority.

The ACLU singled out “federal programs that create incentives for state and local police to use unnecessarily aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield.” 

Dansky said that current law allows the Department of Defense to give unused military equipment to municipal police forces, and grants from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security help city and county police departments beef up their weaponry.

The ACLU would like to see a halt to these giveaways and grants, and more justification for why these weapons are necessary. It also noted that public support has waned for get-tough approaches to drug crime.

Dansky stressed that police departments aren’t doing themselves any favors in the long run, since creating an adversarial relationship between officers and communities erodes the trust that departments need to fight crime and keep citizens safe.

According to Dansky, the mother of the baby in the May raid told the ACLU that she worries her daughters won’t trust police when they really need them — if they’re in trouble or victims of a crime.

“My three little girls are terrified of the police now,” said Alecia Phonesavanh in the report. “They don’t want to go to sleep because they’re afraid the cops will kill them or their family.”

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