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Stephen Downing was a member of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for more than 20 years. He retired in 1980 as a commander and deputy chief of police within the Bureau of Special Investigations. Since that time he’s become an outspoken critic of the militarization of police forces and the overuse of Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) teams.
He was a member of the LAPD in the 1960s when the concept of the SWAT team was developed and put into practice. Under the banner of the war on drugs, these tactical units would start to proliferate across the country until, by 2005, upwards of 80 percent of small towns (with populations ranging from 25,000 to 50,000 people) had SWAT units. Downing characterizes the war on drugs, which led to the transfer of military surplus equipment from the Pentagon to towns all over America, to be “a total and complete failure.”
We spoke to Downing for the film “Deadly Force: Arming America’s Police,” which first aired in late-February. What follows is an edited version of an extensive interview we conducted with him, along with follow-up questions we posed this week in the wake of the ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri. (A new Fault Lines film, "Ferguson: City Under Siege," premieres Saturday, August 23, at 7 p.m. Eastern time/4 p.m. Pacific on Al Jazeera America.)
Fault Lines: Can you take us through those early days of the creation of SWAT? How did it start and what was the thinking behind it?
Downing:SWAT began in the Los Angeles Police Department. It began because there were incidents in which the first responders were basically outgunned by the suspects that they were coming up against, and there were police officers that were injured because they didn't have the tactical capability or the weapons to counter what they were up against. So a young sergeant came to Daryl Gates, who I believe was a commander at the time, and wanted to form some kind of response teams that had the tactical ability and the equipment to deal with these kinds of incidents.
They selected, throughout the department, personnel who could do this job—who had the discipline and the desire and really the intellectual and physical ability to be part of tactical teams of that sort. And so they engaged in training. They went to the military to gain concepts and they gathered their own equipment—not the big stuff that they have today. And they trained these officers. But these officers went back to their various divisions among their divisions all over the city of Los Angeles. And ultimately they came to realize that to have a better response, and to have a better training capability, they brought SWAT together into one centralized division.
The initial philosophy of SWAT in the LAPD is that our first order of business is to have reverence for human life, and, if there is a loss of life, including the suspect, we failed our mission.
You've written about the proliferation of SWAT and how that's a huge problem. What in particular makes it such a problem?
To be both a military-type response but with a civilian policing philosophy is a very delicate balance. If they're not well trained, it's also very dangerous to the community to even have these people out rolling around. So in the large police departments, you have a very large pool to select from, train from, weed out, hone down and you have enough personnel to do the right kind of job training. So that when they do roll, they're a finely honed machine and they know what they’re doing and their success record is evident.
In the 80s, President Reagan does an even bigger push for the war on drugs. They created all these grants—the COPS grants, the Byrne grants—they create legislation for asset seizures, we move into the policing-for-profit era and they provide legislation that allows the military to transfer military equipment at no cost to local jurisdictions. So everybody wants a SWAT team.
I just dealt with a case here, a few months ago, in the city of Oakdale, California. It's a 28-man police department, and they have a SWAT team. I don't know how you even begin to select a SWAT team from a 28-man police department. You know that you're not going to have a finely honed group, if your selection pool is 28 people. And then how do you train these 28 people when they have their daily jobs of looking after public safety? Something has to give somewhere.
So, suddenly you're not getting 50 percent of their on-duty time as being training. Also, in these small towns, how often do you have the need for a SWAT team? And, if you have the need for a SWAT team, why aren't you looking on a regional basis, at least to the sheriff, or to an agreement between cities to donate your best personnel to a team that can be brought together? But, no, they don't do that. They want their own tank.
So how were these units equipped originally?
I wasn't directly involved with the equipping of them. But they bought it. They budgeted and they bought it. We had to go to our local politicians with budgets. We had to say we want this for this reason. And we'd get as much money as we could get and then we would go out and buy it. There was no legislation at the federal level that permitted the giving of military equipment to local law enforcement. That didn't happen until the 1980s.
We hit the ‘80s, and the Reagan administration just let loose with the money. They passed the law that allowed military equipment to be passed to the police departments, and that started it. And then we got 9/11 and huge dollars are poured into this new war, this war on terrorism. So now we got the war on drugs and we got the war on terrorism and it's olly olly oxen free across the nation.
And the training is dismal. Across the country the attitudes of some of these cowboys that just swagger around and want to get out there and show their stuff. And the result is that you have SWAT teams with all these sophisticated equipment being used by people who are under-trained, people who have bad attitudes, people who have forgotten what they are as police officers. Deploying this kind of equipment and these kinds of ill-trained teams into the most ridiculous situations that there were—and there's no demonstration whatsoever of the need for a SWAT team. And the result has been accidental discharges, people are killed, children are killed, house pets are killed, neighborhoods are disrupted, reconnaissance is unheard of.
Ferguson’s police department saw the first demonstrators as the enemy and they ratcheted up to a show of force greater than I understand a lot of veterans from Iraq say they take into combat.
Retired LAPD commander Stephen Downing
What's the impact that this sort of equipment has on police officers and the concept that police officers themselves have of their role in society?
The concept of the peace officer is being terribly eroded in favor of the warrior. Don't get me wrong, we have a need for warriors in our society, but in the military to fight enemies. We have a need for the Navy SEALs. In civil society, the peace officer has no enemy. Everyone the peace officer comes up against, whether he's a bank robber or a rapist is not an enemy. They're an individual who has the rights afforded by our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and that's a concept of a peace officer. And the concept of a peace officer is public safety first and the preservation of life. And I truly believe that the war on drugs and the subsequent war on terror has very seriously compromised that philosophy in our society.
In civilian society you have to deal with every situation with the minimum force necessary to accomplish your objective. And you have to deal with the use of force in the context of escalation de-escalation. You see a situation. If it escalates, you escalate with it. If you control the situation at this level, you immediately come back. Once it's controlled, you keep your control. You don't keep going. If you shoot somebody and they fall down and the gun falls out of their hand, you don't give them five more rounds. You're shooting not to kill. Military shoots to kill. The peace officer shoots when it's absolutely necessary to stop the person from presenting the threat that they're presenting. That's the difference between a military mindset and a police officer's mindset. We are losing that in this society and we have chiefs of police and city attorneys and city councils that are trying to excuse that.
Militarization when it relates to police, it's larger than just SWAT. You see peaceful demonstrations where you have riot equipment and police officers having a very military posture. There is a critique that says that's an escalation in itself. Do you agree with that characterization?
Well, crowd-control situations, again it's attitude. If the crowd reaches the point that lives and property are in danger, the police should respond and control. And in responding and controlling they should be protected. Be able to put on the helmet, be able to have the kind of training where they can move in such a way that controls and drives the crowd.
To me, the professional response to crowd control is that 90 percent of the job is done before they ever get there. You plan with both sides. You plan with police officers and you plan with the people who are going to demonstrate and you plan with the people with whom they are going to demonstrate against. And you get a level of cooperation. Now, if the demonstrators really want to get arrested so that they can have their publicity and what not, you can make arrangements for that. "Okay, if you're going to block this street, we're going to come and arrest you". You might even make out those kinds of plans.
Now, when you get into a situation where you have the anarchists who come in and they infiltrate demonstrations and they want to create big problems, the police are going to have no choice but to respond and usually that response has a military look to it. But again, what is the level of professionalism that the police apply to this thing? In many cities, big cities, they're doing a pretty good job. And in many others, they're not, because you can tell by looking at their response that they are not well commanded, they are not well supervised, and they're not well trained. And their planning was dismal going into the situation.
What’s your take on what’s happening in Ferguson? It seems to be one of the most striking of police militarization to-date.
Ferguson’s police department saw the first demonstrators as the enemy and they ratcheted up to a show of force greater than I understand a lot of veterans from Iraq say they take into combat. And so Ferguson demonstrated a much more serious attitude of impunity toward their people.
At the same time, the leadership is defending what they’re doing and defending the shooting [of Michael Brown] without having any investigative results. What they should have been doing was bringing in community leadership, showing that we’re together, promising to fast track the investigation, promising to see that justice is brought and promising to be transparent. That at least diffuses the situation, but they did none of that.
Do you have any sense of why they took the actions that they did with the protesters?
First of all, Ferguson’s major problem is it was clear they had none of what I call “a reservoir of goodwill.” None. One of the first rules of crisis management is that you go to your reservoir of goodwill to help you work your way through this crisis that you’re dealing with. Well they had none. And then what did they do? After that massive show of force, after gassing the entire community, after putting troops on the street that point weapons in people’s faces, when even the military doesn’t do that, they lock them up with a curfew.
They should have gathered leadership in the community—block captains and people who belong to local clubs that have supported you in the past, if there’s any, as well as civilian politicians from the council all that. They should have brought them in and used them to help them calm the community, to make promises and to isolate the two looters and criminals from the mass of the community.
But instead of doing that, They treated everyone on the street as if they were a criminal. One looter, 20 people go to jail. One Molotov cocktail thrown, 50 people go to jail. And that’s not the way to police an American city.
They demonstrated an attitude of militarism toward their community. The U.S. Constitution disallows the military to operate on our soil, and there’s one reason for that: The military has a defined enemy and that enemy is targeted to be killed. That’s what the military does. American law enforcement are peace officers. They have no enemies. The worst criminal is still an individual who is entitled to the protections of the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. And the Ferguson police department and the surrounding police departments forgot that message.
Fault Lines' special report on the protests and police response in Ferguson, Missouri, premieres on Al Jazeera America on Saturday, August 23, at 7 p.m. Eastern time/4 p.m. Pacific. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Pacific and Sunday, June 22, at 2 a.m. Eastern/11 p.m. Pacific.