Wednesday, November 29, 2006

SWAT Overkill: The Danger of a Paramilitary Police Force

The use of paramilitary police raids on no-knock police warrants is causing quite a stir in the USA, particularly with the police shooting of an elderly woman in Atlanta. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has this to say in an Editorial in Popular Mechanics:

Abetting this trend was the federal government"s willingness to make surplus military equipment available to police and sheriffs' departments. All sorts of hardware is available, from M-16s to body armor to armored personnel carriers and even helicopters. Lots of police departments grabbed the gear and started SWAT teams, even if they had no real need for them. The materiel was free, and it was fun. I don't blame the police. Heck, if somebody gave me a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to play with, Id probably start a SWAT team, too so long as I didn't have to foot the maintenance bill.

Thus, the sheriff's department in landlocked Boone County, Ind., has an amphibious armored personnel carrier. (According to that county's sheriff-elect, the vehicle has been used to deliver prescriptions to snow-bound elderly residents, and to provide protection during a suspected hostage situation.) Jasper, Fla., -with 2000 inhabitants and two murders in the past 12 years- obtained seven M-16s from the federal government, leading an area newspaper to run a story with the subhead, "Three stoplights, seven M-16s."

This approach, though, has led to problems both obvious and subtle. The obvious problem should be especially apparent to readers of this magazine: Once you've got a cool tool, you kind of want to use it. That's true whether it' a pneumatic drill, a laser level or an armored fighting vehicle. SWAT teams, designed to deal with rare events, wound up doing routine police work, like serving drug warrants.

The subtle effect is also real: Dress like a soldier and you think you're at war. And, in wartime, civil liberties - or possible innocence - of the people on "the other side" don't come up much. But the police aren't at war with the citizens they serve, or at least they're not supposed to be.

The combination of these two factors has led to some tragic mistakes: "no knock" drug raids, involving "dynamic entry, where the wrong house has been targeted or where the raid was based on informants' tips that turned out to be just plain wrong.
I would suggest that the War on Drugs mentality adds to the problem. These incidents never seem to revolve around an individual in threat of immediate harm, but around some guy selling illegal drugs. The amount of money spent in surpressing individual rights is gross. If the state wants to clean up the crime and violence related to drug sales, legalize or decriminalize the sale of drugs. There will be plenty of legitimate, non-violent corporations and individuals in the market almost immediately.