Imagine a man with a couple of drinks in his belly at a bar in Fairfax County, Virginia. An optometrist, he’s been watching college football with some friends, making bets on the games, the teams, the players, whatever. While he’s been making those bets with his buddies, an undercover detective overhears his gambling antics.
Now imagine that he watches a SWAT unit coming towards him, with their dark vests and their large guns aimed at him. He reaches towards something—maybe his cell phone. Then he sees a single bullet, let loose from one of the SWAT officers gun. It finds it’s way directly into his heart, killing him.
This is what happened to Sal Culosi in 2006. The police would later say that the fatal shot was an accident. The undercover detective sent a SWAT team after Culosi, who had a clean criminal record, with no violent history to speak of. Over several months, the undercover detective gambled with Culosi, encouraging him to wager larger sums of money than he was accustomed to. In January of 2006, Virginia’s no gambling law was upheld in the cruelest manner, with a SWAT team and the loss of a life.
Since the introduction of the police force called Special Weapons and Tactics, better known by their acronym SWAT, there has been a shift from Officer Friendly to Officer Soldier. Aided by the militaristic equipment provided via The Department of Defense Excess Property Program (DoD 1033 Program), police forces around America have been engaging in ‘war’, whether that be a war on drugs, trafficking, or terrorism. Homes, towns, and cities are the battlefields, whereas the enemy has become the very people whom the police are meant to serve.
Obviously, not every police department or police officer shares this militarized viewpoint. Some officers recognize that their first and foremost task is to serve, and protect their fellow citizens. That being said, it is evident that there has been a growing trend among the police force to take on a more militarized approach to handling crime. It is doubtful that a SWAT team was needed to confront Mr. Culosi, while the officers were only too ready to enter onto the battlefield. To take journalist Radley Balko’s phrase, where did this “warrior cop” come from?
SWAT teams began in Los Angeles in the late 1960’s. The inspector of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Daryl Gates, wished to adapt military tactics in domestic and civil disturbances. Perhaps Inspector Gates was inspired to defeat crime with a militaristic mindset after President Johnson declared the War on Poverty in the mid-1960s. Whatever the case, by 2005, 80 percent of American towns with a population of 25,000 to 50,000 hosted a SWAT team.
In the 1970s, right around the time the LAPD was turning to military tactics, President Nixon announced his War on Drugs, further escalating the militarization mindset. The okay for no-knock raids was implemented in the 1970s, along with millions of dollars being poured into the drug-war. By the 1980s, the war on drugs was underway, with militaristic tactics, including the use of helicopters and forces from the National Guard, in full force against drug dealers and those growing marijuana. Fast forward 20 years later to a post 9/11 world, the war on terrorism has been added to the many wars in which law enforcers engage.
But what made these militarized police forces into true “warriors” was the 1033 Program. The Department of Defense Excess Property Program was first conceived in 1990, when Congress granted authorization for unused DoD military equipment to be transferred to state and federal agencies, particularly for use in counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities. In 1997, all law enforcement agencies (including your local police department) were authorized for access to the DoD surplus equipment to aid in arrest missions. These military equipment items include assault rifles, gas masks, armored personnel carriers, night vision binoculars, grenade launchers, military tanks, and helmets. So now, law enforcement agencies who have been encouraged to use militaristic approaches since the 1970s are able to use actual military equipment and weapons.
After the 1033 Program, the militarization of police forces was complete, with SWAT forces battering down doors, utilizing shields and masks, throwing flash bangs, and driving armored vehicles through city streets. By 2005, nearly 50,000 SWAT raids were conducted. A new ACLU report has found that 62 percent of raids from 2011–2012 were drug searches, with only 7 percent “for hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.”
January of 2008, in Lima, Ohio: Tarika Wilson, a 26-year-old mother died when SWAT forces broke down her door to locate Wilson’s boyfriend, who was suspected of drug dealing. The SWAT members opened fire upon entering her home, fatally shooting her as she held her infant son.
In 2011, army veteran Matthew David Stewart, awoke in his Ogden, Utah, home to SWAT officers battering down his front door. The SWAT team was acting on a tip that Stewart was growing marijuana in his basement. Upon hearing loud voices and the battering down of his door, Stewart grabbed his Beretta pistol, and shots flew between Stewart and the SWAT team. Stewart ended up killing one officer, and injuring six others, while sustaining two gunshot wounds himself. Stewart was arrested and later committed suicide in prison, after a judge rejected his self-defense plea.
As with the Wilson and Stewart raids, 65 percent of 2011–2012 SWAT raids used forced entry into private homes, either using boots, explosive devices, or a battering ram. SWAT officers used these violent tactics due to the suspicion of weapons within the homes, although over half of the homes did not reveal any weapons.
The soldier persona has become so ingrained within the police, that recruitment videos have come to glorify the police officer as a soldier of war. Many of these videos, which can be accessed through YouTube, focus largely on SWAT members. Some, such as an Arkansas police recruiting video, showcase police officers wearing mossy military camouflage and SWAT forces stalking with assault rifles. True, many recruitment videos of any sort tend to exaggerate, and of course not all law enforcement agencies and officers use these tactics, nor are they part of the problem. But the larger issue remains, and it is disturbing that the general police population are branding themselves as soldiers while frequently engaging in activity which requires a SWAT team and camo. This is not only damaging to the overall police image, but it hints the military equipment isn’t to be blamed for the over militarization, but rather the attitude of the police themselves.
The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown was fatally shot on August 9, were closer to a war zone than anything else. Just two days after the teen was killed, Ferguson police were using militaristic tactics against the crowds of those protesting the death of Brown. The police donned gas masks and shields, rolled in on armored vehicles, and dispersed tear gas into the group of protesters, in a chillingly warlike fashion.
It is sad that it has taken the death of a young man to bring attention to the police militarization issue. But when officers in Ferguson, a town of 21,135 (2012), used tear gas on citizens employing their First Amendment right, questions needed to be asked. And a demand for change is already happening. Last week, Senators called for an examination of providing military weapons to law enforcers. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has said that “Officers dressed in military fatigues will not be viewed as partners in any community”. While this may be true, what is most alarming is that the “warrior cop” will remain a warrior, as long as s/he is trained to believe that they are in active combat. The police have adapted a “us-versus-them” mindset. Armed with this attitude, the police will remain excessively militarized, while viewing citizens as the enemy.