6 arguments against the ACLU's flawed 'police militarization' report
The ACLU’s 98-page report “The War Comes Home” highlights SWAT calls with bad outcomes and totally ignores SWAT successes
Editor’s Note: Hey. Doug Wyllie, Editor in Chief of PoliceOne here. If you prefer a good read about SWAT, I recommend the novel, SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor, by my friend and colleague, Dan Marcou (the author of the column below). Even though it is a work of fiction, it is a far more accurate depiction of what SWAT is truly about than “The War Comes Home.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has completed a 98-page report in which it rails on the use of Kevlar helmets, vests, armored personnel carriers, tactical weapons, breaching equipment, and distractive devices by SWAT teams.
They also profess an aversion to “BDUs” because that stands for “Battle Dress Uniforms” and especially dislike training officers in the “warrior’s mindset.”
They feel for these reasons — and many others — there is an “excessive militarization of law enforcement.” They’ve totally missed the point of what they’re railing against.
The ACLU’s Point of View
From the point of view of the ACLU, militarization of American law enforcement has occurred because “it would appear that U.S. Law Enforcement, even in the smallest and safest communities, is suffering from a collective ‘inferiority complex’ that can be relieved only by military-style clothing and arsenals of formidable firepower,” the ACLU report said.
While reading the report, I couldn’t help but notice the ACLU highlighted SWAT calls with bad outcomes, while totally ignoring all SWAT successes.
Some ACLU “findings” are paraphrased (not quoted) here:
1. Law enforcement has become too militarized with its helmets, shields, weapons, armored personnel carriers, tactics, and warrior mindset training.
2. Law enforcement uses SWAT too often, especially during drug warrants.
3. There is too little documentation and oversight of SWAT operations.
4. SWAT deployment in itself is an act of violence.
5. Drugs are often found only in small quantities in a percentage of drug warrants served by SWAT.
6. SWAT teams are used to unfairly target people of color.
My Point of View
I will attempt to succinctly answer the points listed above, not from the perspective of a person who has merely read about the issues, but from someone who has gone through many doors.
1. Apparently one person’s militarization is another person’s protective equipment. Kevlar, helmets, vests, and armored personnel carriers are not aggressive, but protective. They stop bullets. The defensive weapons law enforcement carries during the operations are no more deadly than what the criminals are carrying today. SWAT has been an ever-evolving, reactive response to the threats modern officers face.
What the ACLU ignored is the fact that law enforcement today is engaged in the community more than ever. Street officers are not wearing helmets, but their duty weapons, standard uniforms and duty belts. They are not patrolling in armored vehicles, but in squads, on foot, bikes, horseback, motorcycles, in boats, and in schools.
When citizens dial 911, they get a police officer in uniform who is hopefully wearing personal body armor. However, when this cop calls 911, because of a heightened threat he/she perceives, SWAT comes with all of their capabilities. This not only includes the equipment and tactics so offensive to the ACLU, but also highly-trained negotiators with specialized communication equipment and skills who try to resolve the problem peacefully.
This aspect of SWAT was overlooked by the report.
2. SWAT is used so often in drug warrants because during these in-depth investigations, specific dangers are discovered prior to the warrant’s request. The investigators have to prove to a judge not only probable cause for the search warrant, but also probable cause that a danger exists to warrant the issuance of a no-knock warrant.
3. I believe SWAT calls are already extensively documented and oversight is in place for all teams. Thorough documentation by a team — as well as legitimate debriefs — and effective oversight can only make a good team better.
4. The fact that ACLU believes that just the use of SWAT is an act of violence is a cynical view of SWAT. SWAT’s ultimate goal in all call-outs is to attempt to solve the problem peacefully if possible.
5. The point that only small quantities of drugs are found during many drug search warrants fail to recognize that most drug cases are made by investigators, before SWAT is even called to assist.
These investigators usually already have multiple buys and the reason SWAT is used is because of the dangerous nature of the individuals targeted by the investigations. There was no mention in the report of the trend now for more trained drug units to handle their own search warrants.
6. When the ACLU proclaims that police officers unfairly target people of color they are making the job of a police officer more difficult and dangerous. This is a job that is performed by honorable police officers of every color.
Cops don’t pursue color, they pursue criminality. If a police officer stopped pursuing a particular color of criminal because they were intimidated by the possibility of being called a racist, they would leave many victims of color unprotected, since criminals have a tendency to terrorize people of their own race most often.
If you wish to read the ACLU report, “The War Comes Home,” it is available here.