The Army in Our Midst

In one Maryland county, SWAT teams were deployed once a day on average in 2009, most often to serve search or arrest warrants.

By Bruce Schneier
The Wall Street Journal
August 5, 2013

War as a rhetorical concept is firmly embedded in American culture. Over the past several decades, federal and local law enforcement has been enlisted in a war on crime, a war on drugs and a war on terror. These wars are more than just metaphors designed to rally public support and secure budget appropriations. They change the way we think about what the police do. Wars mean shooting first and asking questions later. Wars require military tactics and weaponry. Wars mean civilian casualties.

Over the decades, the war metaphor has resulted in drastic changes in the way the police operate. At both federal and state levels, the formerly hard line between police and military has blurred. Police are increasingly using military weaponry, employing military tactics and framing their mission using military terminology. Right now, there is a Third Amendment case—that's the one about quartering soldiers in private homes without consent—making its way through the courts. It involves someone who refused to allow the police to occupy his home in order to gain a "tactical advantage" against the house next-door. The police returned later, broke down his door, forced him to the floor and then arrested him for obstructing an officer. They also shot his dog with pepperball rounds. It's hard to argue with the premise of this case; police officers are acting so much like soldiers that it can be hard to tell the difference.

In "Rise of the Warrior Cop," Radley Balko chronicles the steady militarization of the police in the U.S. A detailed history of a dangerous trend, Mr. Balko's book tracks police militarization over the past 50 years, a period that not coincidentally corresponds with the rise of SWAT teams. First established in response to the armed riots of the late 1960s, they were originally exclusive to big cities and deployed only against heavily armed and dangerous criminals. Today SWAT teams are nothing special. They've multiplied like mushrooms. Every city has a SWAT team; 80% of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people do as well. These teams are busy; in 2005 there were between 50,000 and 60,000 SWAT raids in the U.S. The tactics are pretty much what you would expect—breaking down doors, rushing in with military weaponry, tear gas—but the targets aren't. SWAT teams are routinely deployed against illegal poker games, businesses suspected of employing illegal immigrants and barbershops with unlicensed hair stylists.

In Prince George's County, Md., alone, SWAT teams were deployed about once a day in 2009, overwhelmingly to serve search or arrest warrants, and half of those warrants were for "misdemeanors and nonserious felonies." Much of Mr. Balko's data is approximate, because police departments don't publish data, and they uniformly oppose any attempts at transparency or oversight. But he has good Maryland data from 2009 on, because after the mayor of Berwyn Heights was mistakenly attacked and terrorized in his home by a SWAT team in 2008, the state passed a law requiring police to report quarterly on their use of SWAT teams: how many times, for what purposes and whether any shots were fired during the raids.

Besides documenting policy decisions at the federal and state levels, the author examines the influence of military contractors who have looked to expand into new markets. And he tells some pretty horrific stories of SWAT raids gone wrong. A lot of dogs get shot in the book. Most interesting are the changing attitudes of police. As the stories progress from the 1960s to the 2000s, we see police shift from being uncomfortable with military weapons and tactics—and deploying them only as the very last resort in the most extreme circumstances—to accepting and even embracing their routine use.

This development coincides with the rhetorical use of the word "war." To the police, civilians are citizens to protect. To the military, we are a population to be subdued. Wars can temporarily override the Constitution. When the Justice Department walks into Congress with requests for money and new laws to fight a war, it is going to get a different response than if it came in with a story about fighting crime. Maybe the most chilling quotation in the book is from William French Smith, President Reagan's first attorney general: "The Justice Department is not a domestic agency. It is the internal arm of national defense." Today we see that attitude in the war on terror. Because it's a war, we can arrest and imprison Americans indefinitely without charges. We can eavesdrop on the communications of all Americans without probable cause. We can assassinate American citizens without due process. We can have secret courts issuing secret rulings about secret laws. The militarization of the police is just one aspect of an increasing militarization of government.

Mr. Balko saves his prescriptions for reform until the last chapter. Two of his fixes, transparency and accountability, are good remedies for all governmental overreach. Specific to police departments, he also recommends halting mission creep, changing police culture and embracing community policing. These are far easier said than done. His final fix is ending the war on drugs, the source of much police violence. To this I would add ending the war on terror, another rhetorical war that costs us hundreds of billions of dollars, gives law enforcement powers directly prohibited by the Constitution and leaves us no safer.

earlier essay: The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership
later essay: The NSA Is Commandeering the Internet
categories: Laws and Regulations, National Security Policy
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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