US police have been accused of adopting military-style tactics and equipment. Some say, however, a failure to address violence and poverty has put law enforcement on the defensive. Spencer Kimball reports.
Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and most recently Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell. The deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of local law enforcement has ignited protests and riots from Missouri to Maryland, exposing deep fault lines of race and class in the United States.
The police responses to both the protests and the riots that emerged after the deaths have inflamed already boiling tensions. Many Americans were shocked to see armored vehicles originally designed for the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq patrolling the streets of a Midwestern city like Ferguson, Missouri.
Under a Defense Department program called 1033, law enforcement can procure surplus military equipment free of charge. They only have to pay for the transport and maintenance. Perhaps the most infamous example is the MRAP, an armored vehicle that can withstand improvised explosive devices.
This week, President Barack Obama issued an executive order limiting the program. Tracked armored vehicles, vehicles outfitted with weapons, .50 caliber firearms and ammunition, grenade launchers, bayonets and camouflage uniforms have been prohibited. Wheeled armored and tactical vehicles, aircraft, riot shields and batons, explosives and breaching devices among other items will also be subject to greater control.
Military or police?
Supporters and critics of law enforcement using decommissioned military equipment agree that the line between the military and the police has become blurred. In a June 2014 report entitled "The War Comes Home," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that many law enforcement agencies have increasingly adopted a "warrior" mentality as they've acquired military equipment, viewing the people they serve and protect as potential enemies.
But according to Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, it's actually the other way around. He said the military has increasingly adopted law enforcement techniques, in particular those of the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) units, as soldiers confront plain-clothed gunmen in cities throughout the Middle East and South Asia.
"The tactics that are being used by US military today very much mirror the SWAT tactics that law enforcement developed in the last 35 to 40 years," Canterbury told DW. "Warfare is no longer fought in battlefields; it's fought in urban cities."
SWAT teams were developed in the 1960s to respond to hostage, barricade and active shooter scenarios. These heavily armed paramilitary units have proliferated across the United States. In the 1980s, only 20 percent of small towns in America had a SWAT team. By the 2000s, that number had grown to 80 percent, according to the ACLU. Ninety percent of major cities currently have SWAT teams.
Preventing 'mass casualty events'
Why have SWAT teams become so common? Police today, in small towns and large cities, are increasingly confronted with "mass casualty" events, according to Canterbury. These range from school shootings to terrorist attacks.
In July 2012, a graduate school dropout opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and wounding 70. A few months later, an autistic shut-in opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adults. Both shooters used semi-automatic rifles and pistols.
The following spring, two disaffected immigrant brothers detonated pressure cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding 264. The perpetrators hurled pipe bombs when they encountered law enforcement and one of them died in a shootout with police.
"There are all things dealt with by front line police officers, and there's not time to call the military," Canterbury said. "Secondly, the military is prohibited from enforcing those types of laws unless there's a state of emergency, and you can't declare a state of emergency when a school shooting is going down."
Is gun control the answer?
According to Canterbury, law enforcement needs to be prepared for these mass casualty scenarios, and preparation includes procuring armored vehicles and assault weapons to counter the firepower that's currently in circulation throughout the country.
Half of all households in America own a gun. From 2000 to 2013, the number of sudden mass shootings tripled, numbering 160 incidents in total, according to the FBI. In 2013, The Centers for Disease Control reported that there were more than 33,000 fatal shootings in America.
Would police feel more secure and need less military-style equipment if the US had stricter gun control laws?
"The fact is this country is not going to do anything about our gun laws," Canterbury said. "There's no political will to do anything about them. My members don't support gun control. There are over 300 million legal firearms in the United States. That ship has sailed."
But the ACLU disagrees with Canterbury's characterization of SWAT. The teams are responding to hostage, active shooter, or barricade scenarios just 7 percent of the time, according to the rights group. Nearly 80 percent of the time, the tactical units are deployed to carry out home searches, most of which are related to drug investigations.
People of color are disproportionately affected by these searches, with African-Americans affected 42 percent of the time and Latinos 12 percent of the time. Their property is often damaged by a SWAT team's forced entry and there are numerous incidents of innocent people being maimed and even killed by these tactical units.
It's this broad underlying racial dynamic that led to the unrest in Ferguson last year and Baltimore most recently, according to protesters and activists. But Canterbury said society as a whole needs to take greater responsibility. Police are asked to adopt policies, like "broken windows" and "stop-and-frisk," in which the laws are strictly enforced even for small crimes and people are randomly searched.
"Can we reduce crime? Sure," he said. "Can we do it without building mistrust in the community? Not unless you have other programs in place to take a holistic approach to law enforcement and to systemic poverty."