The public outrage following the killing of George Floyd has refocused many in Congress and the public on the need for police reform. Some of the proposals are simply outrageous, such as “abolishing” the police or defunding police departments seen by some as “systemically” racist institutions incapable of reform.
Other reforms make sense and are long overdue. Among these are proposals to put a halt to measures that have seemingly transformed many departments into quasi-military forces that act and are seen by those they are supposed to protect as an occupying military force.
Adam Walinsky, a former speechwriter for the late Robert F. Kennedy, had a friend who resigned from the FBI years ago when that agency created its first SWAT team because he believed once it came into existence there would be more and more pressure to use it regardless of the wisdom of doing so. Today, numerous federal agencies and thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies have their own SWAT teams. By 2014, The Washington Post reported that they executed a combined total of as many as 80,000 raids on businesses and homes a year and that number has increased since.
Many of these raids are on people who no one perceives as a danger, but are nevertheless rousted out of bed by camouflage outfitted officers carrying automatic weapons who break down their doors, shoot their dog if they have one, throw them to the floor and point weapons at them while they literally destroy their residence searching for drugs, gambling paraphernalia or weapons. Few of these raids lead to arrests and convictions, but do leave traumatized homeowners and children behind or, in not a few cases, result in the deaths of those the police have targeted.
And it can get worse. Sometimes SWAT teams descend on innocents because they have somehow come up with the wrong address. This happened some years ago in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where I live. After breaking down a citizen’s door in Fort Washington, shooting his dogs and manhandling him, the team realized they had the wrong address and that the man they had on the floor was the mayor.
Journalist and author Radley Balko in his “Rise of the Warrior Cop” in 2014 provided a detailed description of the phenomenon from the creation of the first SWAT teams in the ’60s and expanding use of “no knock” warrants, to the enactment of what is known as the 1033 program. The program allowed the military to transfer its equipment — from camouflage uniforms to body armor and heavy military equipment, including armed personnel carriers and even tanks — to local police agencies in 1990.
The result has been the creation of what Mr. Balko and others call a military mindset among law enforcement officers that sees those they are to protect as an enemy to be controlled.
Under Presidents Bush and Obama following 9/11 and the continuing war on drugs, the program grew until some 7,000 state and local law enforcement agencies were procuring weapons and equipment that is now being used for all manner of purposes never contemplated by any involved. President Obama made a few limited reforms toward the end of his administration, but even those have been rolled back since as the warnings of Mr. Balko and others have been largely ignored.
It makes sense to restrict the availability of such equipment and to monitor the use of what is transferred to local and state authorities under the 1033 and other programs, and it makes sense to reign in the overuse of “no knock” warrants as well. Warrior cops are feared rather than respected by those they pledge to protect and respect is the key to keeping order today as it was a century ago. The Constitution Project’s Committee on Policing Reforms, which included a number of senior law enforcement officials, recommended a series of such reforms in 2016.
Today’s police are often misused, In the wake of the Ferguson uproar a few years ago, the Justice Department noted that city’s police spent an inordinate amount of time finding ways to fine citizens for often technical legal violations in order to raise funds for the municipal government, and it will be remembered that in New York it was police attempting to prevent a citizen from selling an individual cigarette that led to the death of Eric Garner in 2014. A police department should operate neither as an armed collector of city taxes nor an occupying army, but as a force for good in the community.
Reforms that will reign in the misuse of the police as well as the tactics and strategies employed by police agencies that don’t understand this are long overdue.
• David Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.