In a March 10 USA Today piece, Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) expressed his desire to introduce legislation that would place limits on the Pentagon’s 1033 program which is used to supply police departments with gear that was once used on the streets of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a long overdue “official” recognition that something terrible has happened to police departments in the US. Whether Johnson’s plan has a chance of getting anywhere remains to be seen. Because there are numerous firmly-stuck perverse incentives that lead to the state of policing today and which perpetuate it.
People who casually notice the more military-like qualities of American police would be forgiven for assuming their tactics, weapons, and menacing appearance are a result of post-9/11 fear. Though September 11 and subsequent scares and some real incidents such as the Boston Bombing have aggravated this problem – and there is a similar equipment grant program that comes from the Department of Homeland Security that Rep. Johnson should check on – the catalyst for our mutant police is narcotics prohibition.
Ronald Reagan’s literal drug war began in 1981 with the passage of the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Statute (10 USC 371-380). More loosened restrictions followed that allowed domestic assistance by the military to police in certain (usually drug) cases. It also set up a system where police departments could receive equipment through grants from the federal government. This lead to bizarre commando-style drug raids that sometimes included military helicopters, and even U-2 spy planes. (The flimsy accusation that the Branch Davidian sect had a meth lab was even the excuse for the presence of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other military hardware during the disastrous 1993 standoff outside Waco, TX.)
Richard Nixon had declared a “war on drugs” in 1971 and pushed some bad policies – including a DC “no-knock raids” law – with limited success. But the conflict became the monster we see today under Reagan. Those years rocketed the US’s prison population to its current inhumane level of more than 2 million people, and they lead to the normalization of camo-clad cops kicking in doors over reports of weed or other drugs. The spike in crime in the 1990s cemented this supposed need for eternally tough on crime measures from police and politicians. Policies such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders made it clear this was was a serious enough issue to warrant life in prison for repeat, nonviolent drug dealers.
One risk of the blurred line between cop and solder is what happens with a declaration of war on anything; war expects casualties and necessitates exceptional circumstances. It is always a "freebie" that allows ignoring principles against murder, theft, and trespass. The war on drugs is bad because it is impossible to win, and because its harmful effects can be seen all over the US. The policy makers and enforcers declared that the abstract, far-off goal of a drug-free America was supposed to be worth the price. But this conflict has wrecked the Fourth Amendment, the Castle Doctrine, and privacy. It has filled prisons to bursting, and brutalized poor and black communities. It leads to gang violence. And current policies still encourage police to prioritize narcotics crimes at the expense of real ones.
In spite of a promising, albeit painfully-slow backlash against anti-drug hysteria (most notably demonstrated in the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state) narcotics are still the motivation for the 100-plus SWAT raids that happen on private homes every day. Normalization of SWAT’s militarism has even mission crept into regulatory checks on purveyors of other “vices. Additionally, civil asset forfeiture laws allow police to keep a large percentage of cash or equipment they seize from people affiliated with potential drug drug crimes. (You need not be convicted or even charged for police to take your cash or property if they suspect drug connections.)
As Washington Post journalist and blogger Radley Balko told Antiwar last year, this excess number of drug arrests makes it difficult for cops to get smart (or safe) when busting people – so instead they hastily bust down doors. But in the case of an actually violent criminal such as mobster Whitey Bulger who "was wanted for 19 murders, armed to the teeth, old age…[T]hey didn’t send a SWAT team. They did their research and found out Bulger rented a storage unit, and they called him and said someone had broken into the storage unit. He showed up, and they arrested him without incident. I think it’s telling that when you have really dangerous people, that cops find creative ways to arrest them that don’t put police officers and the public at risk."
There are a few exceptions, such as the hunt for the Boston bomber. There new, tough police tools were used (rather frighteningly and) successfully to catch an actually violent criminal. So if the war on drugs was important enough to warrant military surplus being passed out to police departments the US over, what reasonable person – Rep. Johnson notwithstanding – could possibly object to their use in the even more vital goal of keeping Americans safe from terrorists? We were so unforgivably fooled by Reefer Madness. Most of us will probably keep hoping the local SWAT team can save us from terrorists as well – if we just turn cops into soldiers.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.