Opinion: Police should protect and serve, not wage war; public should demand transparency

Police in military gear.

Police in military gear.

By Morgan Stringer

Police militarization has become a major discussion topic. The excessive use of Special Weapons and Tactics teams, the lack of accountability of officers, police departments obtaining military equipment, and lack of transparency have all contributed to this problem.

SWAT teams were developed to deal with violence following the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, a six-day race riot in 1965 that resulted in 34 deaths and more than $40 million in property damage. The use of SWAT teams was also justified to conduct house raids of drug lords, who possibly might have heavy weaponry.

Now, SWAT teams are used every day all over the United States. Studies have shown that 79 percent of SWAT raids are conducted to perform a search warrant, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report, while 7 percent of SWAT raids were conducted for active shooter, hostage or barricade situations.

Not only are SWAT teams now used for routine police work, but they are not held accountable for their mistakes or negligence. An increasing number of police officers see innocent civilian deaths as tragic casualties, not innocent lives taken.

On May 28, 2014, in Georgia, the Habershaw County SWAT team raided a home, because their “intelligence” showed the home belonged to a low level drug dealer. An informant was sold meth for $50 in the home’s driveway the day before.

A judge issued a “no knock warrant,” and the SWAT team raided the home and threw a flash grenade, which landed in the crib of a 19-month old, exploding near his face. The county has not paid for the child’s medical expenses.

A SWAT team raided the home of Jose Guerena, a Marine veteran, according to an ACLU report. Believing it was a home invasion, Guerena’s wife hid with their 4-year-old son. When they heard strange noises, Guerena grabbed his rifle and went to investigate.

SWAT fired at him 71 times, and 60 shots penetrated his body, according to Ellen Tumposky, a reporter for ABC.  A small amount of drugs were found at another home in the neighborhood, but no drugs were found in the Guerena home. The family received a settlement of $3.4 million, but no police officers have been fired or faced discipline, according to a report by Radley Balko for the Huffington Post.

Officers in Lebanon, Tennessee, raided the wrong house while executing a search warrant, according to Vicki Brown, in a report by ABC. They shot and killed 61-year old John Adams. Adams fired at police, because he believed it was a home invasion, according to his widow, Loraine Adams, who was handcuffed and thrown into a separate room.

“We did the best surveillance we could do, and a mistake was made,” said Lebanon Police Chief, Billy Weeks. The two police officers were placed on administrative week with pay. The police chief also defended their actions, and said they were not at fault.

Some may say these are isolated incidents, but there is clearly a problem when incidents like these occur repeatedly. These scenarios also have a common theme throughout. The police officers are not held accountable. Officers have a mentality that they are fighting a war against citizens, not protecting and serving. This idea normalizes citizen deaths and increasing military-like tactics in conducting raids.

Police departments obtaining military equipment have also contributed to the militarization of police. Mississippian law enforcement departments have 1,354 military grade equipment, according to Emily Le Coz, a Clarion Ledger reporter. Among these items are two grenade launchers and one mine resistant ambush protected armored truck.

Hinds Community College police  in Raymond, Mississippi, have one grenade launcher and two M161A rifles.  Mississippi State University police have five M161A  rifles.

The grenade launcher was never intended for Hinds Community College police to launch grenades, but for tear gas and smoke, according to former police chief, Larry Coleman.

Hinds Community College police could not obtain gas or smoke canisters to fit the launcher, so it has never been used, according to Le Coz.

The college recently labeled the equipment excess, and they are currently working on returning it to the Department of Defense, according to Le Coz. The rifles have been used for training purposes. Mississippi State University is also returning the rifles.

The DeSoto Police Department currently has a mine resistant vehicle, which was used in an apartment complex that had problems relating to gang violence and drugs, according to Sheriff Bill Rasco. They made 23 arrests that night, and the sight of the vehicle makes people think twice before fighting with police, said Rasco. Rankin County has also applied for a mine resistant vehicle, according to Therese Apel, a Clarion Ledger reporter.

The lives of officers cannot be given a face value said Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey, who said they buy lightweight armor for deputies and heavy duty armor for special response teams. “You can’t pay me enough money to sit in the armored truck we have now and let someone shoot a .308 rifle at it,” said Bailey.

Police departments are able to obtain this equipment through the 1033 program. This program allows the military to give excess military equipment to police departments, according to Christopher Ingraham, a reporter for the Washington Post.

In 2013, half a billion dollars worth equipment was distributed to police departments, according to Ingraham. The program does enable police departments to obtain ATVs, pick up trucks, and office equipment; however, police departments can also use this program to obtain grenade launchers and heavily armored vehicles.

When police departments obtain military equipment, this adds to their mentality that they are fighting a war. Mine resistant vehicles do not protect and serve citizens. Grenade launchers are not used to protect citizens. These are military tools used to wage war. When police have the idea that they are fighting in a war, there must be an enemy, and that enemy is the citizen.

There is also no transparency for these police departments. When the ACLU conducted their study on police militarization, the Tupelo Police Department gave them information, but none of the information given pertained to the study at all.

Some other reasons given for why the ACLU could not have these records include: the request was “too overboard and voluminous,” these records were not public, they contained trade secrets, and access to these records would inhibit the effectiveness of law enforcement.

The lack of cooperation in this study, and the defensiveness police have about their protocol being seen as “no one’s business,” is troubling. Police departments are a government institution, and their records should be just as transparent as any other agency.

Citizens have a right to know how their police department conducts its business. Police departments saying these requests are an inconvenience is simply unacceptable.

Police militarization has become an out-of-control problem. Citizens need to stand up for their rights and demand answers. People need to contact their local governments and demand transparency and accountability. Only when police protect and serve, not wage war, will we truly have an effective police force.

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