In 2007, journalist Radley Balko told a House subcommittee that one criminologist detected a 1,500-percent increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last two decades. That's reflective of a larger trend, fueled by the wars on drugs and terror, of police forces becoming heavily militarized.
Balko, an investigative reporter for the Huffington Post and author of a definitive report on paramilitary policing in the United States, has a forthcoming book on the topic, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. He was kind enough to answer some questions about how our police turned into soldiers as well as the challenges of large-scale reform.
Motherboard: When did the shift towards militarized police forces begin in America? Is it as simple as saying it began with the War on Drugs or can we detect gradual signs of change when we look back at previous policies?
There's certainly a lot of overlap between the war on drugs and police militarization. But if we go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were two trends developing simultaneously. The first was the development and spread of SWAT teams. Darryl Gates started the first SWAT team in L.A. in 1969.
By 1975, there were 500 of them across the country. They were largely a reaction to riots, violent protest groups like the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army, and a couple mass shooting incidents, like the Texas clock tower massacre in 1966. At the same time, Nixon was declaring an "all-out war on drugs." He was pushing policies like the no-knock raid, dehumanizing drug users and dealers, and sending federal agents to storm private homes on raids that were really more about headlines and photo-ops than diminishing the supply of illicit drugs.
But for the first decade or so after Gates invented them, SWAT teams were largely only used in emergency situations. There usually needed to be an immediate, deadly threat to send the SWAT guys. It wasn't until the early 1980s under Reagan that the two trends converged, and we started to see SWAT teams used on an almost daily basis -- mostly to serve drug warrants.