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VICE News

ACLU Report Says 'Militarized' SWAT Teams Treat Neighborhoods Like 'War Zones'

Most SWAT deployments are now for drug-related searches, not hostage or active shooter situations.

by Jordan Larson
Jun 25 2014, 10:50pm

Photo via Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has released a report examining and condemning the proliferation of militarized policing in the United States.

According to the report, oversight of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units in local law enforcement is virtually nonexistent, and SWAT teams are now being used for very different purposes than those for which they were first designed.

"Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies," the report said. "However, the ACLU encountered this type of story over and over when studying the militarization of state and local law enforcement agencies."

Of the 800 SWAT deployments the ACLU examined from 2011 to 2012, 62 percent of them were for drug-related searches, while only seven percent were for active shooter, hostage, or barricade scenarios (due to a lack of police records, the cause behind 31 percent of these deployments was unknown). SWAT teams were first introduced by urban police departments in the 1960s to handle active shooter and other dangerous situations.

The ACLU found the deployment of SWAT teams to disproportionately impact people of color. Of the deployments, 39 percent of those directly impacted were black, while 20 percent were white, 11 percent were Latino, and 30 percent were of unknown racial background.

The report also highlights a number of deaths and injuries that have occurred as a result of excessive force from militarized police units. In the 800 cases examined by the ACLU, seven civilian deaths occurred (two of which appeared to be suicides), and 46 civilians were injured.

The ACLU report also referred to a few particularly egregious incidents including one in which a stun grenade thrown into a family’s home during a SWAT deployment landed in the crib of a 19-month-old toddler, severely injuring the child.

In another incident, a 26-year-old mother was killed while holding her infant son when a SWAT team opened fire in her home, which they were entering to look for a man suspected of drug dealing.

Here's what happens when hackers anonymously report fake hostage situations. Watch here.

Among the main factors the ACLU identified as contributing to this rise of militarized policing are government programs operated by the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice.

The Defense Department’s 1033 program transferred nearly half a million dollars’ worth of property, including military weaponry, to local law enforcement in 2013 alone, according to the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) website. The program, which was designed specifically to assist in counter-drug and counter-terrorism operations, has transferred more than $4.3 billion worth of property since its creation in 1997.

Such weapons include Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, meant to withstand bombs, and which are currently possessed by 500 law enforcement agencies throughout the country, the ACLU report found.

The Justice Department and Homeland Security each run grant-based programs through which local law enforcement agencies can purchase military-grade weapons.

All told, the ACLU recorded “15,054 items of battle uniforms or personal protective equipment received by 63 responding agencies” from 2011 to 2012.

“The intent of the congressionally-mandated LESO program is to assist state and local departments in crime fighting and protecting their citizens,” the Defense Logistics Agency, a Defense Department office which manages the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) program, said in a statement to VICE News. “Excess DoD equipment is being put to good use by law enforcement agencies by not only protecting their citizens, but by keeping their officers safe during dangerous situations.”

The Department of Homeland Security provided the following statement in response to a request for comment from VICE News: “Homeland security grants assist states, urban areas, tribal and territorial governments and nonprofit organizations as well as the private sector to strengthen our nation’s ability to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies in support of the National Preparedness Goal and the National Preparedness System.”

The Justice Department did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

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Recommendations for reforming such government programs included requiring justification for use of specific equipment acquired through the 1033 program, imposing limits on the amount and type of military property acquired by law enforcement agencies, and that law enforcement agencies keep records of property they purchase with government funds.

The report also advocated for greater oversight of SWAT teams throughout the country, as well as enhanced record-keeping and studies to track the use and impact of such units.

Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), which provides training resources to SWAT and other tactical units, saw some merits in the ACLU report.

“Is there an increase in use of special tactical teams in drug investigations? Absolutely. Is there overuse? Probably,” Lomax told VICE News.

However, he also felt that the report “doesn’t examine the increase or the militarization of criminals who are using high-power rifles, and higher-power automatic weapons.”

Lomax said the NTOA was collaborating with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to conduct one of the first national studies on SWAT deployment, which they hope to be out later this year or early next.

PowerPoint slides from NTOA which advocated for a “battle mindset” and suggested that officers “TALK—FIGHT—SHOOT—LEAVE,” were also included in the ACLU report’s appendix.

Lomax says that, while “not saying that having a battlemind is a bad thing,” these statements are “not indicative of our training curriculum.”

Follow Jordan Larson on Twitter: @jalarsonist