September 18, 2013

September 18, 2013 | Commentary on Political Thought, Rule of Law

It’s past time to scale back police militarization

It was American law enforcement's "We're going to need a bigger boat" moment.

In the summer of 1965, a six-day frenzy of looting, burning and sniping consumed Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood. With people running and shooting in all directions, the rioters' tactics resembled those of guerrilla warfare, so much so that the Los Angeles Police Department's point man during the riots, a 39-year-old inspector named Daryl Gates, consulted the military. This consultation would give rise to the first American SWAT team.

Today, America bristles with thousands of SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams. Federal agencies as unlikely as the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Education have them. State and local governments use military-grade hardware and tactics to arrest nonviolent offenders and conduct regulatory inspections. Such widespread militarization is completely unjustified.

To be sure, Inspector Gates was right to call for a bigger boat. The introduction of military hardware and tactics was prompted by events that exposed serious weaknesses with traditional police tactics. After the Watts riots came Charles Whitman's indiscriminate sniping of innocent people at the University of Texas in 1966 and the LAPD's 1969 confrontation with a group of heavily armed Black Panthers. In each of these instances, the police not only confronted mass violence, but they also found themselves being targeted.

From the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, crime skyrocketed and became increasingly associated with drugs. Drug crime came to be seen as a threat to national security. Democratic and Republican administrations made federal money available in the form of block grants to state and local law enforcement to fight the narcotics trade.

The federal government also has encouraged law enforcement officials to concentrate on other categories of crimes that are perceived as particularly threatening. In recent years, for example, the Department of Homeland Security has handed out anti-terrorism grants, giving cities and towns across the country funds to buy armored vehicles, guns, armor, aircraft and other equipment.

Researchers Radley Balko, John Whitehead and others have documented some of the perverse consequences of this militarization. Few reasonable people doubt the occasional need for SWAT teams. But few would consider it appropriate to send helicopters after a baby deer, raid Veterans of Foreign Wars outposts for hosting charity poker games, or hold barbers and customers at gunpoint while making arrests for barbering without a license.

In a particularly tragic story recounted in Mr. Balko's "Rise of the Warrior Cop," Sal Culosi, a 37-year-old optometrist, forged a fatal friendship with David Baucum, a Fairfax County detective. In 2006, Detective Baucum overheard Dr. Culosi placing a small bet with friends on a college football game at a local bar. Going undercover, Detective Baucum befriended Culosi and started making wagers with him, constantly encouraging Culosi to raise the stakes until he believed he had enough evidence to charge Culosi with "conducting an illegal gambling operation." The detective called Culosi and said he would drop by to collect his winnings from their latest bet, but when Culosi, who was unarmed, answered the door, a SWAT team member with an itchy trigger finger shot him dead.

His last words? "Dude, what are you doing?"

It's a question we must ask ourselves. Dangerous people must be dealt with accordingly, and in a way that protects law enforcement and the general public. But history has shown that when federal money for military hardware is available in bushels, many agencies and departments will seek to acquire more firepower, and use it more readily, than they need to handle dangerous people.

In 1965, law enforcement needed a bigger boat. Today, the problem is that everything is treated like a great white. We must pursue reforms that assure our public safety fishermen can distinguish big fish from small-fry and act accordingly.

- Evan Bernick is a visiting legal fellow in the Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

About the Author

Evan Bernick Visiting Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Originally appeared in The Washington Times.