Call it 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 46 square miles of Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. The rioters used tactics closely resembling 20th-century guerilla warfare—with people running and shooting in all directions, rather than massing in a single mob like Picket’s Charge. The chaotic situation prompted Inspector Daryl Gates, the point man for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) during the riots, to ask the military for guidance. Gates’s consultation with the military would eventually give rise to the first American SWAT team.
In 2013, there are thousands of SWAT teams in America. Federal, state, and local government agencies use military-grade hardware and tactics not only to deal with states of emergency for which they are well-suited, but also to conduct regulatory inspections for which they are not. The resulting overmilitarization has inflicted a great deal of unnecessary harm. Potent law enforcement tools designed for exceptional cases have been wielded too readily, leaving catastrophic damage in their wake.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
The introduction of military hardware and tactics was prompted by events that exposed serious weaknesses with traditional police tactics in certain settings. These events included the 1965 Watts riot, ex-Marine Charles Whitman’s indiscriminate sniping of innocent people in Texas in 1966, and the LAPD’s confrontation with a group of heavily armed Black Panthers in 1969. The confrontation with the Black Panthers gave rise to so much mayhem that Chief Gates, with extreme reluctance, took the unprecedented step of calling the Secretary of Defense for permission to use a grenade launcher. In each instance, the police not only confronted mass violence, but were themselves specifically targeted.
From Grenade Launchers to Tanks
Although introduced into police departments to deal with exceptional circumstances, the use of military hardware and tactics soon expanded. As crime skyrocketed during the mid-1960s and early 1970s and became increasingly associated with drugs, drug crimes became seen as a threat to national security. Democratic and Republican Administrations provided federal block grants to state and local law enforcement to fight drug crime, and state and local officials frequently used those funds to purchase military hardware.
But it’s not all about drugs. The federal government has also encouraged state and local 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 to cities and towns across the country, enabling them to buy armored vehicles, guns, armor, aircraft, and other equipment.
Drug-dealing gangs and terrorists are dangerous people who must be dealt with accordingly and in a way that protects law enforcement officials and the general public who come in contact with them. However, when federal money and military hardware is available in bushels, many agencies and departments seek to acquire more than they need. When one federal agency gets a SWAT team, another may seek one to show how serious it is about its own mission. When a quiet, small-town police department has a SWAT team, the police department in the neighboring town will want one, too.
These incentives have driven a dramatic escalation in the number of SWAT teams and the amount of firepower possessed by law enforcement. Federal agencies of all stripes, as well as local police departments in towns with populations less than 14,000, come equipped with SWAT teams and heavy artillery. Today, Bossier Parish, Louisiana, has a .50 caliber gun mounted on an armored vehicle. The Pentagon gives away millions of pieces of military equipment to police departments across the country—tanks included.
While enforcing laws and stopping violent criminals are essential, routine use of military hardware and tactics in nonviolent situations has inflicted substantial unnecessary damage on persons and property.
Radley Balko, John Whitehead, and others have documented examples in which SWAT teams have been deployed to deal with nonviolent offenses. In 2006, a SWAT team dressed in riot gear descended upon a small group of Tibetan monks in Iowa on a peace mission because they had overstayed their visa. When Texas Hold ’Em became increasingly popular in the mid-2000s, police in many parts of the country sent tactical units to break up tournaments in private clubs, bars, and residences, regardless of whether they were high-stakes games or friendly games with $20 dollar buy-ins. In 2007, a Dallas SWAT team raided a Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost for hosting charity poker games. Elderly players were terrified—one urinated on herself.
In a particularly tragic story, Sal Culosi, a 37-year-old optometrist, forged a fatal friendship with David Baucum, a police detective in Fairfax County, Virginia. Baucum overheard Culosi placing a small bet with friends on a college football game at a local bar. During the next several months, Baucum, acting undercover, befriended Culosi and started making bets 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.” Baucum 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, he was shot dead by a SWAT team member with an itchy trigger finger.
Police departments have even started sending in SWAT teams to enforce regulatory laws. From August through October of 2010, heavily armed deputies raided several barbershops in the Orlando area, holding barbers and customers at gun point and handcuffing some of them. They made more than 37 arrests. The basis for the arrests was barbering without a license. Fully armed SWAT teams in Massachusetts have charged into bars and college fraternities holding people at gunpoint while investigating reports of underage drinking. In 2010, a SWAT team with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raided a Pennsylvania farm because a farmer had allegedly shipped unpasteurized milk to customers across state lines. More recently, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources used helicopters to locate a baby deer and later sent 13 armed agents to capture the deer, which was being kept at a no-kill animal shelter.
Using military tactics and hardware is not justified unless there is a reasonable expectation of violence. Measures designed for large-scale riots and paramilitary groups should never be used to deal with nonviolent offenses or regulatory violations.
Big Boats for Big Fish: Toward Responsible Shark Hunting
Few reasonable people doubt the occasional need for SWAT teams, but few would consider it appropriate to send helicopters after baby deer. We need to take steps to scale back the use of military hardware and tactics in contexts where they are plainly inappropriate while ensuring that law enforcement can still respond with overwhelming force when necessary.
Chief Gates was right to call for a bigger boat. The problem is that, once federal regulatory agents and local police officers are given and empowered to use military hardware, everything looks like a great white shark to them. To solve this problem, we must pursue reforms that enable shark hunters to distinguish big fish from small fish and act accordingly.
—Evan Bernick is Visiting Legal Fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.