Militarization of the police

A student of mine told me about an incredibly troubling incident in Georgia where police very seriously (as in induced coma) injured a toddler by throwing a flash-bang grenade in his crib while serving a no-knock warrant against his father.  I knew I could go right to Radley Balko for just the right righteous indignation accompanied by smart analysis on this incident.  I was not disappointing:

Sheriff Terrell says the suspects are dangerous drug dealers who are known to be armed. Hence, the SWAT team, the no-knock raid and the flash grenade. I’ve yet to see any indication that drugs were found, which usually (but not always) means that the police didn’t find any. Frequently in cases where a raid goes wrong, police tend to be quick to point out what they found to justify their actions. (The police did apparently make an arrest.)

Here’s the kicker:

Terrell said both the district attorney and Georgia Bureau of Investigation have said there was no wrongdoing on the SRT’s part.

“I’ve talked to the D.A., I’ve talked to the GBI,” Terrell said. “I’ve given them the whole information and they say there’s nothing else we can do. There’s nothing to investigate, there’s nothing to look at. Given the information given, GBI’s SWAT team would have done the exact same thing – they’d have used the exact same scenario to enter the house.”

Terrell said the lack of knowledge that there were children in the home contributed to the situation.

“It’s an accident that we would have avoided if we’d just had any inclination that there had a been a child in that house,” Terrell said. “We had no idea.”

Here’s the problem: If your drug cops conduct a raid that ends up putting a child in the hospital with critical burns, and they did nothing that violates your department’s policy, then there’s something wrong with your policy.  [bold mine; italics in original]

A flashbang is an explosive device that emits a deafening boom and a blinding flash of light. It’s designed to temporarily stun the occupants of a building so that the armed men who deployed it can “clear” the building. It is an instrument of war. And cops are tossing these things through doors and windows with no idea what’s on the other side. Indeed, that’s the whole point.

Balko then includes a litany of similar distrubing incidents.  All of which sadly reflect “policy.”  He concludes:

There are some very limited circumstances where flashbangs may be appropriate in domestic policing, such as when a fugitive has barricaded himself in a building, or during a hostage situation where lives are at immediate risk. Using them for drug raids is reckless, dangerous, and unnecessarily jeopardizes the safety and constitutional rights of citizens in the name of preventing other citizens from getting high.  [emphasis mine]

Of course, that’s also a pretty good description of the drug war in general.

Clearly, one of the huge and under-appreciated costs of the “war on drugs” is the degree to which we’ve seen police department use military tactics against our own citizens.  Sure, this may be called for on occassion, but again, the evidence is beyond overwhelming that these extreme military tactics are far over-used.  You give the police fancy military toys and fancy military training and steep in all in rhetoric of “war” they are going to use their fancy toys, fancy military training, and treat alleged criminals as “the enemy.”  This is just not how things should be in a democracy.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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