Last night, while visiting The Pontiff, I watched a show on CourtTV called Texas SWAT. It’s basically a show where cameramen follow around various SWAT teams across Texas and film them as they drive around in big trucks, strap up absurd quantities of high-speed gear, and look tough for the camera behind their Oakley glasses and ESS goggles. Most of the guys seem to enjoy their jobs; for the most part, they’re all big grins and high fives and what have you. They even had a cute little huddle before one raid where they all held their hands together in a group and the team leader said his little motivational piece and they all said, “one, two, three, SWAT!” and ran off. Just like a hockey game!
But once the motivational speaking and rock-hard serious faces were done with and the show’s various raids commenced, I found myself enthralled – almost disgusted – by the violence displayed by these teams. Not violence against people, per se, but rather the level of violence and force applied which seemed vastly disproportionate to the situation.
Obviously this sounds strange coming from someone who lives in the unholy trinity of being a soldier, gun owner, and player of violent video games, but I assure you, there’s a point here.
Under the Geneva Conventions and the so-called rules of land warfare, there exists something called the “rule of proportionality.” It dictates that the use of force is legitimate when applied proportionally. According to Human Rights Watch (I hate to quote them, but it’s the most succinct summary of this principle I could find on short notice):
clearly requires that those who plan or decide upon an attack must take into account the effects of the attack on the civilian population in their pre-attack estimate. They must determine whether those effects are excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Obviously this decision will have to be based on a balancing of:
(l) the foreseeable extent of incidental or collateral civilian casualties or damage, and
(2) the relative importance of the military objective as a target.
“Concrete and direct military advantage” simply means: “is it going to be worth the collateral death & destruction to blow this shit up?” If the answer is yes, then it gets blown up. If not, it doesn’t (or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work).
Of course, there’s another rule at work during war, though of course it’s not in any field manual. It’s something along the lines of “all’s fair in love and war.” If the US Army is running patrols in your town looking for bad guys, and there are gun battles and car bombs and other crazy shit happening at all hours, it’s probably reasonable to expect that if the QRF comes by your house that they’re not going to knock and ask nicely to come in. More likely, they’re going to kick the door in, throw flashbangs, drive a Bradley through your wall, etc.
That’s quite a bit of circumlocution to get to my point: Texas isn’t Iraq, but God damn, it sure looked like it on Texas SWAT.
While it’s reasonable to expect that your door might get ripped off its hinges in Baghdad or Fallujah or Ramadi, it’s not reasonable to expect the same in Dallas or Austin or El Paso. In one raid they did just that, though; the raid looked more like American Gladiators than a SWAT team, as a bunch of guys wearing goofy helmets virtually ran into each other while leaping over a fence to get to the side of the house. Another bunch of guys ran to the front door and hooked up steel cables to the barred windows; a truck outside the camera’s view ripped the windows away from the house, while another guy seemed to mistake a wooden bench for a drug suspect, as he wailed away at it with a crowbar.
After all that excitement, I was expecting a full-blown gun battle, but not so; the targets were some fat old lady and her man, caught totally unawares by this platoon-sized element of green-clad dudes tearing the walls off their house. Apparently they were dealing some drugs or something, but the crime aspect seemed almost incidental to the wanton disregard for property.
The second mission was almost more outrageous – it started out with a bunch of stern-faced men getting their pre-mission briefing while wearing what Army types call “battle rattle.” For Christ’s sake, they even had shoulder protectors like the DAPS soldiers are wearing in Iraq! I guess Texas SWAT teams have to deal with a lot of roadside bombs and shell fragments? Anyway, they moved to their target – once again in a platoon-sized element of about 20 guys – who was making a drug buy from an undercover agent.
The purchase? $5,000 of marijuana. Five thousand bucks! They’re sending out a group of men the size of a normal patrol in downtown Baghdad – with virtually the same equipment – to take down one fucking guy selling weed out of a Camaro!
Needless to say, the dealer was apprehended without incident. Way to go SWAT!
Increasingly, it seems like the police have an antagonistic view of the populace, almost as if they’re occupiers in a hostile foreign land. True, many urban centers are arguably just as dangerous as anywhere in Iraq (there were 448 murders just in Chicago in 2004, compared to about 848 US military deaths in Iraq from all causes in the same year), but that doesn’t change the fact that police officers are supposed to be public servants, serving the greater good.
Certainly, there are situations where SWAT tactics and equipment are necessary and appropriate. But in some cases, I wonder if these departments don’t become self-justifying, a solution looking for a problem. When you’re paying big bucks to recruit, train, and equip a SWAT team, you better believe the police is going to try to get its money’s worth. This will inevitably lead to “mission creep” where the SWAT teams’ roles are greatly expanded beyond their original purpose (see above with the weed dealer).
There’s another facet to the growing use (and, perhaps, misuse) of SWAT teams: what members of gun forums like to call “tacticool” – a military gear-fetish that objectifies looking “high-speed” or “tactical” regardless of actual capability or function. That’s a discussion for another post, though…