Postcards from Tradocia

militarization of the police

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):

This rule, according to the New Rules,

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…

(For a related story that also sparked this line of thinking, read The Agitator’s coverage of the Corey Maye case. In particular, read his post about paramilitary drug raids. )


  1. Mom and Dad

    I agree with you comppletely. The militarization of the American police is a matter of great concern. It started with “no-knock warrants” under the Nixon administration.

    A related concern is the desire in some quarters to undermine or repeal the Posse Comitatus Act. An example of the first is the way the FBI lied about suspected drug-making equipment in the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, TX in order to get U.S. military assets deployed. An example of the latter is an essay I read on the Army War College’s web site advocating outright repeal of the Posse Comitatus Act.

  2. sec

    Don’t forget, we’re in the middle of the WAR ON DRUGS! (typed with heavy sarcasm).

    Let me question your statistical comparison of Iraq to Chicago. 448 deaths of 130,000 troops compared to 848 murders of 8.2 million population of Chicago is 0.65% vs 0.0054%, or about 120 times more dangerous in Iraq. Not to mention that 448 total doesn’t include Iraqi military and police casualties.

    I think your time serving in Iraq wasn’t exactly just like a vacation in Chicago!

  3. Mom and Dad

    Depends on what neighborhood you’re vacationing in Chigaco!

  4. Warthog

    These police units get their zeal from the property seizure laws. Any property (houses, cars, guns etc. .) can be confiscated during a bust and later sold for their (police) benefit.

  5. Texagator

    The reason SWAT officers wear shoulder protectors is because when we are shot, about 15% of the time the rounds come from the side and through the shoulder. Among many other shootings, a specific incident in Cobb County, Georgia, prompted SWAT officers to begin wearing shoulder protection after two SWAT officers were killed by shotgun pellets through their shoulders. Since then, shoulder protectors have saved a lot of SWAT officer’s lives.

    Your observations on SWAT and the so-called “militarization” of the police [a horribly incorrect term] are both misinformed and misguided. I hate to say it but it sounds as if though you have been reading too much Peter Kraska, a source that has been discredited and challenged by other PhD’s in his own field. Frankly, I expected more from someone with your background. You wrote that, “police officers are supposed to be public servants, serving the greater good.” That is exactly what SWAT does. While there have certainly been mishaps involving SWAT teams, there have been many more mishaps involving doctors, pilots, architects, and the U.S. military that led to the deaths of innocent people. It is an absolute fact that SWAT de-escalates situations that regular patrol cannot handle. It is also a fact that in the overwhelming majority of SWAT operations, no one is hurt or killed and the law is followed to the letter. I have neither the time nor the inclination to argue with you about your blog entry here but please allow me to assure you that the coverage we are seeing on T.V. is not a realistic depiction of SWAT any more than what CNN shows is a realistic depiction of what is really happening with the common soldier on the ground in Iraq.


  6. Peter Kraska

    Good comments/insights on SWAT.

    Despite some folks’ interpretation, I don’t provide a “totalizing” critique of SWAT — just its mis-application.

    I find it interesting that one response finds it inappropriate to call this “militarization.” I’m open to a better organizing concept. What would it be? It is not a matter of militarization or not, its a matter of degree — and most intellecually honest people have to concede that this model of police falls much farther down the continuum of mililtarization than the cop on the beat model.

    Finally, the only other academics I’ve encountered who have tried to critique my work are SWAT zealots and apologists who have not published any legitimate refereed academic research on this issue.

    thanks for listening,

    Peter Kraska

  7. James

    My theory on the militarization of police, which is exactly what this is… Is that you have a number of former military veterans that couldn’t hack it on active duty (And I know some of these individuals) and a disproportionate amount of individuals that would never be able to hack it in the military in any capacity. These individuals see an opening that provides the ultimate alternative… that alternative being SWAT of course. Think about it, you won’t ever have to be that Private or PFC having your life dictated day-to-day. Absolutely NO uniform or grooming regulations. No one verbally assaults you by default, for no apparent reason. No mandatory deployments pulling you away from mommy and daddy (or wife and kids).. You don’t have to live at the barracks. You have a union (to protect your baby ass)… You don’t really have to have any nut sack, thanks to the fact that the ratio of good guys to “bad guys” is at least 30:1. There’s absolutely no uncertainty in your operations as a SWAT officer. You get to go home at the end of every day. And you NEVER LOSE! Doesn’t that sound great? HAHAHA. I guess if you’re some pussy ass wet rag with a fetish for everything military. But me, I’ll be a fucking United States Marine FOR FUCKING EVER. A real warrior. Leave the SWAT shit for the boys and the WARFARE for the men. Just my take on the situation. From a real warrior’s standpoint anyways. But thanks for your input “Doug.” I guess you can go through the rest of your life justifying your existense as a drug dealer’s babysitter. Have fun.

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