Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It's time to talk about militarized policing

(As originally run in the Casper Star Tribune)

Goshen County Wyoming has a grenade launcher. Converse County has four armored vehicles and Albany County has one. Sweetwater County has sixty assault rifles and Fremont County has twenty nine.  Natrona County has four armored vehicles and up to sixty assault rifles; Laramie County has an armored vehicle, assault rifles, flak vests and night vision goggles. Washakie, Big Horn and Hot Springs Joint Tactical Emergency Response Team acquired an armored vehicle last year.

The shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Illinois brought the reality of the militarization of local police to the forefront of the nightly news and front pages of our newspapers.  The ACLU has been investigating this issue, and in June of this year, published the report War Comes Home: – The Excessive Militarization of American Police.

In this report the ACLU outlines how, with the encouragement of Department of Defense, Department of Justice and Homeland Security, local policing has morphed from the philosophy of serve and protect to military-style SWAT teams, assault weapons and armored vehicles used to police local citizens and communities.

As a result of the drug war, the erosion of Fourth Amendment rights and the militarization of the police, sixty-two percent of drug warrants and searches for personal drugs were served by SWAT teams.  In these raids families with children were screamed at, searched and terrorized in an unnecessary manner. Innocent animals and citizens have been wounded and even killed in these raids. In many cases there was absolutely no need for the level of aggression used to serve a warrant or search a home for personal use drugs. SWAT teams use assault weapons, battering rams, and military flash bang grenades that can temporarily blind and deafen citizens.

The origin of military policing came from Los Angeles in the 1960’s. SWAT teams were patterned after the Marine Special Forces and trained to deal with hostage situations, barricades or active shooter emergencies.   Far from the serve and protect approach, military training turns the policing culture to a warrior mentality that sees citizens as enemies.  We have gone from Andy of Mayberry to Robocop in a few generations.

While no one wants to endanger law enforcement in the line of duty, we need to ensure that military tactics and weapons are used only in appropriate emergency situations. We must have a public discussion about standards, reporting and transparency to protect the citizenry from the abuse of these weapons and tactics.

Law enforcement must be done in a way that protects both our safety and our rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It sends the wrong message when our neighborhood cop is no longer a keeper of the peace, but appears like a soldier going to battle.

Linda Burt
Executive Director, ACLU of Wyoming