Wednesdays at noon we hold a twitter chat using the hashtag #LibertyChatVA. Each twitter chat focuses on a pressing civil liberties issue. Here’s what we will be discussing during next Wednesday’s #LibertyChatVA! Tweet us your questions and join us on Wednesday.by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
(Originally published in the Free Lance-Star)
My grandfather fought with the 1st Armored Division during World War II. A proud veteran, during my childhood visits to Kentucky he often took me to Fort Knox to look at the armored vehicles displayed on the base. Today's youth no longer need to travel to a military base to see military grade armored vehicles. In fact, when youth in Caroline and Culpeper counties look out their bedroom window they may see the Sheriff's Office's Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, which is a tank designed to withstand an armor-piercing roadside bomb.
Under federal programs linked to the failed War on Drugs, local law enforcement throughout the United States receive each year billions of dollars of funding and military hardware designed for the battlefield. In many communities, these programs have transformed the role of law enforcement--from protecting the community to engaging the residents as the enemy. As the ACLU found in its report, "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing," the militarization of policing has escalated the risk of violence, threatened civil liberties and disproportionately harmed people of color.
Virginia is no exception to this trend. As WWBT Richmond NBC 12 reported earlier this year, "Virginia police are quietly stocking up on millions of dollars in leftover military equipment. [And] have been doing this for the better part of two decades." These stockpiles include MRAPs (in Caroline, Culpeper and Tazewell counties), grenade launchers, and hundreds of military style M-16 automatic rifles. These programs have turned Virginia law enforcement into paramilitary forces.
The scope of this problem is clarified through the evolution and growth of Special Weapons and Tactics teams. In the 1980s, approximately 20 percent of small towns in the U.S. had a SWAT team. By the mid-2000s that number had jumped to 80 percent, and by the late-1990s almost 90 percent of large cities had them. The number of SWAT raids also grew at an astonishing pace, from approximately 3,000 a year in the 1980s to approximately 45,000 a year by the mid-2000s. In addition to the massive uptick in their deployment, the mission of SWAT teams has also drastically changed.
When first created in the late 1960s, SWAT teams were developed to address imminent, violent situations that regular law enforcement officers were untrained for, such as hostage and active shooter situations. Today, according to the ACLU's research, 79 percent of SWAT deployments are for the purpose of executing a search warrant while only 7 percent were for imminent, violent situations.
What does this mean for our communities? As the ACLU report found, in many cases local law enforcement departments are using "paramilitary tactics to conduct domestic drug investigations in people's homes." To make matters worse, there is almost no oversight over SWAT at either the state or local level. This, despite numerous documented instances of excessive force by SWAT teams, including at least two deaths in Virginia that occurred while SWAT teams executed gambling warrants. In fact, only two states have laws that ensure oversight of SWAT teams, and Virginia isn't one of them.
In addition to the increased number of SWAT raids, the ACLU also found that drug related SWAT raids disproportionately impact people of color. Because we lack SWAT data specific to Virginia, we cannot be sure that this national trend has crossed the Virginia border.
Nevertheless, other evidence of disparate policing in the enforcement of Virginia's criminal laws make this national finding regarding SWAT units very troubling. For example, we know that people in communities of color are arrested and prosecuted for drug crimes disproportionately in Virginia. While African-Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate, African-Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in the commonwealth. In Arlington County, that number jumps to 7.8 times more likely for African-Americans.
Use it or lose it
How did this militarization happen? In the late 1980s the U.S Department of Defense launched the 1033 Program, currently managed out of Fort Belvoir. DOD established the program to transfer military equipment to local law enforcement for the purpose of waging the War on Drugs on U.S soil. Under the program, local law enforcement agencies receive this equipment at no cost, though they must pay shipping and maintenance.
In 1996 Congress made this program permanent and made counter-drug and counter-terrorism operations the program's preferred focus. And, the program requires local law enforcement to use this equipment (tanks and grenade launchers included) within one year, or give it back. This creates a strong incentive for local law enforcement to use equipment designed for the battlefield in our communities, regardless of whether the local concerns merit a militarized response.
The U.S. Department of Justice has also jumped on the militarization bandwagon. Through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, DOJ provides local law enforcement with funding to improve their criminal justice system and enforce drug laws. While this funding can be used for drug treatment, indigent defense and crime prevention and education, between April 2012 and March 2013 grantees spent 64 percent of their grant dollars on law enforcement, including weapons purchases, tactical vests, and body armor. The U.S Department of Homeland Security has also brought additional "anti-terrorism" funds to the local law enforcement militarization craze.
What should we do in response to this militarization? First, we should demand that the federal government rein in these programs that incentivize the militarization of local law enforcement in the name of the failed War on Drugs.
Next, we should ensure increased civilian oversight over law enforcement paramilitary activities, including active engagement of elected officials in overseeing the purchase and deployment of military-style equipment and force by law enforcement. Just as the U.S military is subject to civilian oversight, so too should paramilitary police departments be accountable to civilian authorities.
At a minimum, there should be a statewide requirement that law enforcement agencies collect demographic data on stops, stops and frisks, and SWAT deployments, and the Freedom of Information Act should be amended to allow greater public access to information on the use of force in policing.
The commonwealth should also limit SWAT deployments to situations that present a clearly established imminent threat to the lives of law enforcement or the public. SWAT officers should also be required to wear police body cameras during deployments, with safeguards to ensure that the video is not manipulated, limited, or used in a way that violates an individual's privacy. These changes will help (re)build trust between law enforcement and the community, better protect law enforcement from liability and provide the public with a tool to assure accountability.
The police can't have it both ways. They can't argue against providing the public the information that we need to judge their actions and continue the arms buildup that increasingly makes them more like a force at war than a force focused on public safety. It's time to reconsider the policies that have moved battlefield tactics and equipment into our communities. It's time to ask whether any Virginia law enforcement agency needs a tank.