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Police Militarization is at the Heart of America’s Policing Problem

By Joe D'Antonio, July 2, 2020


At the heart of the American policing problem is the increased militarization of the American police force. Simply put, police have become an occupying force in Black and Brown communities that do far more harm than good.

Pittsburgh police in riot gear. September 25, 2009

Kate Sheets/Flickr

Proof of this can be found in the increased use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units. In 1980, only 25 percent of communities had a SWAT team. Today, that figure has climbed to 80 percent. These units were initially established to respond to threats of terrorism or to intervene in kidnappings and other violent events. But since the beginning of the war on drugs, their usage has shifted dramatically.

Recent data indicates that only 7 percent of SWAT deployments annually involve hostage taking, barricades, or an active shooter. SWAT units are now primarily used to execute search warrants, with 62 percent of deployments related to drugs. Half of these deployments are made to the homes of Black and Brown families.

Many of these searches prove to be unnecessary, as 36 percent of SWAT searches do not result in any contraband being found. But even when nothing is found, SWAT deployments still often create unnecessary damage and violence.

Many innocent people have been killed and injured in SWAT raids. In 2014, for instance, a one-year-old baby was burned by a stun grenade used in a raid. These searches also result in damaged property, thanks to officers breaking down doors, detonating flash bang grenades, and firing weapons. This over-eagerness from SWAT units has also led to the rise of “SWATing.

Urge your member of Congress to support this amendment to the NDAA and put a stop to the harm caused by the 1033 program.

SWATing occurs when a person knowingly provides false information to police in the hopes of triggering a SWAT raid on a property. Raids made with this false information have been known to have tragic consequences.

At the heart of the overuse of SWAT teams is the Department of Defense’s 1033 program. This program allows the agency to transfer excess military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. As a result, more than $4.3 billion in military equipment has been transferred to local law enforcement agencies since 1997. This militarization has helped fuel an increased reliance on SWAT teams and other military-like tactics.

President Obama used executive orders to curtail some of the 1033 program while in office, but President Trump has rolled back those orders. Only an act of Congress can put a stop the destruction brought to communities by the 1033 program.

Sen. Brian Schatz (HI) has proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to address the problems with the 1033 program. This amendment would stop civilian police departments from receiving explosive entry equipment, tear gas, assault weapons, and other military equipment that has no practical application in civilian law enforcement.

Urge your member of Congress to support this amendment to the NDAA and put a stop to the harm caused by the 1033 program. Police are there to protect and serve the community, not occupy it.

Joe D'Antonio

  • Program Assistant, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity

Joe D’Antonio is the Program Assistant for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. His primary responsibilities include lobbying members of Congress, writing policy updates, and conducting legislative research.