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Matthew T. Mangino: Federal government complicit in militarization of police

Nearly 50 years ago when Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates organized the nation’s first special weapons and tactics team (SWAT), nobody envisioned that most police departments — large and small — across the country would someday have SWAT teams.

Gates wanted an elite team of specialized cops similar to the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs that could respond to riots, barricades, shootouts or hostage-takings, wrote Radley Balko in the Huffington Post. The SWAT team would be used exclusively for special incidents that Gates thought rank-and-file officers were not prepared to handle.

Only days after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Paul Szoldra — a former Iraqi war veteran — described what he saw in photographs of the police responding to protests in Ferguson.

“We are shown a heavily armed SWAT team. They have short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles … with scopes that can accurately hit a target out to 500 meters. On their side they carry pistols. On their front, over their body armor, they carry at least four to six extra magazines, loaded with 30 rounds each,” Szoldra wrote in Business Insider.

He continued, “They wear green tops, and pants fashioned after the U.S. Marine Corps MARPAT camouflage pattern. And they stand in front of a massive uparmored truck called a Bearcat, similar in look to a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle.”

The militarization of the police has been hotly debated in the wake of Ferguson.

Today, SWAT teams are not unique to big incidents in big cities. Eastern Kentucky University professor Dr. Peter Kraska testified at a recent Senate hearing called by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill looking into the militarization of local police departments. He told McCaskill’s committee that the line between police and military is quickly blurring.

In the mid-1980s, one-third of police departments had SWAT teams, Kraska told the Louisville Courier-Journal. Now more than 80 percent of all police departments have a SWAT team. The number of SWAT deployments skyrocketed from 3,000 a year in the 1980s to an estimated 60,000 annually.

Though SWAT raids are commonly associated with police response to potentially violent situations, a recent ACLU report found that, “only a small handful of deployments — 7 percent — were for hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.” According to the report, more than 60 percent of deployments were to search for drugs or for serving warrants on individual residences.

St. Louis County Police Col. Jon Belmar defended his department’s para-military response in Ferguson in a recent interview with USA Today. “Had we not had the ability to protect officers with those vehicles [armored], I am afraid that we would have to engage people with our own gun fire. I really think having the armor gave us the ability not to have pulled one trigger. …”

The militarization of the police is the byproduct of two wars — the war on drugs and the war on terror.

Local police departments have welcomed surplus military equipment from the Pentagon. According to the Wall Street Journal, billions of dollars of excess military equipment and funding to buy other gear funneled down to local police departments over the past two decades.

Some local police departments are so eager to get free surplus gear they have made an investment in keeping the military equipment flowing. According to Politco.com, last year about 30 law enforcement unions or police departments spent more than $2.1 million lobbying Congress to keep the surplus program in place.

The militarization of America’s police forces has been building for nearly a half-century with little oversight. Last week’s congressional hearings revealed that the federal government does not track the distribution of surplus military equipment to local police departments. That must change. The federal government should also begin tracking the use of SWAT teams and develop national standards for mobilizing SWAT teams.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

Matthew T. Mangino: Federal government complicit in militarization of police