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Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: The Militarization of Law Enforcement

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later:
The Militarization of Law Enforcement

by Silja J.A. Talvi

The following is a review of Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and the Police, Peter B. Kraska (editor), Northeastern University Press, 2001.

As the line between the military industrial complex and the criminal justice system continues to blur, Peter B. Kraska, Professor of Criminal Justice at Eastern Kentucky University, brings readers his timely, tightly-edited book, Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and the Police.

In the last fifteen years, as Kraska explains, the U.S. has witnessed a "rapid acceleration"of both militarism and militarization in civilian governmental functions.

And nowhere has that acceleration been as pronounced as in law enforcement.

Since the Reagan era, successive American presidential administrationswith the support of the Congresshave "further militarized crime control discourse by radiating the master metaphor of `war' into a flood of taken-for-granted martial expressions and submetaphors."

It was Reagan who began to routinely equate the "evils of communism" with the threat of drugs and crime, and then took the first step toward the present-day omnipresence of drug war rhetoric by declaring illicit substances as an official threat to national security.

In subsequent years, both the Bush and Clinton administrations eagerly engaged in a game of "political one-upmanship" arguing over who could push for the most authoritarian and punitive approach toward the War on Drugs. (The drug war mantle has since been passed onto President George W. Bush, who has not disappointed his predecessors in this regard.) As a result, the military and criminal justice systems now work together to handle the drug/crime problem as a veritable social or political "insurrection."

The newly evolved perception of drug use and criminal behavior as a national security issue has thus served to justify a militaristic response, as Kraska explains, "including campaigns to occupy, control, and restore state-defined order to public and private space, as well as operating detention facilities designed to punish and warehouse the prisoners of this `war.'"

In this acceleration of a militaristic approach toward criminal justice, Kraska argues that the military and the criminal justice system have emerged as the clear and indisputable victors. The military, for its part, has been able to stretch its mandate to include internal, social national matters, and thereby guarantee the expansion of its already-inflated budget. The criminal justice system, in addition to a gross inflation of its overall budget, has also been able to tap into the surveillance, high-tech weaponry, computer technology and personnel assistance of the military industrial complex.

The losers, regrettably, have been the rest of us. To take but one example, police paramilitary units (PPUs) now conduct some 40,000 drug raids annually, with hundreds of such incidents resulting in fatalities, injuries and wrongful arrests of innocent citizens. These PPUs, often referred to as SWAT teams or special response teams, are modeled after military special operations groups including the Navy SEALS.

Once only a peripheral part of larger metropolitan police departments, PPUs are now commonplace in towns and cities across America: By 1995, over 77% of police departments had a paramilitary unit, notes Kraska, a 48% increase since 1985. Altogether, nearly 30,000 paramilitary "deployments" were reported in 1995, at a stunning 939% increase over such call-outs in 1980.

"The bulk of deployments that paramilitary units engage in today are for the execution of no-knock warrants," explains Kraska. "In both large and small departments, PPUs routinely carry out dangerous contraband raids on people's private residences, often in predawn hours, for purposes of conducting a crude form of investigation into drug and gun law violations."

In one of the most egregious examples, 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda was shot to death in his own home in the predawn hours of September 13, 2000. With a SWAT officer standing over him screaming at the boy to lie down on the floor with his arms outstretched, Alberto complied.

Less than 30 seconds later, writes Kraska, "he was struck in the back and killed by a shotgun blast from a SWAT officer who stood over himfrom all indications, an unintentional discharge."

No guns or drugs were ever found in the house. The elder Mr. Sepulveda did not have an arrest record. Yet 11-year-old Alberto had paid the price of the ill-informed raid with his life.

What this scenario exemplifies is the incremental erosion of 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which was signed into law after a host of Reconstruction Era abuses of the civilian population because of collusion between local law enforcement and military personnel.

In his essay, "The Thick Green Line," Colonel Charles J. Dunlap explains that The Posse Comitatus Act, which clearly demarcated the differing roles of these armed segments of society, first began to be whittled away by the Reagan Administration.

"Cognizant of the international dimensions of the drug trade, convinced that local police forces were being overwhelmed by the problem, and impressed with the efficiency and renewed popularity of the armed forces, writes Col. Dunlap, "Congress passed a number of statutes designed to bring military resources to bear in the `war' on drugs."

With contributions from an intriguing combination of academics, military writers and attorneys, Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System covers a broad scope of topics, including the military's involvement in drug and immigration enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the creeping role of high technology, science, information management and surveillance in the criminal justice system.

And still, as Kraska points out, most Americans hold firm the idea that the explosive growth of the "crime control industry" has everything to do with the perceived need to respond strongly to what has erroneously been termed a national crisis of crime and drugs.

But behind the scenes, as Kraska concludes, "the criminal justice system is developing into an `industrial complex' ... [I}t seeks out and constructs new problems for its solution, actively pursues its own self-serving agenda as opposed to working toward the `public good,' and works closely with an array of for-profit organizations."

"Put simply," he adds, "growth becomes not a means to a laudable end, but an end in and of itself."

Silja J.A. Talvi is a Seattle-based freelance journalist who reports on criminal justice issues for publications ranging from In These Times to the Christian Science Monitor.

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