Monday, October 14, 2013

Return of the Blackshirts?

The attire of armed paramilitary squads in Mussolini’s Italy were known as Blackshirts (1, 2). Their wardrobe and behavior were later adopted by other militant fascists, especially the German Schutzstaffel (SS).

These groups of young men were known for gleefully shooting innocent victims first and asking questions later.


Radley Balko, in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, does not go so far as to say that the United States has become a fascist police state . . . yet.  We’re still free to travel, he says, we still have habeas corpus, and we don’t have mass censorship.

But perhaps we have entered a police state writ small. At the individual level, a police officer’s power and authority over the people he interacts with day to day is near complete (p. 335, emphasis in original).
The cause is the tremendous growth over the last forty years of callously indifferent, brutal, and frequently botched SWAT raids conducted initially in the name of the drug war but now expanded to enforcing even minor regulatory infractions, for example, barbering without a license and manufacturing guitars allegedly using contraband wood. SWAT teams have also been sent as follow-up on purse snatchings from cars. Routine police work, in other words, is now being handled by the men and women wearing black pants, black shirts, bulging bullet-proof protectors, and Darth Vader helmets.

The cause of the cause is judicial erosion of the castle doctrine and billions of dollars of federal money made available to police forces to buy military equipment, such as automatic assault weapons, flash-bang grenades, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and tanks. Police in towns as small at 25,000 people have joined the militarization gravy train.

The castle doctrine in common law says your home is your castle and no one, including the police, may enter without knocking and being invited in by you. And the police may not search your premises without a warrant. In the name of the drug war—promoted self-righteously and fervently by both Republicans and Democrats—no-knock entrance has become standard, because knocking supposedly alerts drug dealers to destroy evidence (by flushing drugs down the toilet). Search warrants can be dispensed with if police fear for their safety. Drug dealers are always assumed to be armed and dangerous, which is often not the case.

Never mind that turning the water off or hiring a plumber to put a catch net on the drain would save flushed evidence. Or that one reason for the knock-and-announce castle doctrine is to prevent cops from being shot by citizens who naturally think their homes are being invaded by scummy crooks, perhaps even terrorists. Permits to carry concealed weapons have not helped such citizens. If a cop is killed in one of these raids, the citizen is arrested for murder.

The typical SWAT raid, using the latest military gear, begins with a flash-bang grenade to paralyze the targets, by emitting a blinding burst of light and deafeningly explosive clap. (Never mind that heart attack deaths of innocent victims caused by this “shock and awe” have occurred or that target houses plus neighboring ones have burned to the ground from the fires started by the grenades.)

Next step is to bash down the door, throw anyone present, including grandparents and children, to the floor, zip-tie them, point guns at their heads, and scream expletives. Dogs are shot and the house is trashed while searching for drugs. Sometimes the teams have found only one or two joints of pot or two or three marijuana plants . . . or, quite frequently, nothing.

In Denver in 1999, according to Balko in an earlier paper written for the Cato Institute, 149 no-knock raids produced only 49 charges of any kind with only two targets receiving prison time. The rest? Botched raids. Seventy-three wrong-address case histories  are described by Balko in the same paper. An interactive map of the US, produced by Cato, shows several hundred botched raids since 1985.

Even when a SWAT team has the correct address, many innocent relatives and children are treated like criminals and sometimes killed. The perpetrators—the cops—are exonerated and even praised for not arresting the innocents. “Collateral damage” in a war is acceptable, according to SWAT leaders and police chiefs. Apologies are rare. If media noise is made, victims may win a civil judgment, paid, of course, by taxpayers.

The senseless, needless drug war is merely a much longer repeat of the alcohol prohibition fiasco that lasted from 1920 to 1933. Its major accomplishments were to give us Nascar and the Mafia. Today, we are moving precariously close to a blackshirted police state because of unsound moral, economic, and political policy.

Any hope for reform? Cheye Calvo, mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, succeeded in getting a modest bill passed in the state legislature requiring police departments to keep statistics on the use of SWAT teams—something that had never been done before or considered important. In the last six months of 2009 in Maryland, SWAT teams were deployed 4.5 times a day (804 times total). Ninety-four percent of their outings were to serve search or arrest warrants, half of them for misdemeanors or nonserious felonies.

How was Calvo able to get this much accomplished? In 2004 his front door was bashed down and his two black labs were immediately shot. Calvo and his mother-in-law were forced into the usual positions, screamed at, and interrogated for four hours. The house was trashed, with the dogs’ blood tracked all over.*

It was a mistake (1, 2).

No apologies. No punishment of the perpetrators. County officials said they would do it all over again. The cops, after all, exercised “restraint and compassion” and did not arrest anyone.

Calvo, fortunately for the rest of us, took action. The ACLU has joined in. Balko continues to wage intellectual war against these “special forces” mentalities by writing and speaking frequently (1, 2). And Cato Institute has founded the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project (1, 2).

Much more needs to be done.



*The cruel and unsympathetic killing of dogs requires comment. Mail carriers have been known to have run-ins with dogs. How has the postal service handled such “threats”? They adopted the novel idea of giving carriers training in how to distract dogs, make friends with them, or, if necessary, to use mace to keep them at bay. Dog attacks on mail carriers, according to Balko, “are almost nonexistent” (p. 292). In the Calvo raid, one detective, upon seeing the dead labs, was heard making a phone call to remind a family member to schedule a vet appointment for her own animal. Such callous, almost psychopathic indifference is reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib scandal.


1 comment :

garret seinen said...

It is not unique to the US. I'm on Canada's wast coast and our law enforcement has also been exonerated when innocent people have died while questionable arrests were attempted. As well, using skyrocketing court costs as an excuse, our government has given the police the authority to arrest and sentence for both excessive speeding and DUI, at 0.05% blood alcohol.

Truly the government becoming involved in so many facets means they are failing in the one area we need them...objective enforcement of law.

garret seinen