All of our episodes are crowdfunded, Contribute to the Truth in Media Project Here
In the latest episode of Truth in Media, Investigative Journalist Ben Swann looks at the root of America’s current problem with the militarization of police.
“The militarization of America’s police forces has captured the nation’s attention, largely because of Ferguson, Missouri,” said Swann. “But what media has not told you, is how police forces got militarized in the first place, and why militarization is about a lot more than just military equipment.”
Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson during a confrontation in August. His death triggered protests, some of which led to rioting and looting.
Swann points out that what really “stunned the nation” was the way police responded to the protests. Rather than responding like a police force that intended to serve and protect, Ferguson police responded like a military unit, complete with armored vehicles and flash grenades. Swann said that for millions of Americans, “this was a stunning site on American streets.”
Swann said that while Benswann.com has been working to raise awareness about the militarization of police for over a year, “the rest of the media acted like they had no idea.”
The program ignored by the mainstream media is the 1033 program. Also called the Department of Defense Excess Property Program, this platform is used by police departments to obtain military equipment. Swann explains:
“It is a federal program that provides surplus DoD military equipment to state and local civilian law enforcement agencies for use in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism operations, and to enhance officer safety.”
While the 1033 program does provide armored vehicles and flash grenades, it also provides police departments with other emergency supplies that go beyond weaponry.
Larry Kirk, the Police Chief in Old Monroe, Missouri, which is just a few miles from Ferguson, said that he is against banning the 1033 program altogether, due to the fact that it gives smaller departments certain supplies they would not have been able to afford.
However, while Kirk is in favor of keeping the program, he is also one of the few police chiefs in the country who is opposed to departments receiving military weapons. Kirk explained that he is skeptical about the level is militarized weapons that he has seen come through the program recently.
“Being realistic, there is no reason I would ever need an MRAP,” said Kirk. “Most departments would never need one.”
Swann further described the “MRAP,” which is one of two armored vehicles that police departments are given by grant, through the 1033 program. The vehicles, which were originally made to fight in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, were kept by the Department of Defense after the wars cooled down, and are now being granted to local police departments.
According to a report from the New York Times, “about 500 planes, helicopters, and mine-resistant armored vehicles have been obtained, alongside 94,000 machine guns.”
Swann said that following the protests in Ferguson, Americans began to realize the size and scale of the military equipment that was available to local police, and they “began calling for police departments to do away with military vehicles.”
Swann also pointed out that while the mainstream media has covered the protests, it hasn’t worked to provide Americans with the keys to the root of the problem.
“What media has not helped the public understand is that the real problem with militarization is not military equipment,” said Swann. “It’s the use by police of military tactics.”
Swann gave three examples of incidents in which police used military tactics to serve warrants on drugs:
The first example occurred in Detroit, Michigan, when 7-year-old girl Aiyana Jones was awakened in the middle of the night by a stun grenade developed for wartime raids, called a “flash bang,” which was thrown by a SWAT team, and immediately set fire to her blanket. Following the release of the grenade, the SWAT team stormed into the house, and mistakenly shot Jones through the neck, killing her.
A second incident occurred in Tucson, Arizona, when a SWAT team attempted to serve a search warrant as part of a multi-house drug crackdown. Jose Guerena, an Iraq war veteran who lived in the house, instructed his family to hide while he got his gun, after his wife became alarmed at the sight of a shadowy figure standing in their front yard, holding a gun. Guerena retrieved his gun – leaving the safety on – and stepped into the living room. The SWAT team then entered the house and shot him 60 times.
Swann noted that the police “have still never said whether they found drugs” in Guerena’s home.
A third example occurred in Atlanta, Georgia, when a SWAT team visited a family’s home in search of a small amount of drugs they believed were in the possession of the family’s nephew. The parents, three daughters, and a 19-month-old baby boy were asleep in a converted garage when police opened the door and threw a stun grenade in. The grenade landed in the 19-month-old baby’s crib. It blew a hole in his chest, and resulted in such severe burns that the baby was placed in a medically induced coma.
Swann said that, according to author Radley Balkow, “The most common use of SWAT teams today is to serve narcotics warrants, usually with forced, unannounced entry into the home.”
These raids have become increasingly frequent, with as many as 40,000 occurring every year. Swann pointed out that the raids are “needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers.”
“Despite what the media spin-doctors will tell you, militarization has nothing to do with the war on terror, and it has everything to do with perpetuating the war on drugs,” Swann said.
Kirk said that he believed the United States has created so many different wars, from the war on crime to the war on drugs, that it has left police officers in the perpetual state of needing to be a “warrior.”
“If you continue to tell people they are in a war, you are going to create warriors,” said Kirk. “You are going to create soldiers that you are now putting on the street.”
Swann traveled to Washington DC to investigate the root of militarization. He noted that although DC has military gear and uses military tactics, “it does not participate in the 1033 program.”
Swann spoke with Seema Sadanandam, the ACLU Director of the Nation’s Capital. Sadanandam explained that while the picture of tanks in the streets was the “most visceral and extreme example” that came out of Ferguson, there is more to the concept of police militarization.
Sadanandam said that the fact that DC does not utilize the 1033 program would be surprising to members of the black communities who have been “subjected to law enforcement’s militarized war on drugs.”
While DC does not participate in the program, it does use military tactics on a daily basis. One of the tactics used, is referred to as the “jump out car.
Sadanandam explained that a “jump out car” is an unmarked car containing four to six officers, dressed in tactical vests, who jump out of the car to ambush their target. “They literally jump out of the car and surprise people,” said Sadanandam, who went on to say that the main objective is to convince people to submit to a so-called “consent search.”
According to Sadanandam, the tactic of using jump out cars is only acceptable in black, brown, and indigent communities, and is not seen in all-white communities.
“In Dupont circle, for example, which is a largely white community and where we know that there is regular cocaine use and cocaine possession, you would never see jump out cars jumping out on a group of white men in business suits, and police saying they fit the description of regular cocaine users,” said Sadanandam. “That would be considered completely unacceptable.”
Swann attended a meeting in southeastern DC, where black residents gathered to express their frustration with militarized police. He noted that people living in these neighborhoods say militarization for them is “not about the idea that so many of us have been confronted with” in the last few months. Instead, it is something they have been dealing with their entire lives.
Orlando Bego, the Pastor of Centerpoint Baptist Church, said that in the midst of the events in Ferguson, the nation was watching the wrong problem, and that getting rid of the 1033 program will not solve the real problem.
“Ferguson is not new,” said Bego. “It may be new for the mass of people who watch it on media outlets, but for people who live in inner city, urban neighborhoods, that is a common tactic that is used.”
Bego believes that even if the 1033 program were eliminated, the military mindset instilled in police officers would still be present. He said he dreads the day that his 10-year-old son, who currently wants to grow up to be a police officer because he views officers as heroes who serve and protect, is “pulled over for driving while black,” or “stopped and harassed for making eye contact.”
Ben Swann maintains that while Americans should be outraged at the idea of militarization, it should not be just because police show up in tanks to a protest. It should be because of the tactics that have been used by police for years, such as using battering rams to knock down people’s doors, and throwing stun grenades through windows, all for the sake of serving drug warrants.
“The militarized mindset isn’t about gear, it’s about tactics,” said Swann. “When we talk about things like ‘no hesitation targets,’ where police are taught to shoot a child holding a gun, or shoot a pregnant woman holding a gun, at what point do we as a public tell police, ‘Stop. We want you to hesitate.’”
Swann noted that while there are still many men and women who become police officers to serve and protect their communities, the problem occurs in the militarized way they are being trained. “They’re being taught to kill or be killed, that every suspect they encounter could be their last encounter, and that every person walking the streets of every community, is a threat, when in fact, it’s simply not true,” Swann said.
“Militarization takes good cops and teaches them to act like they’re in a warzone,” said Swann. “But the streets of the United States of America are not a warzone, and it’s up to us, the public, to keep it that way.”