Police develop 'military mind set'

With aid of Pentagon, civilian forces acquiring army-style look, approach

September 12, 1999|By Diane Cecilia Weber

ON FEB. 28, 1993, 76 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) assaulted Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, firing MP-5 machine guns continuously and throwing percussion grenades -- just to execute an arrest-and-search warrant.

The agents had been trained in military assault tactics by Green Berets at Fort Hood, Texas. Although the BATF's lengthy search warrant had not mentioned drugs, the agency nevertheless reported a drug connection -- a methamphetamine lab -- so it could receive free advice, training and equipment from the Pentagon. No proof of a drug lab was found after the attack.

Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which took control of what was to become a 51-day siege at Mount Carmel, received advice, training and equipment from the military. Delta Force advisers played a key role in the FBI's tank and chemical warfare attack on the Davidian residence April 19, 1993, and federal agents acquired military training to drive the M-60 tanks that inserted CS gas into the compound and the Bradley Fighting Vehicles that shot nearly 400 40-mm canisters of CS gas through the walls of the structure. The FBI now admits to firing pyrotechnic devices into portion of the compound.

The military's role in the Waco episode was perfectly legal. A report by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, says the standard for justifying the military's role in drug investigations has not been clearly established. Consequently, military officials have "considerable discretion" in deciding to assist civilian police agencies.

Since 1981, when Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Official Act, the military has become increasingly involved in civilian law enforcement, and has been encouraged to share equipment, training, facilities and technology with civilian enforcement agencies.

During the past 20 years, under the direct political sponsorship of elected representatives in Congress and under successive presidents, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 -- a law designed to keep the military out of civilian affairs -- has been diluted by exceptions tied to the war on drugs. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan officially designated drug trafficking as a "national security" threat. A year later, Congress set up an administrative apparatus, with a toll-free number, to encourage local civilian agencies to take advantage of military assistance.

In 1989, President George Bush created six regional joint task forces in the Department of Defense to act as liaisons between police and the military. (The BATF and FBI relied on Joint Task Force 6 for help in the Waco assaults).

Wartime arms in peacetime

A few years later, Congress ordered the Pentagon to make military surplus hardware available to state and local police for enforcement of drug laws -- which the military has done, free of charge. And in 1994, the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice signed an agreement enabling the military to transfer wartime technology to local police departments for peacetime use in American neighborhoods, against American citizens.

This sharing of military resources with civilian agencies has not only gone to federal agencies but also to police bureaus across the nation, from the huge Los Angeles Police Department to the seven-member department in Jasper, Fla. (population 2,000). The result has been an alarming militarization of local law enforcement. Most hardware has been funneled to special paramilitary units in departments known as Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, contributing to what criminal justice scholar Peter Kraska has called the "militarization of Mayberry."

Since the early 1980s, SWAT teams have proliferated. A 1997 study by Kraska showed that 90 percent of cities with populations of more than 50,000 had paramilitary units, as did three-quarters of those with populations under 50,000. The Pentagon has been equipping those units with everything from M-16 automatic rifles to grenade launchers. Jasper's seven-member force, for example, has been the beneficiary of seven M-16s, 23 helicopters, an armored personnel carrier, two C-12 aircraft and a bomb robot. Los Angeles asked for, and got, 600 M-16s after a February 1997 shootout with bank robbers carrying automatic weapons and wearing body armor.

Between 1995 and 1997, the military handed over 1.2 million pieces of surplus military hardware to police SWAT teams. But more important, about half of SWAT members get their training from active-duty military personnel, some of them from the Navy SEALS or Army Rangers. Like those special operations units, the SWAT team is structured as a combat unit, with a commander, a tactical leader, a scout, a sniper and so on.

This, in combination with full battle dress of lace-up combat boots, full-body armor in black or camouflage, Kevlar helmets and -- for a touch of impersonality -- "Ninja" hoods, has produced a military mind set in many police departments.

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