“We’re fighting them terrorists there, so we don’t have to fight them here,” is a common nonsensical catch phrase used in many variations during the Bush presidency from 2000 until 2008. In the past few years, the exact opposite has happened. United States policy and military training has left the war theaters of the middle east. With military style weapons and training given to SWAT teams in municipal police departments around the country, infantry tactics are often used domestically now against US citizens in non-violent drug crimes. In some cases, this has lead to accidental deaths, police brutality and the destruction of lives for non-violent peaceful citizens.
On February 11, the Columbia, Missouri, police department’s SWAT team served a drug warrant at the home of Jonathan Whitworth and Brittany Montgomery. Police say that eight days earlier they had received a tip from a confidential informant that Whitworth had a large supply of marijuana in his home. They say they first conducted a trash pull, and found marijuana residue in the family’s garbage. During the raid, police shot and killed the family’s pit bull. At least one bullet ricocheted, injuring the family’s pet corgi. Whitworth, Montgomery, and their 7-year-old son were at home at the time. This was reported in a few local newspapers and would have been forgotten about, had a responsible reporter not made repeated requests for the video of the raid1. The resulting video gained a large amount of Internet viewership and outrage began to pour out over the police raid.
Jonathan may not have been a model citizen. He did have a previous DWI conviction, but he had no history of violence and there were no weapons in his home. He ended up pleading guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia, but was never charged with possession of marijuana because the small amount found had been decriminalized for personal use in Columbia1. It was very likely he only plead guilty and paid the $300 fine because of the risk of losing his child.
Jonathan may have made some mistakes, but the police raid based on evidence from an anonymous source and by ashes in his trash can in no way justified the brutal home invasion or the shooting of his dog. What shouldn’t outrage people is that this happened. What should outrage people is that these kinds of raids happen all the time. Jonathan was lucky enough to have a reporter with the diligence to get the tape of the invasion and lucky enough that it grew to such a following on the Internet.
This type of overreaction by the police isn’t anything new.
“Edward Anthony Anderson, January 15, 1996, shot while handcuffed and on the ground. Frankie Arzuega, fifteen years old, January 12, 1996, shot in the back of the head; the following Mother’s Day, his family received taunting phone calls from anonymous sources: they dialed *69 (call back) and the police answered. Anthony Baez, December 22, 1994, chocked to death for playing football on the streets of New Your City. Rene Campos, whom police said committed suicide in custody by stuffing more than half his T-shirt down his own throat, reaching three-quarters of the way down to his lungs. Garland Carter, seventeen years old, January 8, 1996, shot in the back by police who earlier that day had driven by his home, making their fingers into the shape of a gun and “firing.” Angel Castro, fifteen years old, October 23, 1996. Having already moved out of a neighborhood because of death threats from the police, Castro rode his bike back to the neighborhood to a friend’s birthday party: He accidentally ran into a police cruiser, breaking his teeth, and as he rose from the ground a cop shot him. Sherly Colon, April 25, 1997, pushed off the roof of a housing project, after which police removed the cuffs which had held her hands behind her back….The list is as long as you want to make it2” –The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen
Anthony Graber was a motorcyclist and part of the Air National Guard. He was admittedly speeding and showboating dangerously on his motorcycle. However, he was confronted not by uniformed police, but by a police office without a visible badge in an unmarked car who approached him with a drawn gun for nearly five seconds before identifying himself as a police officer. Grabber posted the video from his helmet camera online, almost resulting in his arrest for “recording a trooper without consent” according to Greg Shipley of the Maryland State Police3.
“The issue is important not just in order to keep law enforcement transparent and accountable, but in that it raises fundamental questions about the nature of individual rights in a free society. The way Maryland officials are interpreting the state’s wiretapping law, government agents-in this case on-duty cops-have privacy rights in public spaces that ordinary citizens don’t. But state employees acting as state employees don’t have rights. Citizens have rights. Governments and their employees have powers, and only to the extent that those powers have been delegated to them by the people they’re governing4.” -Radley Balko. Reason Magazine
Martin Luther King said during his speech on Vietnam that, “…I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
The video camera is perhaps the greatest weapon against a police state. The security forces in the United States are becoming increasingly more militarized. More smaller cities and townships are gaining full SWAT teams. Many newer police officers are hired straight out of the military and there has been an increase of military style training for existing officers. However, police and military are designed to serve two totally different purposes.
“There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people5.” -Commander Adma. Battlestar Galactica (TV Show 2004)
Communities should know police officers. Officers should walk the beat, be involved with their communities and be known by the people they serve and protect. There were some places in this country where this use to be true, but more often we are seeing police officers as the enemy. Citizens do not see them at community events, bars or in our social groups. Instead citizens see them as not serving and protecting the people, but instead as generating revenue for the state.
The police force in the United States can serve the people once again. To do so, it must abandon unions which lobby for legislation that increases prison sentences, reduce money to rehabilitation programs and are more concerned with generating revenue for their employees than seeking to help the socially deviant to become constructive members of society.
The second thing municipal police forces must do is to demilitarize. There should be no reason for a city with less than two-hundred thousand residents to have a dedicated SWAT team. Money spent on military grade body armor, riot gear and weapons could be spent better on crime lab equipment for more serious cases like homicides, and also diverted to strengthening the education system to keep the current generation of youth from ending up contributing to crime.
Regular citizens should have no reason to fear police officers in their own homes, and most do not until the unthinkable happens to them. The use of SWAT teams in home raids with little probable cause and the unnecessary use of lethal force are both situations that are terribly under-reported by media. The cases which do make the headlines are more the norm than the exception. The role of police officers need to change in our society from that of an employee of the state charged with defending laws purely for generating revenue, to that of an officer of the peace that is entrusted with caring for the citizens over the well being of themselves.
1 A Drug Raid Goes Viral. Balko. Reason.com. May 11, 2010.
2 The Culture of Make Believe. Jensen. 2002. p23-27
3 Man faces jail for recording out of control cop. ABC Channel 2 News. Baltimore, MD.
3 Backlash Against Anthony Graber’s Arrest. Balko. Reason Magazine. June 3, 2010
5 Battlestar Galactica (2004). Water. Season 1, Episode 4. (TV Show)