Cops or soldiers? America’s police have become too militarisedSubmitted by Michael Nystrom on Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:50
Mar 22nd 2014 | The Economist
FROM the way police entered the house—helmeted and masked, guns drawn and shields in front, knocking down the door with a battering ram and rushing inside—you might think they were raiding a den of armed criminals. In fact they were looking for $1,000-worth of clothes and electronics allegedly bought with a stolen credit card. They found none of these things, but arrested two people in the house on unrelated charges.
They narrowly avoided tragedy. On hearing intruders break in, the homeowner’s son, a disabled ex-serviceman, reached for his (legal) gun. Luckily, he heard the police announce themselves and holstered it; otherwise, “they probably would have shot me,” he says. His mother, Sally Prince, says she is now traumatised.
Gary Mikulec, chief of the Ankeny, Iowa police force, which raided Ms Prince’s home in January, said that the suspects arrested “were not very good people”. One had a criminal history that included three assault charges, albeit more than a decade old, and on his arrest was found to have a knife and a meth pipe.
It is easy to see why the police like to be better armed than the people they have to arrest. They risk their lives every day, and are understandably keen to get home in one piece. A big display of force can make a suspect think twice about pulling a gun. “An awful lot of SWAT tactics are focused on forcing the suspect to surrender,” says Bill Bratton, New York’s police chief.
But civil libertarians such as Radley Balko, the author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop”, fret that the American police are becoming too much like soldiers. Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams (ie, paramilitary police units) were first formed to deal with violent civil unrest and life-threatening situations: shoot-outs, rescuing hostages, serving high-risk warrants and entering barricaded buildings, for instance. Their mission has crept.