Personal Freedom

New ACLU Report on Police Militarization Highlights Problems, Proposes Solutions

After over a year of investigation, surveying law enforcement agencies in 26 states, the ACLU has now released its report on police militarization. “Neighborhoods are not war zones,” the report reads, “and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies.” Data obtained from open records requests for the years 2011-12 covers over 800 SWAT deployments in the report.

Noting that at least 62% of SWAT deployments from their data deal with drug searches, ACLU says that the use of “heavily armed SWAT teams” to search people’s homes for drugs “means that law enforcement agencies across the country are using this hyper-aggressive form of domestic policing to fight a war that has waning public support and has harmed, much more than helped, communities.”

While the report focuses on the equipment used by officers and the alleged crimes that lead them to use it, it also discusses how police militarization is about “culture.”

Our analysis shows that the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a “warrior” mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs. This shift in culture has been buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s weakening of the Fourth Amendment (which protects the right to privacy in one’s home) through a series of decisions that have given the police increased authority to force their way into people’s homes, often in drug cases.

The 45-page report is worth reading its entirety to learn about highlighted cases of police abuse, trends in law enforcement that have created the culture shift, and potential reforms. Read the entire report here.

This report follows up on related work done by journalist Radley Balko. Having recently authored Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, Balko is following up on his own policy report from 2006 when at CATO he published Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.

Both Balko and Kara Dansky, the primary author of the ACLU report, have praised Utah for leading the nation on reform. Balko highlighted this effort in a six-part series at Huffington Post, and followed it up after the recent legislative session at the Washington Post in an article titled “Utah is a hotbed of police reform.”

Dansky’s praise came during last week’s Fourth Amendment Forum hosted by Libertas Institute along with ACLU Utah and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Dansky, along with Attorney General Sean Reyes, District Attorney Sim Gill, and others, was a panelist discussing the balance between law enforcement and civil liberties.

In an op-ed after this recent legislative session, Marina Lowe of ACLU Utah and I discussed some of the legislative successes relative to the 4th amendment which have earned national attention and praise, and more importantly, have positioned Utah as a leader on these issues. The effort to restrict forcible entry, impose transparency on SWAT deployments, and protect the location and data of people’s cell phones was spearheaded by Libertas Institute and supported by the ACLU. Together, our organizations have achieved tremendous success and are working further to explore ways to protect the rights of individuals and appropriately restrain law enforcement officers.