Ferguson: Fruit of the failed drug war

In the 1960s, civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Ala., and elsewhere faced local police officers armed with handheld batons, fire hoses, attack dogs and horse-mounted riot control officers. Recently in Ferguson, Mo., civic rights protesters went up against aggressive local police officers equipped with body armor, automatic weapons, armored personnel carriers and at least one police sniper.

Street protests today look like those of the 1960s, but with militarization of local law enforcement agencies since then, the police response in Ferguson now looks a lot like urban warfare. Once upon a time, police departments first assessed their town’s unique law enforcement, training and equipment requirements and only then went shopping. That process is now reversed.

A June 2014 American Civil Liberties Union study, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” found that 79 percent of the SWAT deployments examined were search warrant executions in support of drug investigations. In the majority of the incidents, the threats to police weren’t genuine.

The study adds that “SWAT teams were often deployed — unnecessarily and aggressively — to execute search warrants in low-level drug investigations; deployments for hostage or barricade scenarios occurred in only a small number of incidents … thus, the use of a SWAT team to execute a search warrant essentially amounts to the use of paramilitary tactics.”

Tens of thousands of police SWAT raids take place each year, resulting in collateral damage like excessive damage to private property, injury and death for innocent bystanders. Since 2006, according to the New York Times, a sampling of the combat gear received by state and local law enforcement agencies includes: assault rifles, body armor, grenade launchers, and mine-resistant armored vehicles. Do American cities really need mine-resistant
armored vehicles?

The ACLU study once again confirmed that blacks are more likely to be impacted by a SWAT raid than whites. For example, in Allentown, Pa., police SWAT raids were 23 times more likely to impact blacks.

What to do? The events in Ferguson make the ACLU’s advice for change even more urgent: “The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics to conduct ordinary law enforcement — especially to wage the failed War on Drugs and most aggressively in communities of color — has no place in contemporary society. It is not too late to change course — through greater transparency, more oversight, policies that encourage restraint, and limitations on federal incentives, we can foster a policing culture that honors its mission to protect and serve, not to wage war.”