This article was originally published on Ammo.com.
The Role of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Civil asset forfeiture (CAF) is a major driver in the militarization of the police force. Put simply, CAF is a legal principle that allows police to seize money and property from “suspected” criminals, which they can do without a warrant because the suspect’s property doesn’t have the presumption of innocence. Note that police do not have to convict or even indict. Indeed, indictments are not even filed in over 80 percent of all cases. Police can simply seize property, more or less at will, with some property harder to seize than others. Seizure of anything under $20,000 will almost certainly stand because that’s about what it’s going to cost you to fight CAF in court.
Most of the money raised through civil asset forfeiture is filed under “other.” This can be anything from a $600 coffee maker to a tank. Because the burden of proof is so low and the benefits are so high, CAF is effectively a legally allowed form of theft by police officers, allowing them to purchase military-grade hardware with stolen property. Here is a short list of military hardware purchased with civil asset forfeiture funds:
- $5 million helicopter for the Los Angeles Police Department
- $1 million mobile command bus for Prince George County, Maryland
- $227,000 for a Lenco brand armored vehicle in Douglasville, GA, a town with a population of 32,000
- $54,000 for 27 M-4 assault rifles in Braselton, GA, a town with a population of 9,476
While not the sole, nor even the primary, means by which the police are becoming militarized, this is a significant method for police departments to bankroll their own militarization.
Highlights of Police Militarization
It’s one thing to discuss police militarization simply in terms of weapons acquisition. It’s another to discuss police militarization in terms of actual incidents. Some high-profile incidents involving heavily militarized police are worth examining.
- MOVE: In 1985, the Philadelphia police came into conflict with a militant black nationalist organization called MOVE over the clearing of a building. An armed standoff resulted in shots exchanged between the compound’s inhabitants and the police. Eventually, this erupted into a firefight involving both semi-automatic and automatic weapons. On the orders of the police commissioner, the building was bombed twice. The resulting fire spread to a total of 65 different houses in the neighborhood and caused 11 deaths, including five children under 13. Over 250 were left homeless due to the fires.
- Ruby Ridge: This is notorious within in the Second Amendment and liberty movements, so it hardly needs to be repeated. In 1992, the United States Marshal Service attempted to serve a bench warrant at Ruby Ridge, the home of Randy Weaver and his family. His wife Vicki and his 14-year-old son Sammy were shot by USMS and FBI agents armed with M16s, sniper rifles and weaponized vehicles. Randy Weaver’s attorney made accusations of criminal wrongdoing and a resulting 14-day Senate investigation called for sweeping law enforcement reforms to avoid another similar incident. Federal officers also killed the Weaver family dog.
- Branch Davidians: This is perhaps one of, if not the, archetypal example of a militarized police force greatly overreaching. Armed with .50 caliber rifles, M728 Combat Engineer Vehicles (which are effectively tanks) and M79 grenade launchers, the FBI and ATF engaged in a firefight with Branch Davidians inside. Controversy remains to this day with regard to who fired first and who started the fire that consumed the building, leaving 82 members of the church dead.
These are the big three, but there are many smaller events also worth mentioning. During the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, private Blackwater contractors patrolled the streets with automatic weapons. They were accused of summary execution of looters. In a low point for militarized police in 2014, a SWAT team in Cornelia, Georgia severely mutilated the face of an 18-month-old baby boy with a flash bang grenade in a fruitless search for drugs.
The Role of SWAT Teams
SWAT teams are effectively the military of the police force. Begun in 1965 in Philadelphia, SWAT teams were conceived as a way to restrain urban unrest, deal with hostage situations or handle barricaded marksmen like Charles Whitman.
Indeed, early uses of SWAT seemed to be well within the range of appropriateness. In December 1969, the LAPD’s SWAT team squared off with the Black Panthers, with Daryl Gates requesting and receiving permission to use a grenade launcher. In May 1974, the same SWAT team had a several-hours-long gun battle with the Symbionese Liberation Army.
However, SWAT teams gradually began to tackle missions that were not, strictly speaking, appropriate for the tools in their toolbox. What’s more, once LAPD’s SWAT team became famous, every city seemed to want one. The number of SWAT teams in cities of 50,000 or more doubled between the mid-80s and late-90s, at which point 89 percent of all cities of this size had a SWAT team.
Some startling facts when it comes to SWAT teams:
- 62% of all SWAT deployments were for drug raids
- 79% of these were done on private residences
- Only 7% of all raids were done for situations SWAT was invented for – namely barricades or hostage situations
Even smaller cities have SWAT teams now, which raises the question of why. Mission creep is the short answer, with SWAT teams now being used for operations far beyond the original scope of their work. Put simply, the SWAT team was not created to serve every search warrant that comes across the desk of a small-town police force.
SWAT teams ostensibly exist to respond to “high risk” scenarios. But there are seemingly no guidelines for what makes a situation high risk. Sometimes local SWAT teams use a threat matrix. However, these matrices are highly subjective and vulnerable to abuse. Partial responses are discouraged. Either the SWAT team is not deployed at all or there is a full-throttle response.
To use one example of why these matrices don’t work, let us consider the presence or absence of weapons. There is no way of knowing whether or not weapons will be present. So officers must subjectively guess whether or not they believe weapons will be present. Unfortunately, officers are pretty bad at this guessing game. According to an ACLU report, SWAT officers believed weapons were present in 35 percent of cases, but only actually found them in a scant 13 percent. In 36 percent of cases where SWAT was deployed to find drugs, no drugs were found.
Fusion Centers: Surveillance and Snooping
In at least one case, it already has. Fusion Centers are hubs for local, state and federal police to share information. They’re effectively intelligence-gathering done by various police agencies who pool their resources. While this isn’t an uncommon practice, the Fusion Centers have virtually no oversight and are filled with zeal for the War on Terror. While its primary existence was to surveil in the fight against terrorism, Fusion Centers have quickly ballooned to gather intelligence on just about anything – and it’s not just the police. The military participates in Fusion Centers, as does the private sector, which means they’re a privacy nightmare.
The federal government has pushed Fusion Centers and largely bankrolled them. Hundreds of FBI agents work with Fusion Centers, with the federal government providing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. In the case of the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, the federal government created a Fusion Center at the state level, only eventually turning control of an ostensibly state agency to the state. 30 percent of these “state” agencies are physically located in federal office space.
Private sector companies collect, store and analyze data for Fusion Centers. This would be dangerous on its own, but the lack of any oversight makes it particularly troublesome. Even if a private sector has the best of intentions, malicious third-party actors could access some of your most sensitive data if it’s been datamined by a Fusion Center. A company without the best intentions can do all kinds of “government-approved” snooping into your personal affairs.
Another nasty surveillance tool currently being deployed by the police is the Stingray phone tracker. This is effectively a phony cell phone tower that snoops on cell phone calls, which can extract significant information about you from your cell phone. Originally to be used only in terrorism investigations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that the LAPD “has been using it for just about any investigation imaginable.” They can also be used to jam or otherwise interfere with your phone signal. Stingrays are highly mobile and can be mounted to just about any vehicle.
All of this is part of an overall drive for increased police surveillance starting at the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security and trickling down. “Total Information Awareness” was one of the more Orwellian euphemisms of the early Bush and Department of Homeland Security years. It was quickly renamed Terrorism Information Awareness, then codenamed “Basketball.” Its goal is to know everything, or at least as much as it can. In 2012, the New York Times reported that this program was “quietly thriving” at the National Security Agency.
The Information Awareness Office, established by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA – who we will discuss more later), oversaw Total Information Awareness. They collect emails, social network identities, records for phone calls and credit card purchases, medical records and a host of other information with no need for a warrant. Congress defunded this program, but it exists under the auspices of a number of different agencies according to Edward Snowden.
Technologies developed by the Information Awareness Office (and in the wake of Snowden’s revelations, it’s worth noting that these are just the technologies that have been made public) includes:
- Human Identification at a Distance (HumanID): Facial and gait recognition software capable of recognizing individuals at 500 feet out.
- Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery: A tool for connecting dots between sparse information, such as cell phone records, web pages, emails or social media posts.
- Genisys: A massive database for storing the large amount of data needed to fuel Total Information Awareness.
- Scalable Social Network Analysis: Used to analyze information from social networks.
- Translingual Information Detection, Extraction and Summarization (TIDES): A next-gen translation tool designed to translate large amounts of information quickly.
- Effective Affordable Reusable Speech-to-Text (EARS): A rapid speech-to-text application focused on telephone conversations.
How much of this has trickled down to your local police department is largely unknown.
The Detriments of a Militarized Police Force
There are a number of negative consequences arising from the existence of a militarized police force.
- Civil Liberties: Chief among the problems presented by a militarized police force are civil liberties. Militarized police seems to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which forbids using the military to enforce domestic law in most cases and under ordinary circumstances.
- Surveillance: The militarized police force also uses military-style forms of surveillance. A January 2017 report from the Cato Institute accused militarized police of “mission creep,” going beyond simple weapons and tactics and into surveillance.
- Force: Veterans on the police force tend to have more complaints about excessive force and are more likely to discharge their weapons, according to a report from the Marshall Project.
- Alienation: Militarized police are the antithesis of community policing, which leverages good community relations and the resources flowing from those relations to prevent and solve crimes. Military-style training for police, battle dress uniforms and even just the color black might provoke more aggression from officers. Named missions such as “War on Drugs” likewise make community policing more difficult.
- Killing Dogs: There’s significant evidence suggesting that the more militarized a police force is, the more likely it is to shoot a dog. Yes, really. The Puppycide Database Project tracks these things.
- Lack of Oversight: At the local, state and federal levels, there is little-to-no oversight when it comes to the militarization of the police. Most states do not keep tabs on the statistics of their SWAT teams. Where they do, reports are frequently incomplete and little-to-no action is taken on their basis. No federal agency collects information about local SWAT teams. There is little oversight of 1033 or SWAT teams either by the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security.
All of this is perhaps why, under the Obama Justice Department, there was a push toward demilitarization of the police force. In 2015, the Task Force for 21st Century Policing recommended restriction of military hardware such as grenade launchers and armored vehicles. President Donald Trump has since reversed this, reinstating the entire 1033 program and remilitarizing police.
DARPA: Police Militarization of the Future
Since there is a clearly established pipeline running from the Pentagon’s latest and greatest toys, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the weapons being developed by the Pentagon today are going to be used on the streets of America in the very near future.
In fact, there’s an entire department of the Pentagon dedicated to developing futuristic weapons to help the United States win the new arms. It’s called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly known as DARPA. This agency has not only developed weapons, but also a number of contemporary technologies most people take for granted – such as GPS, graphic user interface, the mouse, and even the internet itself. Recent research includes more intuitive prosthetic limbs as well as brain implants that will help those with memory loss regain their memory.
But DARPA isn’t just working on projects like these with the promise to revolutionize medicine and increase the quality of human life. They also work on some rather nasty little projects that will almost certainly trickle down to your local police department through the 1033 program. Some of the futuristic weapons currently in development by DARPA include:
- Active Denial System: The active denial system is an invisible ray gun heating the skin of people in a given area to 130 degrees. The targets instinctively flee, something that DARPA calls the “goodbye effect.” The end result can leave second- or third-degree burns on up to 20 percent of the body’s surface. The weapon has already been tested in Afghanistan.
- Taser X12: Nearly everyone is familiar with the Taser. The Taser X12 is effectively that in 12-gauge shotgun form. This extends the reach of a Taser weapon from about 20 feet to about 100 feet.
- Skull Piercing Microwaves: Yep, you read that right. One of the projects DARPA is working on right now leverages the audio effect of microwaves. This creates shockwaves inside the skull, which are read by the brain as sound. This can result in discomfort, incapacitation and brain damage.
- Long-Range Acoustic Device: Sirens might not sound like a big deal, but the current ones being worked on by DARPA are so loud they can cause permanent hearing damage very quickly. Pittsburgh police already used this against protestors in 2009. More advanced sonic weapons can be deadly, including the Thunder Generator developed by the Israelis
- Voice of God: This one sounds impossible, but it’s not. The Voice of God is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a weapon beaming words directly into your head so that you think God is talking to you. This leverages the same technology in LRADs, but for different effect.
These are just a few of the weapons that we know about. There is almost certainly far more frightening classified weapons coming down the pike over the next decade.
The tendency is strongly in the direction of increasingly militarized police. This renders the notion of “weapons of war on our streets” as a gun grabber argument exceptionally weak. The most heavily armed gang on the street isn’t your local street gang – it’s law enforcement. They have weapons far in excess to that of the average citizen or even the average criminal. This means resisting them can easily be deadly, even when you’re within your legal rights.
This raises a point worthy of consideration: The usual suspects will cry and rage at your ability to legally own an AR-15, a right codified by the United States Constitution. Rare is the gun grabber who makes any kind of stink when police use directed energy weapons. Remember that gun grabbers aren’t against guns – they’re just against yours.