After All, it is a War, isn’t it?


In 2006 a report published by the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank that has been unrelenting in its criticism of the drug war, largely because it represents one of the ultimate examples of the overreach of the government into the lives of citizens.  The report is called Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America by policy analysts Radley Balko.


I came across this study as I was reading yet another expose of the racist nature of the criminal justice system in general and the drug war in particular.  This one is called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  In a chapter called “The Lockdown” Alexander, citing Balko’s study among others, discusses the militarization of the police, a term that criminologist Peter Kraska has frequently used. In many ways crime control has taken on many of the characteristics of the military, or what Kraska has called the “militarization of criminal justice.” Writing in the Journal of Political and Military Sociology, Kraska makes the point that there is an underlying ideology of militarism that clearly has been borrowed in the “war on drugs”, which he defines as “a set of beliefs and values that stress the use of force and domination as appropriate means to solve problems and gain political power, while glorifying the means to accomplish this – military power, hardware, and technology.” 


This also involves a “blurring of external and internal security functions leading to a more subtle targeting of civilian populations,” plus an ideology that places emphasis on the efficient solving of problems that require the use of state force, the latest and most sophisticated technology, various forms of intelligence gathering, the use of “special operations” (e.g., SWAT) in both the police and within the prison system, the use of military discourse and metaphors (e.g., “collateral damage,” “under siege”) and last, but not least, collaboration with “ the highest level of the governmental and corporate worlds, between the defense industry and the crime control industry.” 


This process can be traced to the early years of the Reagan administration when they were trying to get the law enforcement establishment to go along with their desire to crack down on drug offenders.  Law enforcement was at first reluctant, since it would take time and resources away from their pursuit of more serious violent and property offenses. 


What the Reagan administration did was to, in effect, bribe law enforcement with money via large grants.  In 1981 Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which began to funnel military equipment to police departments.  Congress passed a series of laws that provided exceptions to the famous “Posse Comitatus Act,” passed in 1879, that prohibited using the military for civilian policing. Balko writes that these “exceptions allowed nearly unlimited sharing of drug interdiction intelligence, training, tactics, technology, and weaponry between the Pentagon and federal, state, and local police departments.” 


As a result between 1995 and 1997 alone, the Pentagon gave to law enforcement agencies all over the country the following: 3,800 M-16s, 2,185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers, and 112 armored personnel carriers!  If that was not enough, Balko reports that “between January 1997 and October 1999, the agency handled 3.4 million orders of Pentagon equipment from over 11,000 domestic police agencies in all 50 states. By December 2005, the number was up to 17,000.34 The purchase value of the equipment comes to more than $727 million.”  Among the items included were “253 aircraft (including six- and seven passenger airplanes, and UH-60 Blackhawk and UH-1 Huey helicopters), 7,856 M-16 rifles, 181 grenade launchers, 8,131 bulletproof helmets, and 1,161 pairs of night-vision goggles.”  After all, a “war” had been declared.


The rest is, as they say, history, and that history included the arrests of millions on drug charges, plus the deaths and injuries of hundreds of innocent civilians.  Not surprisingly the bulk of this “war” has been waged on poor communities of color.


Balko testified before a House Subcommittee on Crime in July, 2007 and during that testimony he related several instance of police drug raids that resulted in the death of innocent people.  Most such raids are based upon tips from informants and quite often the information provided turned out to be false.  On many occasions the police went to the wrong house.  One example, among many provided by Balko, was a drug raid in Atlanta “that killed 92-year old Kathryn Johnston. Ms. Johnston mistook the raiding police officers for criminal intruders. When she met them with a gun, they opened fire and killed her. The police were acting on an uncorroborated tip from a convicted felon.”  He also cited a case in Durango, Colorado, where the police “raided the home of 77-year-old Virginia Herrick. Ms. Herrick, who takes oxygen, was forced to the ground and handcuffed at gunpoint while officers ravaged through her home.”  It was the wrong address.  He cited similar raids in cities and towns all over the country.  He testified that “800 times per week in this country, a SWAT team breaks open an American’s door, and invades his home. Few turn up any weapons at all, much less high-power weapons. Less than half end with felony charges for the suspects. And only a small percentage end up doing significant time in prison.”


Quoting Kraska, Balko notes that “the total number of SWAT deployments across the country increased from a few hundred per year in the 1970s to a few thousand per year by the early 1980s to around 50,000 per year by the mid-2000s.” Today, virtually every city has a SWAT team, and most have more than one.  Many small towns several have SWAT teams, such as Eufaula, Alabama (population 13,463). SWAT teams were set up primarily to defuse an already violent situation, such as hostage taking.  Today they are mostly used to “break into homes to look for illicit drugs, creating violence and confrontation where there was none before.”


As already noted, among other issues include the fact that literally hundreds of innocent people have been killed during SWAT drug raids. One case, reported by Balko on concerns the death of a 7-year-old black girl named Aiyana Stanley-Jones this past May in Detroit. The police were looking for a murder suspect who was in the apartment above where the little girl lived.  He surrendered without a fight.  The police had an opportunity to arrest the suspect earlier in the day but instead waited until the middle of the night.  Despite the existence of various children’s toys around the outside of the house and being told by a neighbor that there were children living there, they raided the downstairs apartment first in order to secure it.  Apparently the girls grandmother, when confronted by the police, tried to defend herself and the little girl.  One police officer accidentally fired his weapon (whether this is true is subject to debate) and a bullet struck the little girl, killing her instantly.


In Overkill Balko goes into great detail about the abuse of citizens with this military-style repression.  He mentions the city of Fresno, California, where for many years the SWAT team  


was used for routine, full-time patrolling in high crime areas. The Violent Crime Suppression Unit, as it was called, was given carte blanche to enter residences and apprehend and search occupants in high-crime, mostly minority neighborhoods. The unit routinely stopped pedestrians without probable cause, searched them, interrogated them, and entered their personal information into a computer. “It’s a war,” one SWAT officer told a reporter from the Nation. Said another, “If you’re 21, male, living in one of these neighborhoods, and you’re not in our computer, then there’s something definitely wrong.” The VCSU was disbanded in 2001 after a series of lawsuits alleging police brutality and wrongful shootings, though officials claim the unit was dissolved because it had “fulfilled its goals” (p. 11).



The Fresno SWAT officer quoted here could have easily added that he was talking about a black male over 21 and that “these neighborhoods” were mostly segregated black communities.  After all, the statistics about race and drug arrests make clear that the rate for black males has consistently been far greater than for white males, as documented by Human Rights Watch, among so many other studies.  Balko quotes a judge in Boston who stated that the drug war in his city was “a proclamation of martial law . . . for a narrow class of people—young blacks” (p. 17).  Peter Kraska was told by a SWAT commander “When the soldiers ride in, you should see those blacks scatter” (Balko, p. 18).


One of the most recent stories of botched drug raids (one of the latest among thousands over the years) is described by WSB News in  Atlanta as follows:


An elderly Polk County woman is hospitalized in critical condition after suffering a heart attack when drug agents swarm the wrong house.  Machelle Holl tells WSB her 76-year-old mother, Helen Pruett, who lives alone, was at home when nearly a dozen local and federal agents swarmed her house, thinking they were about to arrest suspected drug dealers.


Another story in Atlanta involves the killing of a 92-year-old black woman who was the victim of a police raid at the wrong address. “When it was clear that the officers had the wrong house because no drugs were found, though, police still decided to plant marijuana on the 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, who was shot to death in the raid.”  A wrongful death suit resulted in a settlement for $4.9 million to her family.


The web site has a long list of similar botched SWAT raids around the country in recent years.  One case is typical: In Buffalo, New York, September 2008 “Terrell Pennyamon, who suffers from epilepsy, was struck in the head by the end of a shotgun when police broke down the door to his family's residence. Looking for heroin, the cops raided the Pennyamon's apartment by mistake, terrifying their six young children & his wife. When police later raided the ‘correct’ house, no drugs were found.”


And so it goes in our unrelenting “war” on drugs.  When there is a war, there is “collateral damage.”  Meanwhile, millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs continue to be smuggled into the country every year and millions of citizens continue to use these drugs, while hundreds die needlessly and thousands are sentenced to prison every year.  Since blacks are arrested in numbers far greater than their percentage in the general population (despite the fact that they are about as likely to use drugs as whites) and since a person’s civil rights are taken away from them after an arrest for drugs and they cannot live in public housing, nor vote, among other things, is it any wonder that Michelle Alexander calls her book “The New Jim Crow”?


© 2010, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.