Monday, December 14, 2015

The Serial Swatter

Internet trolls have learned to exploit our over-militarized police. It's a crime that's hard to stop — and hard to prosecute.

The SWAT team grew from the tumult of the 1960s. In Philadelphia, a string of armed robberies prompted a ‘‘stakeout’’ unit of officers who received extra weapons training; in Los Angeles, after the Watts riots of 1965, an ambitious police commander, Daryl Gates, who later became the chief of police, argued that the city needed elite officers with rifles, shotguns and armored cars, trained in military-­style tactics. Gates explained to The Los Angeles Times in 1968 that during the unrest, ‘‘suddenly we found ourselves with almost a guerrilla warfare without weaponry. ... I felt the frustration of being almost helpless.’’

At first, the SWAT idea struck some officers as strange — wouldn’t the units scare residents and damage relationships with communities? — but lax gun regulations and strict national drug laws encouraged cities and towns to invest in bigger weaponry. The ‘‘war on drugs’’ in particular pressured officers to conduct militarized drug enforcement. (Mother Jones recently analyzed 465 police requests for armored tactical vehicles that resemble small tanks, and more requests said the vehicles would be used for drug enforcement than any other reason.) And the grim logic of mass shootings and hostage situations, where seconds and minutes can matter, pushed communities to form local SWAT teams instead of relying on teams from farther away that took longer to arrive. (A recent study led by a professor at Texas State University analyzed 84 ‘‘active shooter’’ incidents from 2000 to 2010, and about half the time, the shootings were over by the time any officers arrived at the scene.) ‘‘We want to keep the community safe,’’ says the tactical commander of a SWAT team in Georgia. ‘‘And if responding in a very short time period saves lives, that’s what we want to do. And we can do that by having a team readily available. We do.’’

Through the 1990s and 2000s, SWAT teams started cropping up in smaller American towns, even in places where violent crime is fairly uncommon. According to research done by Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University, by the mid-2000s, 80 percent of law-enforcement agencies in towns with populations of 25,000 to 50,000 had a military-­style unit, compared with just 20 percent in the mid-1980s. In the last decade, the ‘‘war on terror’’ has helped local law-­enforcement agencies acquire unprecedented firepower. One Pentagon program has sent at least $5.6 billion in equipment to police departments, including 625 armored tactical vehicles, more than 200 grenade launchers and around 80,000 assault rifles. Many people had no idea that SWAT teams owned gear like this until the protests in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, when images spread around the world of white officers confronting black protesters with tear gas and a type of armored truck called a BearCat. People all along the political spectrum expressed horror at these pictures; Senator Rand Paul wrote that ‘‘the images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.’’

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