ACLU report criticizes ‘excessive’ militarization of U.S. police

Johnson Country police recently acquired its own armor-plated vehicle, similar to the one shown above, through a government surplus program.  -- photo via U.S. Army Materiel Command
Johnson Country police recently acquired its own armor-plated vehicle, similar to the one shown above, through a government surplus program. — photo via U.S. Army Materiel Command

American police are usually using their tactical weapons and armor for drug raids, rather than hostage or active shooter situations, according to a new study.

There are thousands of SWAT teams — “special weapons and tactics,” known locally as special response teams — across the country, including in Johnson County. The new report from the American Civil Liberties Union harshly criticizes their widespread use and calls for increased restrictions.

The ACLU analyzed 800 domestic SWAT deployments in 2011 and 2012 to produce its new report, “War Comes Home.” The study does not include all such operations in those years and it’s not clear how the organization picked states to request data from. The 100-page report does not mention Iowa.

In the vast majority of cases the ACLU studied, 79 percent, special response teams were used to search homes, rather than to respond to an urgent and imminent violent threat.

ACLU analysts say they found police departments have few clear rules for when a special response deployment is appropriate. Usually special response teams are in search of drug suspects, not gunmen. And even in cases where officers thought a weapon would be found, they were only right about 35 percent of the time.

“What constitutes a ‘high-risk’ scenario depends largely on the subjective beliefs of the officers involved. This lack of clear and legitimate standards for deploying SWAT may result in the excessive and unnecessary use of SWAT deployments in drug cases,” the authors wrote.

The Iowa City Police Department has guidelines for when a special response team should be used, though it’s “non-exhaustive.” It includes hostage and sniper situations, but also “demonstrations and disturbances,” as well as a catch-all criterion: “Any other assignment approved by the Chief of Police or the Commander of Field Operations, based upon a level of threat.”

The ACLU study also showed mine-resistant vehicles — like the one the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office acquired earlier this year; military surplus from Kuwait to be shared by other local agencies — are not uncommon in American police agencies. The ACLU report estimates about 500 departments around the country have the vehicles. Here in Johnson County, the MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-proof vehicle) has drawn questions over its necessity, but the sheriff says it could be useful during extreme weather or during an active shooter situation.

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