ON FEB. 28, 1993, 76 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) assaulted Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, firing MP-5 machine guns continuously and throwing percussion grenades -- just to execute an arrest-and-search warrant.
The agents had been trained in military assault tactics by Green Berets at Fort Hood, Texas. Although the BATF's lengthy search warrant had not mentioned drugs, the agency nevertheless reported a drug connection -- a methamphetamine lab -- so it could receive free advice, training and equipment from the Pentagon. No proof of a drug lab was found after the attack.
Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which took control of what was to become a 51-day siege at Mount Carmel, received advice, training and equipment from the military. Delta Force advisers played a key role in the FBI's tank and chemical warfare attack on the Davidian residence April 19, 1993, and federal agents acquired military training to drive the M-60 tanks that inserted CS gas into the compound and the Bradley Fighting Vehicles that shot nearly 400 40-mm canisters of CS gas through the walls of the structure. The FBI now admits to firing pyrotechnic devices into portion of the compound.
The military's role in the Waco episode was perfectly legal. A report by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, says the standard for justifying the military's role in drug investigations has not been clearly established. Consequently, military officials have "considerable discretion" in deciding to assist civilian police agencies.
Since 1981, when Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Official Act, the military has become increasingly involved in civilian law enforcement, and has been encouraged to share equipment, training, facilities and technology with civilian enforcement agencies.
During the past 20 years, under the direct political sponsorship of elected representatives in Congress and under successive presidents, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 -- a law designed to keep the military out of civilian affairs -- has been diluted by exceptions tied to the war on drugs. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan officially designated drug trafficking as a "national security" threat. A year later, Congress set up an administrative apparatus, with a toll-free number, to encourage local civilian agencies to take advantage of military assistance.
In 1989, President George Bush created six regional joint task forces in the Department of Defense to act as liaisons between police and the military. (The BATF and FBI relied on Joint Task Force 6 for help in the Waco assaults).
Wartime arms in peacetime
A few years later, Congress ordered the Pentagon to make military surplus hardware available to state and local police for enforcement of drug laws -- which the military has done, free of charge. And in 1994, the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice signed an agreement enabling the military to transfer wartime technology to local police departments for peacetime use in American neighborhoods, against American citizens.
This sharing of military resources with civilian agencies has not only gone to federal agencies but also to police bureaus across the nation, from the huge Los Angeles Police Department to the seven-member department in Jasper, Fla. (population 2,000). The result has been an alarming militarization of local law enforcement. Most hardware has been funneled to special paramilitary units in departments known as Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, contributing to what criminal justice scholar Peter Kraska has called the "militarization of Mayberry."
Since the early 1980s, SWAT teams have proliferated. A 1997 study by Kraska showed that 90 percent of cities with populations of more than 50,000 had paramilitary units, as did three-quarters of those with populations under 50,000. The Pentagon has been equipping those units with everything from M-16 automatic rifles to grenade launchers. Jasper's seven-member force, for example, has been the beneficiary of seven M-16s, 23 helicopters, an armored personnel carrier, two C-12 aircraft and a bomb robot. Los Angeles asked for, and got, 600 M-16s after a February 1997 shootout with bank robbers carrying automatic weapons and wearing body armor.
Between 1995 and 1997, the military handed over 1.2 million pieces of surplus military hardware to police SWAT teams. But more important, about half of SWAT members get their training from active-duty military personnel, some of them from the Navy SEALS or Army Rangers. Like those special operations units, the SWAT team is structured as a combat unit, with a commander, a tactical leader, a scout, a sniper and so on.
This, in combination with full battle dress of lace-up combat boots, full-body armor in black or camouflage, Kevlar helmets and -- for a touch of impersonality -- "Ninja" hoods, has produced a military mind set in many police departments.
In the military mind set, the "drug war" has moved from metaphor to real life, with American streets as the "front," American citizens as the "enemy" and law enforcement officers as the warriors.
This mind set has been fed by the Department of Justice. "So let me welcome you to the kind of war our police fight every day," Attorney General Janet F. Reno told a group of defense and intelligence experts in 1994, in preparation for a technology transfer agreement. "And let me challenge you to turn your skills that served us so well in the Cold War to helping us with the war we're now fighting daily in the streets of our towns and cities across the nation."
SWAT units, originally created in the 1960s to deal with special situations such as snipings, hijackings and hostage takings, have become an everyday part of American policing.
As crime rates have plummeted, these paramilitary units have expanded their original mission and are deployed for routine police functions such as "warrant work" -- i.e., no-knock entries to serve arrest or search warrants. Other teams, such as the 34-member SWAT unit in Fresno, Calif., are used -- in full battle dress, armed with machine guns -- to patrol the inner-city "war zone."
What's wrong with this picture? Plenty. A soldier and a law enforcement officer serve completely different functions, and fusing their identities presents a serious, long-term danger to a free society. A soldier does not think; he initiates violence on command and doesn't worry about Miranda rights. Being a killing machine is necessary to the survival of the warrior, and to the survival of the nation at war.
A law enforcement officer, however, is a citizen like the rest of us, subject to the same laws. The job of the police is to react to the violence of others, to apprehend criminal suspects and deliver them over to a court of law. This defines a nation under the rule of law -- as opposed to a nation under martial law -- and the distinction goes as far back as 13th-century common law.
When police act like soldiers, bad things happen, not only to the nation's social health but to innocent individuals. Until a few years ago, for example, killings by Albuquerque's SWAT unit were "just off the charts," said an outside investigator, Sam Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska.
The team's final killing -- before it was disbanded and a new police chief was installed -- was of 33-year-old Larry Harper, a sad, desperate man with no criminal record, intent on committing suicide.
When the frightened family called local police, SWAT snipers showed up, followed Harper to the edge of a park and, from 43 feet away, shot and killed the cowering man. According to Walker, the Albuquerque SWAT team "had an organizational culture ... that led them to escalate situations upward rather than de-escalating."
The 10-member La Plata County, Colo., SWAT team stormed Samuel Heflin's 46-acre ranch in Bayfield in April 1996, searching for evidence related to a barroom brawl: a cowboy hat, a shirt and a cigarette pack. In the process, an 8-year-old boy playing basketball was forced down at gunpoint, as was a 14-year-old boy.
Sheriff's deputies then followed screaming Shelby Heflin, 4, into the house with a laser-sighted weapon pointed at her back. The SWAT team ordered everyone to lie face down, and when Heflin asked to see a search warrant, he was told to "shut the f--- up." The family has filed an excessive force suit against the county's SWAT team.
In 1997, the SWAT team of Dinuba, Calif. (population 15,000), broke into the home of Ramon Gallardo, looking for his son, and shot the unarmed Gallardo 15 times. A jury awarded the family $12.5 million, which exceeded the town's insurance coverage. The town has disbanded its SWAT unit.
There have been other victims of wrongful deaths, including the Rev. Accelyne Williams, who died from a heart attack when Boston's SWAT unit raided the wrong apartment, and 64-year-old Mario Paz, shot twice in the back when the El Monte, Calif., SWAT team blew the locks off his doors with a shotgun, looking for someone who had used that address.
Doubtless the will be more such cases, and citizens will grow warier of the law enforcement establishment. The military mentality, along with machine guns and grenade launchers, have no place in a free society.
When police think and act like soldiers, they generate mistrust among their constituents, which in turn pushes law enforcement agencies further into an elitist, impersonal enclave.
Luckily, our democratic process has remedies. Congress can, and should, eliminate exceptions to the Posse Comitatus Act and redefine the military's mission to defend the nation against foreign aggressors. Joint Task Forces in the Department of Defense should be abolished, and police agencies -- federal, state and local -- should be forced to return military hardware, especially automatic weapons, or destroy it.
Americans have to ask themselves whether the "drug war" is really worth altering our society beyond recognition. Defining our nation's drug woes as a public health problem, and not as a crime problem, might be a start.
Diane Cecilia Weber is a Virginia writer on criminal justice and the Second Amendment. This article has been adapted from a longer paper published by the Cato Institute, "WarriorCops: The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments."