A Return to Non-Adversarial Policing?


The image of the public servant police officer committed to protecting the average citizen has taken a major hit this week, with the overbearing response by local police to protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The response – which looked more like a military occupation of foreign soil than a domestic police response – shocked many Americans. The images were not wholly unexpected, however, to those who’ve followed the development of local police departments over the last decade.

The ideal of “to protect and serve” is irreconcilable with many of the tactics adopted by police departments in recent years – including police departments in South Carolina. Generating the trend are legal policies that encourage an adversarial mindset and incentivize an aggressive and threatening police presence. Removing these policies will go a long way toward ensuring the rights of citizens are properly respected, and police are returned to their proper role as protectors of the public.

A militarized police presence in Ferguson, Missouri.
A militarized police presence in Ferguson, Missouri.

With the return of protect-and-serve policing, citizens would look to the police for help rather than fearing the repercussions of any interaction with law enforcement. Citizens would not be deprived of their rights or property merely because of suspicion of a crime. Tactics and weaponry designed to be used against foreign enemies would not be employed against citizens at home. And police department budgets and local budgets would not be dependent on revenues from citations or seizure of private property. Police would be able to focus on pursuing violent criminals that pose real threats and could do so in a way that respects the rights and freedoms that we rightfully cherish.

As we began pointing out a year ago, the federal government now routinely lavishes its largesse on local police departments, and the departments are only too happy to accept it. These gifts have come in two forms: surplus military equipment and federal grants through agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. Local police departments request surplus military equipment from the federal government under the 1033 program authorized in 1997. As of 2005, police agencies in all 50 states had requested military equipment that cumulatively was worth more than $727 million. As for money, local police departments accepted $34 billion in federal grants between 2001 and 2011.

South Carolina state government and law enforcement agencies have done their part to participate in these federal giveaways. Five separate police agencies in South Carolina have acquired armored military vehicles from the federal government. Additionally, South Carolina law enforcement hasn’t been shy about taking federal funds with the State Law Enforcement Division accepting $28.1 million in homeland security funding and $82.8 million in counterterrorism funds in fiscal year 2014.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, with posse.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, with posse.

This acceptance of weapons, equipment, and funds is troubling for two reasons. First, when local police agencies acquire military equipment that has no place in home-front policing, they’re going to want to use it. Local police departments are distinct from the SWAT teams designed specifically to handle the most dangerous situations, but by providing the same kinds of equipment to both agencies, the lines between them blur. Even if local departments resist the temptation to use military-style equipment, they’re encouraging wasteful federal spending by accepting surplus materials. Second, federal grants to law enforcement agencies are often contingent on the state pursuing certain policies, and those policies are often detrimental to citizens’ individual liberties. The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), for example, accepted a $900,000 grant in 2013 to enforce a new South Carolina law barring “mental defectives” from owning firearms. To put it plainly: The federal government gave South Carolina $900,000 on the condition that, as part of a gun control program, it collects and share data on persons deemed “mentally defective”

While there is a move by some in Congress to stop perpetuating this militarized culture, states and localities can put a stop to it pretty easily by themselves. Local government bodies should reject all federal funds directed towards South Carolina police departments. Local bodies should also pass legislation barring police departments from applying for or accepting federal funds without municipal approval. South Carolina would also do well to enact a law barring acceptance of military equipment and weapons under the 1033 program. These steps would keep dangerous and unneeded military equipment off of South Carolina streets, foster the protect-and-serve outlook of South Carolina police departments, and help ensure that state law enforcement priorities are set in South Carolina.

Along the same lines, SWAT teams have begun to be called out more regularly for non-violent situations and less frequently for their original purpose. Although SWAT teams were originally created to deal with specific situations such as riots, mass shootings, and hostage situations, they have come to be increasingly used to respond to non-violent crime. Research has found that by 2005 80 percent of swat callouts were for warrant service, much of which were for non-violent drug crime.  

Degradation of citizens’ legal protections has occurred alongside the increasing use of SWAT teams. Police are increasingly relying on confidential informants who are often criminals themselves for information that can lead to warrants. The courts have also harmed the cause of citizens by allowing police to make on-site determinations to conduct no-knock raids even if the warrant states they must announce themselves. Courts have also ruled that evidence seized as part of an illegal no knock raid may be used at trial, removing incentives for lawful police conduct. On top of all these expansions of power, law enforcement doesn’t maintain any official record of SWAT raids, so the exact level of abuse is hard to know. We do know, however, that in recent years (between 2009 and 2013) the number of police shootings and the number of suspects killed have increased significantly. Earlier this year, South Carolina was on track for one officer-involved shooting per week in 2014.

There are a number of simple legal reforms that should be undertaken to address SWAT overuse. First, SWAT team use should be restricted to its original purposes of hostage situations, mass shootings, riots, etc. Second, citizens should be able to protect themselves by lawfully defending themselves when police fail to identify as law enforcement. Third, Citizens should be allowed to file civil suits for damages against police even if the citizen is convicted of a minor offense. Fourth, all SWAT raids should be recorded, and civilian review boards should be established to analyze all of these recordings. These and other reforms are referenced in our earlier piece on police militarization.

One of the most obvious and important effects of reverting to non-adversarial policing would be an increased respect for the rights of citizens. Practical effects would include more private dollars and property remaining in private hands. Individuals would have more money and property to use for their own needs, and government could redirect the funds formerly going towards military equipment to more appropriate and beneficial state functions.  Citizens would begin to have a less hostile view of police and may be more likely to ask for police help or share valuable information with law enforcement.

Finally and most importantly: lives can be saved and suffering prevented by discouraging the us-versus-them military mindset now pervasive in law enforcement.

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