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Monday, July 22, 2013

The Blurring Line Between Law Enforcement and the Military

In 2008, the latest year for which comprehensive data are available, federal agencies employed
about 120,000 full-time law enforcement officers who were authorized to make arrests and carry firearms in the United States.These agencies include
  • Department of Agriculture, Office of the Inspector General
  • Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of the Inspector General
  • Department of Education, Office of the Inspector General
  • Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health
  • Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division
  • Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General
It didn't take long for the Internet to start buzzing with conspiracy theories after the Social Security Administration posted a notice that it was purchasing 174,000 hollow-point bullets.
Why is the agency that provides benefits to retirees, disabled workers, widows and children stockpiling ammunition? Whom are they going to use it on?
"It's not outlandish to suggest that the Social Security Administration is purchasing the bullets as part of preparations for civil unrest," the website said.
...The clamor became such a distraction for the agency that it dedicated a website to explaining the purchase. The explanation, it turns out, isn't as tantalizing as an arms buildup to defend against unruly senior citizens.
The bullets are for Social Security's office of inspector general, which has about 295 agents who investigate Social Security fraud and other crimes, said Jonathan L. Lasher, the agency's assistant IG for external relations.
The agents carry guns and make arrests — 589 last year, Lasher said. They execute search warrants and respond to threats against Social Security offices, employees and customers.
Concerns about armed federal agents, however, are not entirely fanciful. At The Wall Street Journal, Radley Balko writes:
Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
The acronym SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. Such police units are trained in methods similar to those used by the special forces in the military. They learn to break into homes with battering rams and to use incendiary devices called flashbang grenades, which are designed to blind and deafen anyone nearby. Their usual aim is to "clear" a building—that is, to remove any threats and distractions (including pets) and to subdue the occupants as quickly as possible.

The country's first official SWAT team started in the late 1960s in Los Angeles. By 1975, there were approximately 500 such units. Today, there are thousands. According to surveys conducted by the criminologist Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University, just 13% of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team in 1983. By 2005, the figure was up to 80%.
The number of raids conducted by SWAT-like police units has grown accordingly. In the 1970s, there were just a few hundred a year; by the early 1980s, there were some 3,000 a year. In 2005 (the last year for which Dr. Kraska collected data), there were approximately 50,000 raids.

A number of federal agencies also now have their own SWAT teams, including the Fish & Wildlife Service, NASA and the Department of the Interior. In 2011, the Department of Education's SWAT team bungled a raid on a woman who was initially reported to be under investigation for not paying her student loans, though the agency later said she was suspected of defrauding the federal student loan program.