By Chandra Bhatnagar, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Human Rights Program
As the United Nations this week debated America's record on race, one name was on everyone's minds: Michael Brown. Not only Americans have been riveted this week by the tragic killing of the unarmed teenager, the subsequent protests, and the militarized response of law enforcement in Ferguson, Mo.
The events in the overwhelmingly black suburb of St. Louis came as the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviewed U.S. compliance with the world's leading anti-discrimination legal instrument, which the United States ratified 20 years ago. The gap between the rights guaranteed by our Constitution on one hand, and the reality of the persistent racism that continues to plague our society on the other, could not have been made more relevant by current events.
That gap is just as stark when viewed from the lens of international human rights law. This week, in Geneva, Switzerland, the U.N. committee that oversees compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination placed the U.S. record under the spotlight. The committee, comprised of leading human rights and race discrimination experts from all over the world, heard from high-level representatives of the U.S. government in a large delegation as well as from advocates and victims of human rights abuses.
The committee expressed deep concern at the circumstances surrounding Mr. Brown's shooting as well as over other recent deaths of unarmed African-American men – like Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, and others – at the hands of law enforcement. They heard heartbreaking testimony from the mother of Trayvon Martin and the father of Jordan Davis, both of whom lost their sons in violent circumstances that underscored the overt and subconscious forms of racism that our country continues to face. Mark Kappelhoff, the deputy assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice said in response to the committee's questions that the Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the Brown case.
The United States was represented by a high-level delegation led by Ambassador Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee nation of Oklahoma and the first Native American U.S. ambassador to represent the United States at the U.N. Human Rights Council. In Ambassador Harper's words:
The United States has made...visible progress that is reflected in the leadership of our society, [but] we recognize that we have much left to do. Issues covered by this Convention are of such fundamental and deep importance that we must continue to make progress. For this reason, we value the opportunity for dialogue with the Committee.
That dialogue was a rich one, with the committee questioning the United States on a variety of issues, including deaths on the Southern border, the unaccompanied minor crisis, family detention, lack of access to justice for individuals detained at Guantánamo Bay, education, and violence against women, amongst many other topics. The committee also asked specific questions about lack of implementation of the treaty at federal, state, and local levels and echoed many concerns raised in the ACLU shadow report submitted to the committee. Those include:
- Racial Profiling
- Racial Disparities in Sentencing
- Racial Discrimination in the United States Capital Punishment System
- The Right to Vote
- Discriminatory Treatment of Guestworkers and Undocumented Migrant Workers
- Predatory Lending and the Foreclosure Crisis
- Lack of Due Process in American Indian Child Custody Proceedings in South Dakota
The committee's final report and recommendations will be issued on August 29. We hope that they serve as a guide for how our government can better comply with its obligations under the convention and – more importantly – take further steps to address persistent forms of discrimination and prevent any more unnecessary deaths.
The world is watching.
This piece was originally published on CNN.com
For the first time in nearly 40 years, Congress looks poised to limit the powers of the U.S. intelligence community, an opportunity it should seize.
When Congress returns from its August recess, surveillance reform will be high on the agenda. In May, the House passed the USA Freedom Act, a measure aimed at ending bulk collection of Americans' phone records under the Patriot Act. And in July, a much stronger version of the bill was introduced in the Senate.
The Senate version would curb the most egregious abuses of the telephone metadata program and represents a compromise among the White House, civil liberties advocates and private industry.
Yet, important work remains.
In particular, the bill doesn't reform NSA surveillance under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under that program, the NSA collects the content of phone calls, text messages, e-mails and other electronic communications of Americans who ...
Read the full article at http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/15/opinion/sethi-nsa-surveillance-bill-americans/index.html
By Chris Rickerd, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Yesterday the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) published what it described as "the most scathing public criticism ever lodged against Customs and Border Protection from a high-ranking official at the nation's largest law enforcement agency."
James F. Tomsheck, who in June was reassigned to a senior Border Patrol post after eight years heading CBP internal affairs, delivered a devastating indictment of CBP's integrity. Tomsheck, CIR reported, says:
- CBP has a culture of impunity, seeing itself as above reproach and "constitutional constraints," and aims to shield agents' misconduct and a massive corruption problem from outside scrutiny.
- Border Patrol officials have consistently tried to change or distort facts to make fatal shootings by agents appear to be "a good shoot" and cover up any wrongdoing.
- Tomsheck said he believes that thousands of employees hired during an unprecedented expansion of the agency in the post-9/11 era are potentially unfit to carry a badge and gun.
CIR's remarkable story confirms other media reports of a pervasive lack of integrity within CBP and validates longstanding advocacy by border communities, including litigation and public education by the ACLU. The overwhelming evidence compels an inescapable conclusion: CBP is a dangerously out-of-control agency in deep crisis.
After six years in office, the Obama administration must take urgent action and show that it's finally serious about reforming CBP. Here are four vital steps:
- The Department of Justice should conduct an external review of CBP's internal-affairs failings, especially all uses of deadly force since 2005. Until CBP builds proper internal-affairs capacity, DOJ should detail personnel to assume those functions. All current and former CBP employees complicit in fostering the culture of impunity deplored by Mr. Tomsheck must be held accountable, all the way up the chain of command.
- CBP's new leadership – including Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske and FBI veteran Mark Morgan, Tomsheck's replacement at internal affairs – must acknowledge the integrity crisis at CBP by committing publicly and forcefully to changing CBP's culture. There must be wholesale reform of CBP's broken complaint system, including a clear statement by leadership that public complaints will be investigated without retaliation. The ACLU and allies have made detailed recommendations to CBP on its complaint processing.
- CBP should immediately deploy dashboard and body-worn cameras to record all interactions with the public within appropriate privacy and data-retention guidelines. In September 2013, CBP promised to pilot dashboard and body-worn cameras. Nearly one year later, the public deserves to know why this promise is unfulfilled.
- Secretary Johnson must reduce CBP's 100-mile zone of operations, including the 25-mile zone to enter private property without a warrant. Contrary to the law's requirement that CBP operate only within a "reasonable distance" of external borders, CBP makes vast claims to intrusive and abusive power at ports-of-entry, checkpoints, and on roving patrols. Hundreds of millions of Americans have their rights diminished by CBP's excessive zone of operations and flouting of constitutional protections.
Tomsheck's remarks underscore the dire need for systemic cultural change at CBP. Without oversight and accountability, CBP abuses have destroyed families; humiliated Americans, travelers, and migrants; and disgraced federal law enforcement.
That needs to end.
By Alona Sistrunk, Communications and Development Associate, ACLU of Missouri
Outside of the Ferguson Police Department, protesters continue to exercise their right to protest in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Saturday. In a show of solidarity, they hold up signs encouraging drivers to honk their horns in support of justice for the young man's family, just a day away from starting college.
On Wednesday, Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, and I went down to meet with demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights across the street from the police department. We handed out "Know Your Rights" cards to inform participants of their rights and protections when interacting with law enforcement.
During the course of that meeting, Mr. Rothert informed the participants that suppressing their right to peacefully assemble is unconstitutional. "Intimidating people to give up their First Amendment rights is no better than prohibiting their First Amendment rights in the first place," he said. "So, the militarization is very troubling."
Since Brown's shooting on Saturday, Ferguson and St. Louis County police have reacted to the largely peaceful protests in an overtly militarized and confrontational way: body armor, armored cars, SWAT teams, tear gas, snipers training their assault rifles on protestors, and K-9 units. Particularly at night, it's hard to tell the difference between the intersections along West Florissant Avenue and Tahrir Square.
In response to a comment that Ferguson police are intimidating members of the media, Mr. Rothert stated that, "If there are journalists who feel they are being shut out and if the media are intimidated or pushed out, then the story doesn't get told. That's an offense to the First Amendment as well." Since then, disturbing reports of police teargasing and assaulting and detaining journalists have gone viral.
When asked what the ACLU's involvement was, Mr. Rothert informed the participants that a public records request was made to obtain the police reports connected to Michael Brown's death. He told them that our request was denied. "The lack of transparency is troubling," said Mr. Rothert. "The incident report is a public record that should be disclosed. It sends a bad message when police are asking people to obey the law and they are violating it by not releasing these public documents."
No police action was taken during our visit, and there did not appear to be any police officers or representatives near the protest.
We left around 4:55 p.m. All was quiet. Unfortunately, it didn't remain so as night fell.
The ACLU of Missouri is currently on the ground in Ferguson, Mo., observing police conduct and educating protestors of their rights. You have the constitutional right to not only protest peacefully in public, but you also have the right to record police officers as they carry out their duties to serve and protect you, the citizen. For more on how police forces have become so excessively militarized, please see the ACLU report, "War Come Home."
Sign our petition asking the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice to stop funneling billions into the militarization of state and local police forces.
By Jameel Jaffer, ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of ACLU Center for Democracy & Larry Siems, The Torture Report
This was originally published in The Los Angeles Times.
After more than a decade of denial and concealment on the part of our government, President Obama's recent acknowledgment that "we tortured some folks" felt like a milestone. Even in its spare, reductive phrasing, the president's statement opened up the possibility, finally, of national reflection, contrition and accountability.
But the president moved quickly to limit that conversation, painting those who authorized torture as "patriots" who were making difficult decisions under enormous pressure and urging the public not to feel "sanctimonious" because our military and intelligence leaders have "tough jobs."
Obama was wrong to do this, and not only because patriotism isn't a defense to criminal conduct. The deeper problem with the president's account is that it consigned to obscurity the true heroes of the story: the courageous men and women throughout the military and intelligence services who kept faith with our values, and who fought to expose and end the torture.
Missing from Obama's remarks was any recognition that the decision to endorse torture was a contested one. In fact, that decision was challenged over and over in interrogation rooms and conference rooms and at every level of government. Soldiers intervened to protect prisoners from cruelty. FBI agents refused to participate in abusive CIA and military interrogations. Military judge advocates general decried the withholding of Geneva Convention protections and rejected the arguments of civilian lawyers justifying torture. Military prosecutors at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, resigned rather than prosecute prisoners on the basis of coerced evidence. Some CIA agents were so vocal about the abuses they saw in the field that they sparked a major agency investigation.
In every branch of the service, as well as in the intelligence agencies and diplomatic corps, men and women of conscience risked their careers to expose abuse and to confront those who authorized it. FBI interrogator Ali Soufan challenged CIA torturers at one of the agency's infamous "black sites," and later testified before Congress to debunk the CIA's claims that its cruel methods were effective. When military investigators alerted Alberto Mora, then Navy general counsel, about the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo, Mora waged a campaign to reverse Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's disastrous decision to endorse abuse by military interrogators. Guantanamo prosecutor Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld refused to prosecute a teenager he learned had been abused in U.S. detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, a decision for which Vandeveld was barred from the prosecutors' office, confined to his residence and threatened with dismissal from the Army.
Behind people like Soufan, Mora and Vandeveld were hundreds of other soldiers and intelligence officers who made no less risky decisions to stand against practices they knew were wrong.
Over the last decade, several of the architects of the torture program have written memoirs. Unsurprisingly, those who opposed the decision to authorize torture make only rare appearances in these accounts. Rumsfeld writes in his memoir, "Known and Unknown," that his licensing of brutal methods at Guantanamo in 2002 was "uncontroversial," and that his decision to reauthorize many of those techniques in spring 2003 was "unanimously supported" by a legal team. Readers of George Tenet, the former CIA director; John Rizzo, once the CIA's chief lawyer; or Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA's clandestine service, could be forgiven for thinking that no one ever broached the possibility of not torturing prisoners.
In telling their stories, the men who sanctioned torture cast themselves as patriots driven by their desire to protect the country. We assume they were patriots. What's inexcusable is that their accounts diminish or omit the stories of those who were equally committed to protecting the country — but who questioned their superiors and risked their careers to challenge what we now know were illegal, ineffective and immoral policies.
It is easy to understand why those who authorized torture would want to suppress the stories of those who opposed it. But neither the president nor anyone else should participate in this revisionism. To pretend that the decision to sanction torture was dictated by circumstance — that our leaders had no other choice, that anyone in their position would have done the same thing — not only excuses and justifies the terrible choice made by our political leaders but obscures the actions of the courageous men and women who stayed true to our foundational commitments even as their superiors abandoned them.
With the imminent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's account of the CIA's interrogation program, the president will have other opportunities to tell the story of how our country came to endorse torture. As he does, he should tell the stories of the dissenters. He should honor their courage. It is time for the country to hear the history that torture's architects have sought for so long to suppress.
By Dennis Parker, Director, ACLU Racial Justice Program
Sitting in meetings in the United Nation's ornate Wilson Palace by the shores of Lake Geneva in the shadow of the Alps seems an odd place to discuss racial discrimination in the United States.
But the problems of racial discrimination quickly hit home at an event earlier this week that hosted the parents of Travon Martin and Jordan Davis, two unarmed young black men killed by armed white men claiming to be acting in self-defense. Made all the more powerful as it came on the heels of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., their affecting and often harrowing testimony immediately erased the distance between Switzerland and the United States. It made the discrimination present and underscored the importance of the work being done here at the U.N.'s review of the U.S. record of racial discrimination.
The event hosted by the U.S. Human Rights Network came just before the start of the U.N. review of U.S. compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which was ratified by the United States in 1994. Jordan's father and Trayvon's mother described their loss, unimaginable to any parent, with grace and a fierce determination to make sense of senseless acts. Recounting their families' memory of and love for their slain relatives, both parents expressed frustration and bewilderment over the failure of their sons' assailants and much of society to recognize the value of their sons' lives.
This theme of the devaluation of the lives of people of color ran throughout the comments of all of the speakers. They described their own and others‘ experiences, of immigrant child agricultural laborers working without the protections offered children in every other type of employment; black and brown women incarcerated for lengthy periods pursuant to unfair drug laws; black girls prescribed powerful and harmful psychotropic drugs based on behavioral expectations shaped by racial and gender stereotypes; families of color subjected to predatory, toxic mortgages; foreign workers subjected to virtual slavery by a severely flawed American guest worker program that invites labor trafficking and other abuses; and unarmed children shot after arguments about the volume of radios or for being perceived as a threat simply while walking down the street. Each instance described how people of color are denied their right to enjoy childhood, even their very right to life itself.
Civil and human rights are rooted in a belief in the fundamental value of every individual regardless of race or ethnicity. The advocates in Geneva appear before the United Nations in frustration and hope – frustration at the failure of the U.S. government to sufficiently assure the rights of all of its residents, and hope that pressure from the CERD Committee can assure American treaty compliance and affirm the fundamental value of all individuals.
This piece originally ran on TomDispatch and was completed before Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Police, rather than keeping the peace, have reacted to largely peaceful protests demanding justice for Michael Brown in an aggressive and militarized fashion. The ACLU of Missouri is currently on the ground in Ferguson, Mo., observing police conduct and educating protestors of their rights. You have the constitutional right to not only protest peacefully in public, but you also have the right to record police officers as they carry out their duties to serve and protect you, the citizen. For more on how police forces have become so excessively militarized, please see the ACLU report, "War Come Home."
Jason Westcott was afraid.
One night last fall, he discovered via Facebook that a friend of a friend was planning with some co-conspirators to break in to his home. They were intent on stealing Wescott's handgun and a couple of TV sets. According to the Facebook message, the suspect was planning on "burning" Westcott, who promptly called the Tampa Bay police and reported the plot.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the investigating officers responding to Westcott's call had a simple message for him: "If anyone breaks into this house, grab your gun and shoot to kill."
Around 7:30 pm on May 27th, the intruders arrived. Westcott followed the officers' advice, grabbed his gun to defend his home, and died pointing it at the intruders. They used a semiautomatic shotgun and handgun to shoot down the 29-year-old motorcycle mechanic. He was hit three times, once in the arm and twice in his side, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
The intruders, however, weren't small-time crooks looking to make a small score. Rather they were members of the Tampa Police Department's SWAT team, which was executing a search warrant on suspicion that Westcott and his partner were marijuana dealers. They had been tipped off by a confidential informant, whom they drove to Westcott's home four times between February and May to purchase small amounts of marijuana, at $20-$60 a pop. The informer notified police that he saw two handguns in the home, which was why the Tampa Bay police deployed a SWAT team to execute the search warrant.
In the end, the same police department that told Westcott to protect his home with defensive force killed him when he did. After searching his small rental, the cops indeed found weed, two dollars' worth, and one legal handgun -- the one he was clutching when the bullets ripped into him.
Welcome to a new era of American policing, where cops increasingly see themselves as soldiers occupying enemy territory, often with the help of Uncle Sam's armory, and where even nonviolent crimes are met with overwhelming force and brutality.
The War on Your Doorstep
The cancer of militarized policing has long been metastasizing in the body politic. It has been growing ever stronger since the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were born in the 1960s in response to that decade's turbulent mix of riots, disturbances, and senseless violence like Charles Whitman's infamous clock-tower rampage in Austin, Texas.
While SWAT isn't the only indicator that the militarization of American policing is increasing, it is the most recognizable. The proliferation of SWAT teams across the country and their paramilitary tactics have spread a violent form of policing designed for the extraordinary but in these years made ordinary. When the concept of SWAT arose out of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Police Departments, it was quickly picked up by big city police officials nationwide. Initially, however, it was an elite force reserved for uniquely dangerous incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations, or large-scale disturbances.
Nearly a half-century later, that's no longer true.
In 1984, according to Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop, about 26% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had SWAT teams. By 2005, that number had soared to 80% and it's still rising, though SWAT statistics are notoriously hard to come by.
As the number of SWAT teams has grown nationwide, so have the raids. Every year now, there are approximately 50,000 SWAT raids in the United States, according to Professor Pete Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies. In other words, roughly 137 times a day a SWAT team assaults a home and plunges its inhabitants and the surrounding community into terror.
Upping the Racial Profiling Ante
In a recently released report, "War Comes Home," the American Civil Liberties Union (my employer) discovered that nearly 80% of all SWAT raids it reviewed between 2011 and 2012 were deployed to execute a search warrant.
Pause here a moment and consider that these violent home invasions are routinely used against people who are only suspected of a crime. Up-armored paramilitary teams now regularly bash down doors in search of evidence of a possible crime. In other words, police departments increasingly choose a tactic that often results in injury and property damage as its first option, not the one of last resort. In more than 60% of the raids the ACLU investigated, SWAT members rammed down doors in search of possible drugs, not to save a hostage, respond to a barricade situation, or neutralize an active shooter.
On the other side of that broken-down door, more often than not, are blacks and Latinos. When the ACLU could identify the race of the person or people whose home was being broken into, 68% of the SWAT raids against minorities were for the purpose of executing a warrant in search of drugs. When it came to whites, that figure dropped to 38%, despite the well-known fact that blacks, whites, and Latinos all use drugs at roughly the same rates. SWAT teams, it seems, have a disturbing record of disproportionately applying their specialized skill set within communities of color.
Think of this as racial profiling on steroids in which the humiliation of stop and frisk is raised to a terrifying new level.
Don't think, however, that the military mentality and equipment associated with SWAT operations are confined to those elite units. Increasingly, they're permeating all forms of policing.
As Karl Bickel, a senior policy analyst with the Justice Department's Community Policing Services office, observes, police across America are being trained in a way that emphasizes force and aggression. He notes that recruit training favors a stress-based regimen that's modeled on military boot camp rather than on the more relaxed academic setting a minority of police departments still employ. The result, he suggests, is young officers who believe policing is about kicking ass rather than working with the community to make neighborhoods safer. Or as comedian Bill Maher reminded officers recently: "The words on your car, ‘protect and serve,' refer to us, not you."
This authoritarian streak runs counter to the core philosophy that supposedly dominates twenty-first-century American thinking: community policing. Its emphasis is on a mission of "keeping the peace" by creating and maintaining partnerships of trust with and in the communities served. Under the community model, which happens to be the official policing philosophy of the U.S. government, officers are protectors but also problem solvers who are supposed to care, first and foremost, about how their communities see them. They don't command respect, the theory goes: they earn it. Fear isn't supposed to be their currency. Trust is.
Nevertheless, police recruiting videos, as in those from California's Newport Beach Police Department and New Mexico's Hobbs Police Department, actively play up not the community angle but militarization as a way of attracting young men with the promise of Army-style adventure and high-tech toys. Policing, according to recruiting videos like these, isn't about calmly solving problems; it's about you and your boys breaking down doors in the middle of the night.
SWAT's influence reaches well beyond that. Take the increasing adoption of battle-dress uniforms (BDUs) for patrol officers. These militaristic, often black, jumpsuits, Bickel fears, make them less approachable and possibly also more aggressive in their interactions with the citizens they're supposed to protect.
A small project at Johns Hopkins University seemed to bear this out. People were shown pictures of police officers in their traditional uniforms and in BDUs. Respondents, the survey indicated, would much rather have a police officer show up in traditional dress blues. Summarizing its findings, Bickel writes, "The more militaristic look of the BDUs, much like what is seen in news stories of our military in war zones, gives rise to the notion of our police being an occupying force in some inner city neighborhoods, instead of trusted community protectors."
Where Do They Get Those Wonderful Toys?
"I wonder if I can get in trouble for doing this," the young man says to his buddy in the passenger seat as they film the Saginaw County Sheriff Office's new toy: a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. As they film the MRAP from behind, their amateur video has a Red Dawn-esque feel, as if an occupying military were now patrolling this Michigan county's streets. "This is getting ready for f**king crazy times, dude," one young man comments. "Why," his friend replies, "has our city gotten that f**king bad?"
In fact, nothing happening in Saginaw County warranted the deployment of an armored vehicle capable of withstanding bullets and the sort of improvised explosive devices that insurgent forces have regularly planted along roads in America's recent war zones. Sheriff William Federspiel, however, fears the worst. "As sheriff of the county, I have to put ourselves in the best position to protect our citizens and protect our property," he told a reporter. "I have to prepare for something disastrous."
Lucky for Federspiel, his exercise in paranoid disaster preparedness didn't cost his office a penny. That $425,000 MRAP came as a gift, courtesy of Uncle Sam, from one of our far-flung counterinsurgency wars. The nasty little secret of policing's militarization is that taxpayers are subsidizing it through programs overseen by the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department.
Take the 1033 program. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) may be an obscure agency within the Department of Defense, but through the 1033 program, which it oversees, it's one of the core enablers of American policing's excessive militarization. Beginning in 1990, Congress authorized the Pentagon to transfer its surplus property free of charge to federal, state, and local police departments to wage the war on drugs. In 1997, Congress expanded the purpose of the program to include counterterrorism in section 1033 of the defense authorization bill. In one single page of a 450-page law, Congress helped sow the seeds of today's warrior cops.
The amount of military hardware transferred through the program has grown astronomically over the years. In 1990, the Pentagon gave $1 million worth of equipment to U.S. law enforcement. That number had jumped to nearly $450 million in 2013. Overall, the program has shipped off more than $4.3 billion worth of materiel to state and local cops, according to the DLA.
In its recent report, the ACLU found a disturbing range of military gear being transferred to civilian police departments nationwide. Police in North Little Rock, Arkansas, for instance, received 34 automatic and semi-automatic rifles, two robots that can be armed, military helmets, and a Mamba tactical vehicle. Police in Gwinnet County, Georgia, received 57 semi-automatic rifles, mostly M-16s and M-14s. The Utah Highway Patrol, according to a Salt Lake City Tribune investigation, got an MRAP from the 1033 program, and Utah police received 1,230 rifles and four grenade launchers. After South Carolina's Columbia Police Department received its very own MRAP worth $658,000, its SWAT Commander Captain E.M. Marsh noted that 500 similar vehicles had been distributed to law enforcement organizations across the country.
Astoundingly, one-third of all war materiel parceled out to state, local, and tribal police agencies is brand new. This raises further disconcerting questions: Is the Pentagon simply wasteful when it purchases military weapons and equipment with taxpayer dollars? Or could this be another downstream, subsidized market for defense contractors? Whatever the answer, the Pentagon is actively distributing weaponry and equipment made for U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns abroad to police who patrol American streets and this is considered sound policy in Washington. The message seems striking enough: what might be necessary for Kabul might also be necessary for DeKalb County.
In other words, the twenty-first-century war on terror has melded thoroughly with the twentieth-century war on drugs, and the result couldn't be anymore disturbing: police forces that increasingly look and act like occupying armies.
How the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice Are Up-Armoring the Police
When police departments look to muscle up their arms and tactics, the Pentagon isn't the only game in town. Civilian agencies are in on it, too.
During a 2011 investigation, reporters Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz discovered that, since 9/11, police departments watching over some of the safest places in America have used $34 billion in grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to militarize in the name of counterterrorism.
In Fargo, North Dakota, for example, the city and its surrounding county went on an $8 million spending spree with federal money, according to Becker and Schulz. Although the area averaged less than two murders a year since 2005, every squad car is now armed with an assault rifle. Police also have access to Kevlar helmets that can stop heavy firepower as well as an armored truck worth approximately $250,000. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1,500 beat cops have been trained to use AR-15 assault rifles with homeland security grant funding.
As with the 1033 program, neither DHS nor state and local governments account for how the equipment, including body armor and drones, is used. While the rationale behind stocking up on these military-grade supplies is invariably the possibility of a terrorist attack, school shooting, or some other horrific event, the gear is normally used to conduct paramilitary drug raids, as Balko notes.
Still, the most startling source of police militarization is the Department of Justice, the very agency officially dedicated to spreading the community policing model through its Community Oriented Policing Services office.
In 1988, Congress authorized the Byrne grant programs in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which gave state and local police federal funds to enlist in the government's drug war. That grant program, according to Balko, led to the creation of regional and multi-jurisdictional narcotics task forces, which gorged themselves on federal money and, with little federal, state, or local oversight, spent it beefing up their weapons and tactics. In 2011, 585 of these task forces operated off of Byrne grant funding.
The grants, Balko reports, also incentivized the type of policing that has made the war on drugs such a destructive force in American society. The Justice Department doled out Byrne grants based on how many arrests officers made, how much property they seized, and how many warrants they served. The very things these narcotics task forces did very well. "As a result," Balko writes, "we have roving squads of drug cops, loaded with SWAT gear, who get money if they conduct more raids, make more arrests, and seize more property, and they are virtually immune to accountability if they get out of line."
Regardless of whether this militarization has occurred due to federal incentives or executive decision-making in police departments or both, police across the nation are up-armoring with little or no public debate. In fact, when the ACLU requested SWAT records from 255 law enforcement agencies as part of its investigation, 114 denied them. The justifications for such denials varied, but included arguments that the documents contained "trade secrets" or that the cost of complying with the request would be prohibitive. Communities have a right to know how the police do their jobs, but more often than not, police departments think otherwise.
Being the Police Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry
Report by report, evidence is mounting that America's militarized police are a threat to public safety. But in a country where the cops increasingly look upon themselves as soldiers doing battle day in, day out, there's no need for public accountability or even an apology when things go grievously wrong.
If community policing rests on mutual trust between the police and the people, militarized policing operates on the assumption of "officer safety" at all costs and contempt for anyone who sees things differently. The result is an "us versus them" mentality.
Just ask the parents of Bou Bou Phonesavanh. Around 3:00 a.m. on May 28th, the Habersham County Special Response Team conducted a no-knock raid at a relative's home near Cornelia, Georgia, where the family was staying. The officers were looking for the homeowner's son, whom they suspected of selling $50 worth of drugs to a confidential informant. As it happened, he no longer lived there.
Despite evidence that children were present -- a minivan in the driveway, children's toys littering the yard, and a Pack ‘n Play next to the door -- a SWAT officer tossed a "flashbang" grenade into the home. It landed in 19-month-old Bou Bou's crib and exploded, critically wounding the toddler. When his distraught mother tried to reach him, officers screamed at her to sit down and shut up, telling her that her child was fine and had just lost a tooth. In fact, his nose was hanging off his face, his body had been severely burned, and he had a hole in his chest. Rushed to the hospital, Bou Bou had to be put into a medically induced coma.
The police claimed that it was all a mistake and that there had been no evidence children were present. "There was no malicious act performed," Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It was a terrible accident that was never supposed to happen." The Phonesavanhs have yet to receive an apology from the sheriff's office. "Nothing. Nothing for our son. No card. No balloon. Not a phone call. Not anything," Bou Bou's mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, told CNN.
Similarly, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor continues to insist that Jay Westcott's death in the militarized raid on his house was his own fault. "Mr. Westcott lost his life because he aimed a loaded firearm at police officers. You can take the entire marijuana issue out of the picture," Castor said. "If there's an indication that there is armed trafficking going on -- someone selling narcotics while they are armed or have the ability to use a firearm -- then the tactical response team will do the initial entry."
In her defense of the SWAT raid, Castor simply dismissed any responsibility for Westcott's death. "They did everything they could to serve this warrant in a safe manner," she wrote the Tampa Bay Times -- "everything," that is, but find an alternative to storming the home of a man they knew feared for his life.
Almost half of all American households report having a gun, as the ACLU notes in its report. That means the police always have a ready-made excuse for using SWAT teams to execute warrants when less confrontational and less violent alternatives exist.
In other words, if police believe you're selling drugs, beware. Suspicion is all they need to turn your world upside down. And if they're wrong, don't worry; the intent couldn't have been better.
Voices in the Wilderness
The militarization of the police shouldn't be surprising. As Hubert Williams, a former police director of Newark, New Jersey, and Patrick V. Murphy, former commissioner of the New York City Police Department, put it nearly 25 years ago, police are "barometers of the society in which they operate." In post-9/11 America, that means police forces imbued with the "hooah" mentality of soldiers and acting as if they are fighting an insurgency in their own backyard.
While the pace of police militarization has quickened, there has at least been some pushback from current and former police officials who see the trend for what it is: the destruction of community policing. In Spokane, Washington, Councilman Mike Fagan, a former police detective, is pushing back against police officers wearing BDUs, calling the get-up "intimidating" to citizens. In Utah, the legislature passed a bill requiring probable cause before police could execute a no-knock raid. Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has been a vocal critic of militarization,telling the local paper, "We're not the military. Nor should we look like an invading force coming in." Just recently, Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department agreed with the ACLU and the Los Angeles Times editorial board that "the lines between municipal law enforcement and the U.S. military cannot be blurred."
Retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has also become an outspoken critic of militarizing police forces, noting "most of what police are called upon to do, day in and day out, requires patience, diplomacy, and interpersonal skills." In other words, community policing. Stamper is the chief who green-lighted a militarized response to World Trade Organization protests in his city in 1999 ("The Battle in Seattle"). It's a decision he would like to take back. "My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose," he wrote in the Nation. "Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict."
These former policemen and law enforcement officials understand that police officers shouldn't be breaking down any citizen's door at 3 a.m. armed with AR-15s and flashbang grenades in search of a small amount of drugs, while an MRAP idles in the driveway. The anti-militarists, however, are in the minority right now. And until that changes, violent paramilitary police raids will continue to break down the doors of nearly 1,000 American households a week.
War, once started, can rarely be contained.
Blog of Rights: Official Blog of the American Civil Liberties Union
What kind of content do YOU think should be featured at one of the biggest technology events of the year?
SXSW Interactive gives the public a substantial say in its programming. This past March, our panel with Edward Snowden was the festival's most talked-about, and we're eager to get back to Austin in March 2015 to discuss the cutting edge intersections of privacy and technology.
Check out our panel submissions below and throw a few votes our way.
Beyond Privacy: Surveillance's Threat To Liberty
With Ben Wizner (ACLU) and Bruce Schneier (Cryptographer and Privacy Specialist)
Once we could live lives of practical obscurity. No longer. Conveniences of modern life – from smartphones to smoke detectors – have become digital informants, giving governments and corporations detailed information about us.
The problem is often framed as one of privacy. But that doesn't come close to capturing what's threatened by the explosion of data and the zeal with which it's collected, stored, and analyzed. Free speech, security, and equality are just a few of the values imperiled by mass surveillance.
But the situation isn't hopeless. There's nothing inevitable about technology overpowering liberty, and there are solutions – legal, regulatory, and technological – to help us regain control over our data and our lives.
Join Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology project and legal advisor to Edward Snowden, for a conversation with Bruce Schneier, the country's leading public interest technologist, about the world we're creating and how we can fight back.
Fighting surveillance can be good for business
With Chris Soghoian (ACLU) and Matthew Prince (CloudFlare)
The Snowden disclosures have been bad news for many U.S. tech companies. As foreign customers seek to protect themselves and their data from the NSA, the losses to U.S. companies may run into the billions. In particular, the cloud computing sector and ad-supported companies whose business models depend upon data collection are most at risk.
It doesn't have to be this way. The Snowden stories don't have to be bad news. A handful of U.S. tech companies have realized that privacy can be a competitive advantage, that building secure products designed to resist surveillance and government coercion can be good for business. For such companies, the combination of paranoid engineering and a brave legal team have enabled them to offer products that protect user data from many threats, including those hand-delivered by men and women in dark suits.
Facebook, Twitter, & The Future of Free Speech
With Nicole Ozer (ACLU of California), Monika Bickart (Facebook), Jeffrey Rosen (National Constitution Center), Matthew Zimmerman (Twitter)
Online platforms are now the town square for creativity and social and political connection. This means that many of the most important decisions about content, access, and speech are now concentrated in the hands of a few private actors. When does art cross the line and get flagged on Facebook? Which tweets are staying up or coming down? How much censorship is just too much or not enough? Who should be the deciders? And how do you get your voice heard when you think content should be taken down or put back up? Join policy experts from the top platforms, the ACLU's Nicole Ozer, and Professor Jeffrey Rosen from the National Constitution Center to discuss what's happening now and the future of free speech.
Making Devices "Smart" About Privacy
With Matt Cagle (ACLU of California), Nicole Ozer (ACLU of California), Jules Cohen (Microsoft Corporation), Laura Berger (Federal Trade Commission)
It's not just smartphones anymore. Smart fridges tell us when our eggs have gone bad. Smart thermostats track our energy use. Smart monitors allow us to keep track of our children. As the devices we use every day become smarter, they become far more useful. But they also collect new kinds of information – about our most intimate habits and interactions – multiplying the risks to privacy. Hackers, data brokers, and even the government may gain new kinds of keys to our homes and personal lives. So how can companies building the Internet of Things protect privacy in this new data frontier?
This panel will discuss how companies, policymakers, and consumers can be smart about privacy in the Internet of Things.
Tiny Budget, Big Outreach: How ACLU Activated Youth
With Roy Rodenstein (SocMetrics) and Rob Fishman (The Niche Project, Inc.)
For a nonprofit, the budget can severely restrict its ability to conduct outreach on a cause. The ACLU found a way to reach millions of people with a budget that will shock you! The Dream: collaborating with celebrities who tell their fans what you need them to do. The nonprofit fantasy is that celebrities would line up to give the nonprofit free access to millions of fans. The Reality: Tons of money and energy spent chasing a dream with little chance of success. But that doesn't mean that harnessing someone's influence is out of reach. Today, technology enables anyone to cultivate a personal brand, broadcast it worldwide, and earn influence to become powerful enough to challenge traditional paid media outlets. For little cost, your nonprofit can collaborate with an influencer whose existing brand message and audience align with your nonprofit's mission. Learn how the ACLU surpassed its outreach goals by harnessing influence to reach youth about the Constitution .
By Sarah Solon, Communications Strategist, ACLU
Max Soffar has a long history of self-medicating. When he was four, his parents found him passed out next to their car, gas cap in hand. Since birth, Max's brain has been damaged. That damage has been made worse by years of physical and mental abuse by adoptive parents and staff at mental institutions.
At the age of 24 in 1980, Max had the mentality of an 11-year-old. His brain was "fried," according to police, who knew him as a dropout and wannabe police informant. Officers arrested Max on a stolen motorcycle after an infamous robbery-murder at a Houston bowling alley that year.
The police locked Max in a small room and subjected him to a three-day marathon of aggressive, unrecorded interrogation – marked by prodding, pressure, and lies – which culminated in a false confession, typed by police, that the officers convinced a worn down Max to sign.
Max has spent the last 34 years on death row in Texas, but he won't be alive long enough to be executed. Max has terminal liver cancer. The question isn't whether he will die; it is only how soon and where: behind bars or at home.
The forced confession is the only evidence tying Max to the murder. The state has no DNA, no fingerprints, and no forensic or other reliable evidence to connect Max to the crime. What's more, and as several appeals judges have found over the years, the confession is demonstrably false: It narrates a story that clashes dramatically with the account of the only surviving witness and with the other known evidence of how the crime occurred.
It's not just the fact that the state put Max on death row with only a false confession. This whole story of justice gone miserably awry is made worse by the large mountain of evidence implicating another man, who died on Tennessee's death row in 2013.
The man's name is Paul Reid. The week before the shootings, Reid got into an altercation with employees at the bowling alley and threatened to blow their heads off. He was living and committing robberies in Houston at the time, and he wasn't at home with his wife on the night the shootings occurred. Reid looks like the police composite of the shooter, and he went on to commit a series of similar crimes in Tennessee, for which he was caught.
But this evidence of innocence alone won't help Max make it home, to die in the arms of his loving wife Anita. Max has spent the last 34 years on death row because of numerous errors during his original trial and a lugubrious appeals process that will not be over before Max dies.
It falls to Gov. Rick Perry to show Max mercy by using his power to grant him clemency. This innocent man should be allowed to die at home, with the support of his friends and family.
Find out more about how you can urge Governor Perry to let Max go home, before the state of Texas lets an innocent man die on their death row.
Every time they throw my brother into solitary, he loses contact visits. When we visit, he's behind glass, or we can only see him via video. We can't hug him. He can't hold his new baby niece.
My brother, Kofi M. Ajabu, has been imprisoned by the Indiana Department of Correction for nearly 20 years. All told, we estimate that he's spent nearly 10 of those years in a solitary cell, alone for 23 hours a day.
I am a psychiatrist. I know that I could prescribe a million medicines and give countless hours of psychotherapy, but none of it will be as effective if I do not help my patients connect to other human beings.
The effects of solitary confinement are well documented. High rates of suicide, anxiety, obsessive ruminations, violent thoughts, trouble sleeping, paranoia, and hallucinations are direct results of confinement. Because of these effects, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, has called for an absolute ban on the use of solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days.
Every day, I treat individuals with the same symptoms, albeit with biological and psychosocial causes other than solitary confinement. The unifying theme in each of my recommendations is reconnecting my patients to a social support system.
Our "correctional" system, whose original goal was rehabilitation, takes the opposite approach. At a time when many are at a point of greatest need, the system removes the one factor that is universally accepted as a basic psychological and physiological need: contact with other human beings. Without it, prisoners' minds deteriorate.
This last time Kofi was locked in solitary, it was because he reported that a guard formed his fingers into a gun, pointed it at him, and mimicked pulling the trigger. My brother filed a grievance, and they sent him to solitary in retaliation.
This was in April. Like far too many, my brother was subjected to extreme isolation not because it addressed some valid safety concern, but because he angered a guard. Solitary is excessively used every day in this country, rarely for defensible reasons. Sometimes it's to "protect" kids held in adult facilities – kids who should never be held among adults in the first place. Sometimes it's to "protect" people particularly prone to abuse. Sometimes it's because the facility is overcrowded, so guards pack multiple people into an isolation cell the size of a parking spot.
All of these reasons ignore the fact that solitary does its own dramatic, and sometimes irreversible, damage. It erodes people's mental health and can make them even more vulnerable to abuse. Solitary Watch estimates that more than 44,000 people are in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, often ranging in duration from 18 months to over six years. Without systemic change, these people will suffer and languish and deteriorate.
We were lucky. Two days after we notified my brother through the prisoner mail system that Ken Falk of the ACLU of Indiana was going to review documents about his solitary confinement, Kofi was released from solitary and transferred to a medium-security facility.
It was an incredible victory for our family. But sadly, the fight is far from over. We will not stop. I am only one person, but together we can continue to fight for my brother and others who have the right to be treated humanely.
To find out more about the excessive use of solitary confinement and strategies to end it, please read the ACLU's newly updated briefing paper.