Editorial: De-militarize the police


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The footage showed an event like something you’d expect from an elite-forces operation: a group of armed men in riot gear advancing slowly on a building, then breaking open a door with a battering ram and moving in swiftly.

But this was not a tactical operation on a criminal compound. It was a group of police officers from Ankeny, Iowa, executing a search warrant at a Des Moines family’s residence. And the supposed crime that warranted this treatment? The police were looking for a suspect who had reportedly used stolen credit cards to buy clothes and electronics.

After the police had conducted their search, two people staying with the family were arrested on unrelated charges. Yet none of the items listed on the warrant were found.

The experience left members of the Des Moines family disturbed.

“I’ve been so traumatized. I don’t sleep at night,” Sally Prince said to WHO-TV of Des Moines. “This is over property purchased with a stolen credit card. It doesn’t make any sense to go to such extremes for something that simple.”

The salvaged home-security footage from the event illustrates a perverse and unsettling role reversal. Instead of burglars covering their tracks, a police officer is shown clearly ripping out a camera that captured part of the raid, while another covers up the lens of one inside the home. Such brazen attempts at covering up evidence cannot be ignored.

Unfortunately, the police squad that entered a family’s home and willfully tried to erase the evidence is not a sign of a new phenomenon. It’s one that has crept up on America. The militarization of our police forces began more than 30 years ago.

Under President Reagan, Congress passed the 1981 Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, giving local, state, and federal police access to military resources, equipment, and training. In 1988, a bill passed authorizing the National Guard to assist police in drug-policy enforcement. The most striking case for a militarized police force came on 9/11. No longer would the military presence in police squads be justified solely by the war on drugs. Now, the fight was also against domestic terrorism.

With these beginnings, the divide today between troops trained to engage enemy combatants and police carrying out law enforcement has shrunk dramatically. Surveillance and reconnaissance devices such as drones are used in enemy territory and suburban America, and, as evidenced by the Des Moines raid, police squads executing a search warrant for nonviolent crimes are becoming indistinguishable from SWAT teams.

Those against these policies still have some cause for hope, especially here in Iowa City. Iowa City banned the use of drones (among other traffic-surveillance technologies) in 2013, though the ordinance was forced by petition and is only binding for two years.

And last year, the U.S. Justice Department issued a memo to allow state legal-marijuana laws, a promising sign that the practice of using national troops in the war on drugs may be coming to an end.

But expanding police budgets will continue to bring more military-style presence to local law enforcement. The Ankeny police raid is not the first of its kind, and without significant public opposition, it certainly won’t be the last.

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