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Matthew Harwood, One Nation Under SWAT

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Think of it as a different kind of blowback. Even when you fight wars in countries thousands of miles distant, they still have an eerie way of making the long trip home.

Take the latest news from Bergen County, New Jersey, one of the richest counties in the country. Its sheriff's department is getting two mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs -- 15 tons of protective equipment -- for a song from the Pentagon. And there's nothing special in that. The Pentagon has handed out 600 of them for nothing since 2013, with plenty more to come. They're surplus equipment, mostly from our recent wars, and perhaps they will indeed prove handy for a sheriff fretting about insurgent IEDs (roadside bombs) in New Jersey or elsewhere in the country. When it comes to the up-armoring and militarization of America's police forces, this is completely run-of-the-mill stuff.

The only thing newsworthy in the Bergen story is that someone complained. To be exact, Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan spoke up in opposition to the transfer of the equipment. "I think," she said, "we have lost our way if you start talking about military vehicles on the streets of Bergen County." And she bluntly criticized the decision to accept the MRAPs as the "absolute wrong thing to do in Bergen County to try to militarize our county." Her chief of staff offered a similar comment: "They are combat vehicles. Why do we need a combat vehicle on the streets of Bergen County?"

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Sheriff Michael Saudino, on the other hand, insists that the MRAPs aren't "combat vehicles" at all. Forget the fact that they were developed for and used in combat situations. He suggests instead that one good reason for having them -- other than the fact that they are free (except for postage, gas, and upkeep) -- is essentially to keep up with the Joneses. As he pointed out, the Bergen County police already have two MRAPs, and his department has none and, hey, self-respect matters! ("Should our SWAT guys be any less protected than the county guys?" he asked in a debate with Donovan.)

A striking recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union indicates that, as in Bergen County, policing is being militarized nationwide in all sorts of unsettling ways. It is, more precisely, being SWATified (a word that doesn't yet exist, but certainly should). Matthew Harwood, senior writer and editor for the ACLU, as well as TomDispatch regular, offers a graphic look at just where policing in America is heading. Welcome to Kabul, USA. Tom

To Terrify and Occupy
How the Excessive Militarization of the Police is Turning Cops Into Counterinsurgents
By Matthew Harwood

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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 Bay 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.

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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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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