A common criticism of police forces in countries undergoing security sector reform—from Afghanistan to Timor-Leste to Mexico—is the tendency of law enforcement to adopt paramilitary-style weapons and tactics. However, recent events in the US have shown that an overreliance on paramilitary policing is not limited to conflict zones. In Detroit, Police Chief Warren Evans has stepped up paramilitary policing to confront the city’s crime problem head on. According to a Time Magazine article, Evans “broadened the mission of the Special Response Team (SRT) squads beyond hostage situations and bank robberies to bring an intimidating force to more routine police work. He also created a mobile Tactical Strike Force, which rotated about 150 officers from the department’s gang squad and other units to deliver a surge of police presence in crime-tossed neighborhoods.” However, Evans’ strategy erupted in controversy when an SRT raid resulted in the accidental shooting death of a seven-year-old girl.
Though Detroit is now the centre of the debate—and is facing lawsuits and an investigation by Michigan State police—it is not the only city responding to crime with paramilitary policing: “Since the 1980s drug war…many local police departments have developed [paramilitary] units, often with surplus U.S. military gear. Initially, the units responded to hostage situations. Increasingly, they’re used proactively to search for illegal contraband, like guns and drugs,” according to criminal justice professor and author of Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System, Peter Kraska.
Kraska estimates that the total number of SWAT deployments across the country “increased from a few hundred per year in the 1970s to a few thousand per year by the early 1980s to around 50,000 per year by the mid-2000s.” Today, he says “every decent-sized city has a SWAT team, and most have several. Even absurdly small towns like Eufaula, Ala., (population 13,463) have them…Where their purpose once was to defuse an already violent situation, today they break into homes to look for illicit drugs, creating violence and confrontation where there was none before.”
Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute says that it can become a recipe for excess: “When these paramilitary units are called out to execute violent raids on these homes, it’s taking on the attributes of an urban war zone,” he says. Worse, “there’s very little oversight: officers assigned to such squads often get a few days of training, with no national standards.” The results can be deadly, as shown by the CATO Institute’s map of botched paramilitary police raids.
The problem has received academic attention, with one paper arguing that “although paramilitary police forces may be capable of plugging the so-called ‘security gap’, an unintended consequence of their creation may be a more general militarization of traditional forms of policing at home and abroad.”
Radley Balko, the author of “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America” writes that “In this era of tight budgets, smaller cities and towns should consider disbanding the local SWAT team. They’ll save money on training, equipment and overtime. They’ll be returning to a less aggressive, less militaristic, more community-oriented method of policing.”
There is a tendency in the SSR community to view developed countries as the “providers” of SSR, and developing or post-conflict countries as the “receivers.” The excesses of paramilitary policing in the US should serve as a reminder that SSR is not an end-state but a continuous process that should be pursued in all countries.