What does the killing of a small girl say about police raids in an age of terror?


Armored truck purchased by police in Long Beach, Calif., with readiness grants

A house raid by law enforcement in Michigan that led to the killing of a 7-year-old girl May 16 sheds new light on the question of whether police have become overly militarized in the post-Sept. 11 age of terrorism. The Detroit Police Department was executing a “no-knock” search warrant intending to nab an alleged murderer with the help of its SWAT team when authorities say Aiyana Jones was accidentally shot by one of the officers.

A lawyer for the family insists the shot was fired from outside and that a flash-bang grenade tossed through the window burned the girl before she was fatally wounded by gunfire.

Crew members from a popular reality TV show, “The First 48,” captured footage as the raid occurred and subsequently turned it over to investigators looking into the shooting, according to press accounts. The show is produced by a UK company called Granada Media, also coincidentally the force behind another A&E cable network program called “S.W.A.T.” It chronicles the high-octane work of police special weapons and tactics units from three major cities. One of them is Detroit.

The show’s website features images of Detroit’s special response team dressed in military-style apparel and carrying submachine guns capable of spraying 800 rounds per minute. One officer wields an intimidating, large-barreled “multi-launcher,” which fires tear-gas projectiles “to disorient potential threats” and “less-lethal rounds,” such as sand bags that are used for crowd-control situations. Reporters have attributed the shooting of Aiyana Jones to team member Joseph Weekley, who still appears on the site.

Police departments across the United States have used federal homeland security grants to equip these teams with armored vehicles, battering rams, modern devices for conducting surveillance, incident-command trucks resembling RVs on steroids and SWAT attire that seems to visually transform local police into the armed forces.

In one area of Hawaii, police use a 19,000-pound armored BearCat purchased with $240,000 in grants “mostly for executing high-risk search warrants,” according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The vehicle has detectors on board for radiation and methane gas, and it’s followed on “missions” by a $330,000 mobile-command post.

New Hampshire spent $378,000 for two armored vehicles, and police in the town of Nashua there acquired a $250,000 mobile-command unit. Hidalgo County in southern Texas used federal cash set aside by lawmakers for border security to snap up a $346,000 “ballistic engineered armored response” vehicle, according to grant records Elevated Risk obtained this year.

Those are just a few examples. A company based in Massachusetts called Lenco Industries has supplied numerous communities across the country in recent years with muscle-bound armored trucks purchased using anti-terrorism and preparedness grants. Guidelines prohibit buying actual weapons and ammunition, but just about anything else a police tactical response team might consider essential is included in the list of authorized expenditures. Authorities have argued that such high-tech gear is justified because officers face an increasingly dangerous world.

One item, for instance, is an armored bulldozer fronted by a thick shield known as an “assault platform.” The vehicle is propelled forward by “tank-like, all-terrain tracks,” as the manufacturer, Dolmen Corporation, describes them. Dolmen’s product allows police to “gain the edge on crime,” company officials say on a website maintained by FEMA that offers descriptions alongside photos of equipment local officials are allowed to purchase with the grants. “Law enforcement’s operating climate is violent and getting worse,” Dolmen warns on the site. “ … As the bad guys gain access to sophisticated weapons and technology, officers place themselves in great jeopardy to keep the public safe.”

Such language is part of a larger law enforcement narrative that has broadened in scope since 9/11 from the war on terror to the war on crime. The police chief of an Arkansas town that borders Tennessee announced this month he wanted law enforcers to carry shotguns with them during traffic stops after a man and his son wielding an assault weapon allegedly shot and killed two officers. “They were completely outgunned," Tennessee’s Commercial Appeal newspaper quoted the chief as saying. "We are dealing with people who rant and rave about killing. They want government officials dead. We had a 16-year-old better armed than the police.” The father was reportedly an anti-government extremist.

Police are also increasingly seeking permission to use military-style firearms even if grants won’t finance them, such as a push by the Boston Police Department last year to obtain 200 M-16s free from the Defense Department for its patrol officers. Authorities pointed to terrorist threats as one reason for pursuing the guns, but community leaders questioned why neighborhood police needed such firepower.

As for home entries by law enforcement, a 2006 study by the libertarian Cato Institute citing academic research says SWAT team deployments have soared since the 1980s, and during that time, “at least 40 innocent people have been killed in botched raids,” the authors wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “There are dozens more cases where low-level, nonviolent offenders and police officers themselves have been killed.”

During a six-month period last year, police in Prince George’s County, Maryland, carried out nearly 200 “tactical entries,” and half of them involved non-serious felonies and misdemeanors. Those statistics surfaced after police crashed into the home of a local mayor armed with automatic rifles and shot his two dogs, according to Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Hermann. The raid turned out to be a mistake made while police were investigating the sale of marijuana.

Long Beach truck image from the California Emergency Management Agency. Screenshots from A&E's "S.W.A.T." and the Department of Homeland Security's Responder Knowledge Base website.

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