It's Time to Demilitarize the Police


Habersham County, Georgia is nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, just south of stunning Tallulah Gorge.  The biggest city in the county is Cornelia, with 4,160 residents.  The entire population of Habersham County would fill slightly more than half the seats in the Georgia Dome.

Yet Habersham County Sheriff’s Department has a SWAT team, complete with flash-bang grenades, one of which exploded in a 19-month-old’s crib on May 28, 2014.  A drug raid gone wrong.  In fact, gone so wrong that there wasn’t even a hint of a drug dealer at the home, just a sleeping family.

[WSB-TV] Channel 2’s Kerry Kavanaugh asked [Habersham County District Attorney Brian] Rickman, “A lot of people have said throughout this that if a flash bang, a grenade, exploded inside a child’s crib, something went wrong. A lot of people were hoping that someone would be held accountable.”

Rickman said, “To answer the question that’s absolutely true. I think what people have to be careful about — there’s a difference in criminal responsibility versus, of course there will be a civil lawsuit, but also some of the personal accountability.”

If Navy SEALs injured a toddler in a foreign land during a botched raid, where no bad guys were found, it would make international headlines.  But the SEALs (and all military special operators) take care before a raid; they conduct target surveillance, gather intelligence, and ensure they know their target and objectives.  Thousands of hours of surveillance was compiled on Osama Bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout before that operation was approved—and that was one of the more uncertain intelligence operations, because they were never really sure if Osama was actually there.  In Israel, IDF soldiers are trained to abort a raid rather than injure a civilian.

Yet in America, police can obtain a “no knock” warrant for a drug raid based on the flimsiest evidence—the word of an informer—and raid any home, with military tactics and weapons.  They could come crashing through your door anytime, but usually at night, or in the early dawn hours, because, you know, drug dealers tend to sleep in.  They can kill your doguse a taser on you, beat you, or shoot you.  When the SWAT team enters your home, it doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or not:  it’s war.  As Robocop would say, “dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”  Too frequently, it’s dead.

We’re at the tipping point of a pernicious cycle of violence, jackboot-State response, and drug use.  Jesus said that “every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”  The police state versus the citizen state cannot stand.  One of the few points of confluence between statist liberals and fiercely individualist libertarians is that paramilitary police is a really bad idea.  When the Cato Institute agrees with Ezra Klein’s left-wing Vox.com, there’s got to be something to this.

The Ride-Along

I actually rode along on a no-knock raid one time.  Back in 1998, I ran an internet service provider.  One of our large clients was a local television station and someone attempted to hack that website.  We obtained the name and address of the hacker (he was dialed in through our service) and managed to get him to spill his guts bragging on a chat service.  Then I called the local police.  The detective found that the home was on their “watch list” so he asked for a no-knock warrant.  The judge signed it.

Five or six unmarked patrol cars slid up a block or so from the home, and about a dozen SWAT officers covered all the entrances, while five went through the front door.  Actually, they knocked, although they could have simply breached the door.  Everyone in the home was told to get on the floor, with AR15’s pointed at their necks, while the police searched for evidence.  The perpetrator in this case was 17 years old.  His mother’s boyfriend was a felon who, it turned out, was in violation of his parole and had an SKS rifle and 2,000 rounds of ammunition in the home.

Was no-knock justified?  In this case, probably—given that the raid was going to happen.  But I’m not sure this crime justified a raid at all.  The crime was decidedly “white collar”, but law enforcement is ever too eager to pull the trigger on a paramilitary operation.  If it were me, I would have simply called the boy and asked him to come in.  He would likely have cracked with a few minutes of questioning.

One fallout from my experience is that the kid’s mom’s boyfriend paid me a visit a week or so later, in my office.  He simply walked in.  I told him he had to leave, and when he had his say and left, I called the detective.  I was pretty shaken.  Not because he threatened me (he didn’t, he was even respectful), but because he was able to easily walk into my office at my place of business; he could have shot me point blank between the eyes had he so desired.  I resolved at that moment to improve my security.  After that, I carried a pistol wherever I went, and had one in my desk drawer, loaded.  My next office location had steel security doors and electronically activated magnetic locks.  Nobody was ever going to surprise me that way again.

That’s just one of the side effects of the militarized state:  I carry, I keep guns in my home, and if some scumbag told the sheriff’s department that I had drugs at my home, and they entered my house no-knock, I’d shoot first and ask questions later.  This happened to Marvin Louis Guy in Killeen, Texas, when Police Detective Charles Dinwiddie came in through a window during a SWAT raid.  Guy shot Dinwiddie in the face and killed him.  Bell County has charged Guy with murder and is seeking the death penalty.  No drugs were found in the home.

The Drug War Cycle

Since the early 1970’s, America has been in a war on drugs.  From pot to cocaine, to heroin, federal and local authorities have cracked down on every drug user, dealer, and large-scale supplier.  In the 20 years from 1979 to 1999, illegal drug use fell dramatically.  Ten years later, drug offenses had become the single largest offense for prison terms.  And the largest prison population of drug users was black males between 20 and 30 years old.

This is not some proof of racism, but it is an indication of who gets caught, who gets sentenced, and who serves time in prison.  When the race-baiters scream that the “system is against them”, this is one area where they definitely have a point.  Defense lawyers are expensive, and being caught with drugs can result in probation, suspended sentences, rehabilitation, or jail.  For poor, black defendants, it’s more likely to be jail time.


The more affluent drug abusers get theirs from their parents’ prescription drug cabinets, from crooked pharmacies, or from pill mill doctors.  They get caught too, but less often, and with less consequences.

The drug war has placed America into a cycle of crime, violence, and response.  Drug usage creates demand—whether for marijuana, painkillers, methamphetamine, or crack cocaine.  Criminal gangs fulfill this demand, in ever more brazen and innovative ways.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and none of this is lost on the drug cartels, who use every method imaginable to grow, fabricate, smuggle, and distribute their product.  They aren’t constrained by trade rules, only by market forces and their ability to ruthlessly defeat their competition.

And today’s recreational drugs are not your father’s “joint”.

The intoxicating chemical in marijuana is tetrahydracannabinol, or THC. While a handful of growers are finessing strains to provide a medical benefit without the high the majority aim to push THC content as high as it will go according to government data.

In the annual Cannabis Cup competition, where marijuana enthusiasts gather to try pot from various places and vote on their favorites, the most potent strains have a THC content of around 25%, according to testing commissioned by the organizers at High Times. But at the University of Mississippi, in a laboratory that tracks the potency of marijuana seized by federal law enforcement officers, they’ve found even higher levels — as high as 37%, according to Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, the director of the Marijuana Potency Project.

Since 1972, ElSohly says, the average THC content of marijuana has soared from less than 1% to 3 to 4% in the 1990s, to nearly 13% today.

The baby boomers making decisions to legalize pot in Colorado or Washington State are basing their experiences on their own youth, with President Obama admitting he inhaled as a kid.  “That was the point,” he said.  What he inhaled was nothing like today’s product.  Getting high is a national sport for many teens, rich and poor alike.  When they’re high, they’re more likely to commit crimes.  From stealing a box of Swisher Sweets cigars, which Michael Brown was accused of before his encounter with Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, to teen Robert Kane Rolison’s killing of J’maal Keyes in Hawkinsville, Georgia, these teens were looking for their next high, or high when they committed the crime.  The only reason an 18 year old would steal a box of cheap cigars is to hollow them out and make “blunts” by filling them with weed.

We end up with a drug culture which taxes the police to the limit, imprisons more people who really need rehabilitation, creates a revolving-door in jails and prisons, recycling drug users after indoctrinating them into violent criminal gangs behind bars, and incentivizes police to seize property though civil forfeiture.  And it’s inherently racist in its outcome (blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately incarcerated and jailed).

And to fight this drug war, Congress equipped police departments with military hardware.

In 1990, the NDAA section 1208 authorized the DoD to transfer property, arms and ammunition to federal and state agencies that the Secretary determines is “(A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.”    This was replaced in 1996 by section 1033, which is still in force.

The idea was that if the U.S. wanted its police to act like drug warriors, it should equip them like warriors, which it has—to the tune of around $4.3 billion in equipment, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union[*]. The St. Louis County Police Department’s annual budget is around $160 million. By providing law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment free of charge, the NDAA encourages police to employ military weapons and military tactics.

[* the link to the cited ACLU report is now a dead link]

We now have a perfect storm of legislatures pushing for legalized recreational marijuana, expanding on medical marijuana (which is a valid use of the drug), along with a porous southern borderproliferation of synthetic drugs, and a fully militarized police apparatus which extends even to the smallest hamlets.

The Tinderbox

It was not supposed to be this way.  The military equipment was supposed to battle drugs, not citizens.  But who’s supposed to tell the local police NOT to use equipment they’ve been legally given for whatever purpose they want in enforcing the law and keeping the peace?

The police also have a drug culture:  it’s a war, and increasingly, war-fighting tactics are used to fight it.  This means door breaches, no-knock warrants, use of overwhelming force, and military-style procedures.  Large departments like LAPD, NYPD, Chicago, Miami, and Washington D.C. have the training and experience to implement these, along with detailed crowd control and response plans for any contingency.  Habersham County Sheriff, not to mention Ferguson Missouri PD, don’t have those resources, but they do have the equipment.

We’ve got a tinderbox:  one spark and any particular city can burn down.

This is where the statist Left and the civil-liberty Right part ways: personal responsibility and the Second Amendment.  Guns themselves don’t destabilize our society anymore than drugs without drug users destabilize it (would drug possession need to be illegal if drug use was not assumed?  I doubt it.).  As IDF soldiers are taught (in a country where it’s not unusual to see M16’s on public transportation) about firearms:

The weapon may have a safe mode, but it does not have a brain.  It is a stupid instrument, and has no way of knowing what mode its on, or for that matter, who its aimed at.  It relies on you.  Don’t be stupid.

But people being stupid and having stupid ideas is much more dangerous.  Statists believe that the tinderbox is that somehow gun-toting citizens of one race or color will get into a shooting war with gun-toting citizens of another race of color, as if we’re tribal or loyal to our race or gang over our country.  And that’s just horse hockey.

The tinderbox is when the State possesses too much power and deprives law-abiding citizens of their obligation to defend themselves, their neighbors, and freedom itself.  Black, white, Hispanic—it doesn’t matter, most people are decent and law-abiding.  When the military morphs into the police, instead of Posse Comitatus (use of the military for enforcing state laws), which is prohibited, we have effectively turned the police into a military organization, reporting through the Department of Homeland Security (which is exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act).  We have created a police state by sidestepping the very law against it.

Banning handguns and rifles, treating all citizens as potential criminals, and regulating every aspect of society is not winning the war on drugs.  It’s suppressing individual freedoms, and turning the State against its own citizens.

We should never have to see SWAT teams, MRAPs, armored personnel carriers in our streets, and riot-clad police standing against citizens because of one officer defending his life from a violent drug-using teenager.

We shouldn’t have to see a toddler being horrifically burned by a flash grenade exploding in his crib at the wrong home.

We shouldn’t have to worry that the police will become our enemy in a shooting war if some judge signs a warrant with the wrong address.

We shouldn’t have to see crowds chanting “What do we want?  Dead cops” or police turning their backs on their own mayor in America’s oldest metropolis.

These are clear signs of a house divided against itself.

A Reformation

Instead of more inflammatory rhetoric, we need a reformation.  We need to undo all the damage we’ve done to police-citizen relations.  Congress has created an addicted monster:  local police addicted to gear-crack.  The latest and greatest stuff like flash-bangs, humvees and semiautomatic weapons in every cruiser’s trunk.

We shouldn’t just make drugs legal, that’s dumber than dirt, and it will induce more brain-addled teens to do more stupid things and bring more violence.  We should instead take away all that military hardware that police have, and re-invest in education and rehabilitation.  Instead of locking young adults up for using drugs, or three-strike laws for nonviolent offenders, let’s get them clean without subjecting them to hardened violent criminals (and then releasing them back into the world as violent criminals).

Let’s take all that surplus military hardware and put it on the Mexican border, and quadruple the size of the Border Patrol, and give them the weapons.  Let’s put real teeth into drug interdiction there and stop the smuggling.  We should look at Taiwan and Singapore, who don’t put up with drug smuggling.  Let the local cops shut down local meth labs, and if necessary, use the SWAT teams.  But please, make the bar a lot higher for no-knock warrants.


Let’s give citizens back their dignity and self-protection, and stop this ridiculous “I’m scared of guns so please ban them” milquetoast policy that companies like Starbucks and Buffalo Wild Wings (among others) have adopted.  Instead of making schools a pop-tart-gun- and finger-gun-free zone, teach the kids firearm safety.  No, not .308 deer rifles, but what’s wrong with allowing 3rd and 4th graders to have a day learning about BB guns with a qualified instructor?  It’s a hell of a lot less dangerous than learning about condoms and sex methods.

If we don’t back off from the course we’re on, we’re going to have the very war the Left wants to avoid, but it won’t be a race war.  It will be a war between the State and the citizens:  the police and those who are being policed.

And every time we give more ammunition to the State, we raise the stakes another notch.  It’s time to return to a civil society and demilitarize the police.

(crossposted from sgberman.com)