It's 2 a.m. and suddenly masked men are crashing through your front door with a battering ram, pointing guns at you and your family and shouting orders as they tear through your home, destroying property in their search for drugs. To incapacitate you, they threw a flash grenade through your bedroom window. Your children are shrieking in terror.
It's called police militarization, and it's an epidemic across the nation, including in Montana.
The national American Civil Liberties Union issued a report today, analyzing how city and state police SWAT teams have shifted from their original focus on armed standoffs, and hostage and barricade situations to deploying for routine drug searches even as these SWAT teams utilize more dangerous techniques with military grade equipment. "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing" examines how this happened, and what can be done to turn back the clock on police treating our neighborhoods like war zones.
Much of the shift has to do with the abundance of post 9-11 federal grants that allowed police departments to buy armored vehicles and military-style weapons they could not otherwise afford. Armed with this new equipment it was a simple step for the police to begin using it with ever greater frequency.
The results have been troubling and horrific. Innocent homeowners, including children, have died during SWAT raids in which the only objective was to search for drugs.
Montana has not been immune to this militarization of police. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, between 2002 and 20011, Montana state and local law enforcement and public safety agencies were the recipients of almost $200 million in federal homeland security grants. Much of that was used for communications equipment and operations centers, but much was also used to buy local law enforcement armored equipment.
Both Helena and Billings, for example, were given grants of about $400,000 apiece to purchase BEAR, or Ballistic Engineered Armored Response, vehicles -- essentially tanks designed to carry 15 or more armed officers. Billings was also given a $200,000 grant Department of Homeland Security grant to purchase thermal imaging devices for all its patrol cars.
More disturbing in Billings, was the police's use of SWAT military-style tactics in a 2012 raid in which a 12-year-old girl was seriously burned when an officer set off a flash grenade in the bedroom where she and her sister slept. Officers said that they had done their homework on the home prior to the raid, but did not know children lived there.
This is not an isolated incident. The ACLU report details numerous cases where children were injured or killed in SWAT raids.
It's time for local and state law enforcement to tighten their requirements for using SWAT force and for greater oversight of their actions.
Let's keep America the home of the free.