Two activists who lost family members to encounters with militarized police took part in the panel discussion, “Peace Officer: How the Militarization of Law Enforcement Has Affected Peace Officers and the Communities They Serve,” held on Aug. 7 at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.
The program was inspired by the 2015 award-winning documentary, “Peace Officer,” which focuses on William “Dub” Lawrence, sheriff of Davis County, Utah, as he reconstructs crime scenes in multiple cases, including the killing of his son-in-law.
Lawrence told the ABA audience that he started the SWAT team in Davis County years before that same unit killed his son-in-law in a controversial standoff in 2008.
Rashidah Grinage, another panelist, is coordinator of the Coalition for Police Accountability. A former school teacher, she became an activist against excessive policing after the Oakland police stormed into her home, looking for her son’s dog, and killed her husband and son in 1993.
The two were joined on the panel by Jeff Adachi, the San Francisco Public Defender since 2002, who said that policing had not been scrutinized until the recent proliferation of social media has brought it to the fore. Are things getting worse now? he asked, before answering his own question: “No, we’ve consistently had problems with police killing people of color … and with police brutality.”
Since 2001, the federal government has invested more than $34 billion in local law enforcement equipment, including bazookas and tanks, he said.
The problem, he said, was that “if you have that kind of firepower, you’re going to use it.”
Whenever the first response of the police is the maximum amount of force, you’ve got a problem, Adachi said.
Adachi said technology also plays a role in excessive policing, and referred to the robot recently used in Dallas to kill the suspect who shot and killed five police officers. He asked how technology can differentiate between the innocent and the guilty and what limits should be placed on it. “Are we are going to use technology to be judge and jury?” Drones, he said, are also being used in law enforcement.
In 67 percent of the cases where SWAT teams are used, Adachi said, it’s for nonviolent crime.
There were more than 800 SWAT deployments conducted by more than 20 law enforcement agencies between 2011-12, he said, and 62 percent of them were solely a search for drugs.
And 90 percent of major cities have SWAT teams, Adachi said.
Grinage said her encounter with the police in 1993 and from meeting other families who have gone through something similar incidents convinced her that “the police are virtually autonomous.” She said police unions push back on reforms and other efforts to gain transparency in their actions, and their lobby has ensured that legislation favors police.
Grinage said she believes that community organizers need to join forces with the efforts of legal organizations “in a coherent way,” and said it is difficult for groups such as hers to get funding to do their work.
In detailing the story of the death of his son-in-law, Brian, Lawrence said police arrived at Brian’s home after a domestic violence incident. He was sitting alone in his truck with a gun pointed at his head. Lawrence went to the scene and asked the police to let him talk to Brian, but then the SWAT team arrived and took over. After 12 hours, Lawrence said the SWAT force felt justified that they could use deadly force, although he said Brian was not threatening anyone else. Brian was tased and shot, and grenades were detonated on his body.
“His body was mutilated….There is no excuse for that kind of law enforcement — ever,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said he went through four years of court battles, but under the law the police officers involved qualified for immunity. “The police are not entitled to take away our due process,” he said.
Adachi said these are not isolated incidents but are happening in almost every community.
SWAT teams came into vogue with the war on drugs and the crack epidemic of the 1980s, according to Adachi. Today, there are more than four times as many SWAT teams “and SWAT enforcement continues to soar,” Adachi said.
Around that same time the drug forfeiture laws were passed and by 2012 there was more than $6 billion in the seized assets deposit fund, Adachi said, which was used to equip and ramp up local police departments.
Adachi said the situation has produced no accountability, and there are no guidelines.
Grinage said that even when policies are viable and appropriate in the community, they’re not following policy, and used as an example a Chicago police office shooting a man in a car driving away.
“If there are no consequences for violating it, then the policy is not worth the paper it’s printed on,” she said. “If all that happens is that you get a paid vacation while you are under investigation, all the while confident that your action will be deemed justified in the end, then there is no incentive to change the behavior,” Grinage continued.
“Officers act with impunity because they’ve done the cost/benefit analysis. They know that the risk of sanctions is extremely low and reward in terms of the approval of their supervisors and promotion is high,” she said.
And until that changes, Grinage said, “we’re whistling in the dark.”
Adachi spoke of the relevance of implicit bias in many of these situations. He said the Harvard implicit bias test has one specifically geared for law enforcement, and the results have shown that people are more inclined to shoot an African-American man walking with a cellphone than a white man walking with a gun.
But most police departments are not trained in bias, he said.
As part of the solution Grinage wants to see a shift in power from elected officials to communities. She wants local police commissions to have the authority to say yes or no to contracts for militarized supplies.
Adachi agreed, and thinks things are changing as more Americans say that the militarization of police has gone too far. The solution is needed at all levels of government, he said.
SWAT teams should only be used in high-risk, emergency situations, such as hostage situations or an active shooter, Adachi said. He cited a study that showed rookie officers on average receive 58 hours of firearm training, 49 hours of defensive tactical training, but only eight hours of de-escalation training.
Lawrence sees the solution as quite simple: Treat everyone fairly under the law.
“If an officer kills someone, he should be charged and account for it like a regular citizen,” he said. He also wants to get rid of some immunities that protect officers, such as statutes of limitations.
The panel was moderated by Cathleen S. Yonahara, vice chair of the Section of Civil Rights & Social Justice’s Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity Committee.
“Peace Officer: How the Militarization of Law Enforcement Has Affected Peace Officers and the Communities They Serve” was sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights & Social Justice.