Where the War on Drugs Is Actually Like a War Zone

A new report from the ACLU shows how U.S. law-enforcement agencies are prosecuting an increasingly militarized War on Drugs, especially in majority-minority communities.

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A SWAT drill conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriff department in June 2013. (Patrick Fallon/Reuters)

A study released this week by the American Civil Liberties Union shows how the nation's state and local law-enforcement agencies have come to adopt hardline tactics and advanced equipment in the pursuit of routine investigations, resulting in a nationwide militarization of police work. A multi-year research effort, "War Comes Home", reveals how this militarization is connected to the War on Drugs—and how it overwhelmingly affects people of color. 

Analyzing public records made available by 20 U.S. law enforcement agencies, the investigation shows how the use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams in more than 800 deployments between 2011–2012 overwhelmingly targeted black populations, in municipalities ranging from Spokane County in Washington to Chatham County in North Carolina.

The report details the militarization of ordinary law-enforcement activities, including the use of military-grade equipment, such as flashbang grenades and armored personnel carriers, in carrying out standard search warrants. 

The Skunk Riot Control Copter, a police drone produced by South African manufacturer Desert Wolf, is armed with four barrels that can fire non-lethal ammunition, such as pepper spray or paintballs. Law-enforcement agencies across the nation have applied for drone authorization or borrowed U.S. Customs and Border Protection drones for missions. (Desert Wolf)

"Neighborhoods are not war zones," the report reads, "and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies."

The survey tracks only a small number of SWAT deployments in the U.S. over the relevant time span. But it highlights what's happening in the cities and counties with the highest incidence of SWAT deployments, focusing on law-enforcement agencies that reported more than 15 episodes in response to a records request. (Plus, for demographic reasons, the Bay County Sheriff's Office.)

ACLU

Even as a limited snapshot of police actions nationwide, what the investigation reveals is staggering: 79 percent of the incidents reviewed by the ACLU involved a SWAT team searching a person's home. More than 60 percent of the incidents reviewed involved a search for drugs. "The use of a SWAT team to execute a search warrant essentially amounts to the use of paramilitary tactics to conduct domestic criminal investigations in searches of people’s homes," the report reads.

Just 7 percent of SWAT raids involved "hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios"—the sorts of extreme conflict situations for which SWAT teams are trained and armed. (Downtown Los Angeles was shut down in June of last year for a training exercise in which SWAT team members took down actors pretending to be terrorists.) That means that the majority of SWAT actions investigated by the ACLU—raids that have resulted in property damage, injuries, and deaths—were committed against individuals merely suspected of having committed a crime.  

Overwhelmingly, these individuals were minorities, and for the most part, African Americans.

ACLU

The report on police militarization includes maps pairing broader data on SWAT deployments conducted between 2010 and 2013 with U.S. Census data. These graphics visualize how minority districts (Census blocks) were targeted more frequently by SWAT actions than non-minority districts (i.e., white neighborhoods). 

In Cincinnati, those SWAT raids were mostly conducted to execute search warrants.

ACLU

A map of SWAT actions in Austin distinguishes between raids based on when they took place. The difference between where those raids took place—in mostly white versus mostly minority Census blocks—is as stark as night and day.

ACLU

While these aggressive police units are being supplied largely through federal programs, they are being conducted without much oversight at the local, state, or federal levels. Potentially worse still—as the report acknowledges up front—this is only the tip of the iceberg. Other aspects of police militarization, from law-enforcement use of military surveillance equipment to routine patrols using SWAT gear, are "beyond the scope of this report." 

The War on Drugs is losing ground: 67 percent of Americans think U.S. policy should focus on treatment, with just 26 percent favoring prosecutions for people who use drugs. Yet the front lines of this increasingly unpopular law-enforcement effort remain divisive, discriminatory, and deadly.

 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.