The Militarization of Police
By Kathleen F. Phalen

From Gadfly Sep./Oct. 2000


It was a little before seven a.m., the day before Easter, when the haunting image of a terror-stricken boy in a Miami bedroom flashed across American televisions. It must have stopped coffee. The uneasy imbalance: the ballistic shielded face of an urban camouflaged federal agent, 9mm Heckler & Koch submachine gun, pitted against a child. But why? Why were such brutal measures necessary? Why machine guns, soldiers and a middle of the night Gestapo-like raid, here, in America? There must be an explanation.

Attorney General Janet Reno, the official who ordered the pre-dawn raid, was the first to offer one. "We tried to avoid the use of force," she shares in a televised message that hit America's kitchens just moments after the image's release. Recounting details of endless negotiations surrounding the fate of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez—the Cuban boy rescued at sea after his mother drowned trying to reach America's shores—Reno tells us that time was up. The Miami relatives, Lazaro and Marisleysis Gonzalez, who had been fighting for the boy's asylum for the past five months, left her no choice. They refused to cooperate. Leaning into the screen like a mother comforting a stricken child, Reno assures us the boy is safe, soon to be reunited with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Her words continue, softer, trying to blanch the fractured, sullied edges of an image she hopes America will forget.

And for most, life continues.

But what about the 30 or so people who were gassed, kicked, brutalized and threatened when 151 heavily-armed federal agents (131 INS and 20 U.S. Marshals) descended upon the area known as Little Havana? What about the Texas high school sophomore, tending a herd of goats, who was shot to death by a U.S. Marine on an anti-drug patrol along the Rio Grande? Or Amadou Diallo gunned down in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building by New York City police? What about 70-year-old Accelynne Williams, the wrongly accused Methodist minister who died of a heart attack as officers broke into his home, handcuffed him, pointed a gun to his head and shouted obscenities? Or the United Airlines pilot arrested on felony charges by National Park Service police for taking a shell from an island beach?

Does life continue?

Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an NYPD officer three days before Christmas, says no. "It changed our lives 101 percent," she says, her voice flat. "Our young ones are still suffering, they miss him. My husband and I can't function; if he were alive, things would be different."

These people are witness to the thin blue line, the line holding back the enemy. The line battling America's jungle; the line that detains and searches young men for the crime of standing while black, or as they call it, SWB. These people will remember because they have the information missing from the Associated Press photo; missing from Reno's account of the pre-dawn raid; missing from most media accounts.

"The mentality is us against them," says William Acosta, former NYPD internal affairs investigator who now heads the Manhattan-based Equalizer Foundation, a not-for-profit trying to help whistleblowers, cops who report brutality and corruption in law enforcement. "The monster is within the police departments."

Gregory Paul Allen was outside the Gonzalez home the night of the INS raid. He isn't Cuban American; he's just an American, a former Air Force enlisted man who wanted to help. "I kept thinking they're not allowing this family their day in court," he says.

So each day Allen, an engineer, made the 30-mile trip from Fort Lauderdale to Miami. "I felt embarrassed because more Americans were not support democracy."

On what is known as Holy Saturday in Christian faiths, the crowd outside the Miami home was smaller than usual. Allen says things were quiet: some sleeping, some talking, others praying, saying the Rosary. "No one believed anyone would come and take the boy on a Holy holiday."

But they did.

It was about 5:15 a.m. "I saw all these men in black outfits running down the middle of the street," says Allen. "They were screaming, yelling, spraying us with gas and pepper spray. They started yanking at me, nearly throwing me to the ground, and then there was a battering ram about a foot from my chest."

Allen, represented by Judicial Watch, is one of more than 20 individuals who have filed legal actions against Reno, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner Doris Meissner. "We want them held personally accountable," says Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, who refers to the raid as illegal, unconstitutional and Nazi-like.

According to court documents, heavily armed agents doused neighborhood residents with gas and threatened to shoot, yelling, "Get out of here, mother fucker." Maria Rodriguez, who lives across from the Gonzalez home, was awakened by the noise and went outside. As she stood in her yard, federal agents pointed weapons at her and shouted, "Stay back or we'll shoot." So Rodriguez raised her hands in the air, but a federal agent sprayed her with gas. Martha Teresita Lara was kicked in the stomach. An NBC cameraman, who was inside the Gonzalez home, was knocked to the floor, kicked in the back and held at gunpoint. Agents flipped over tables, broke down doors and smashed religious artifacts, yelling, "Give me the fucking boy or I'll shoot."

Mayberry is no more.

The neighborly, down-home boys, reminiscent of the Andy Griffith television show, are a rarity, although some do still exist. These days, more and more cops are becoming heavily armed commando warriors, and former warriors are becoming cops. The once clear line between police and military has eroded. The delineation of forces, first drawn in 1878 under the Posse Comitatus Act, was diluted in 1981 by Congress. Under the guise of fighting America's drug war, the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Officials Act was passed, opening the door for more blended relationships.

Since that time, according to Eastern Kentucky University police scholar Peter Kraska, the number of police paramilitary units (PPU) in smaller departments has increased by nearly 157 percent; no-knock dynamic searches of private residences rose by 257 percent; and federal police—even the postal service has a SWAT team—number 83,000.

Across the country, thousands of Americans are being assaulted in their homes by no-knock, dynamic entries; heavily-armed SWAT teams are patrolling city streets; armored convoys and military helicopters drop paramilitary units into America's hot zones (targeted crime areas); military special forces, like Navy Seals and Delta Force, previously used to fight the toughest battles in other countries, are training our police to fight America's war, in America.

Between 1995 and 1997, the Department of Defense handed out 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers to police. The Los Angeles Police Department got 600 Army surplus M-16s, and a seven-officer department in Jasper, Florida was equipped with fully automatic M-16s.

Even reporters spew military rhetoric: the war on drugs, the war on cancer, arresting a disease, a nation under siege, combating school violence, the front lines of the drug war, drug work camps, drug czars and calling out the troops.

Kraska says these new paramilitary tactics and heavy-duty weaponry attract a new breed of officer. They love this stuff, he says. "For them it's a rush."

Still, it's not like these guys are born with a warrior mentality. It takes training. Humans have a natural aversion to killing their own, says Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, former Army Ranger and paratrooper and author of On Killing who teaches psychology at Arkansas University. Studies of previous wars indicate that as few as 20 percent of the soldiers were willing to kill, he says, not something the military was happy about. So after World War II, they set out to systematically fix the problem. They wanted their soldiers to kill; there are no shades of gray in war.

U.S. Air Force Col. Charles Dunlap says, "In its most basic iteration, soldiers are trained in killing."

So how does it happen?

Brutalization, desensitization and operant conditioning, or doing a task repeatedly, often thousands of times. Frank Morales, a New York minister and Covert Action Quarterly writer, likens it to mind control. "When training for paramilitary units is done by special forces people, there has to be a transference of these values," he says. "Once they've got the mindset, they see it as a war, couple that with fear, and quick reflex training, they'll shoot before they even realize it."

Morales mentions the MK-Ultra project.

Some may remember Conspiracy Theory, the film that reveals MK-Ultra—a CIA program of mind control, taking ordinary men and turning them into assassins by using hallucinogenic drugs, brutalization and deprivation. MK-Ultra was stopped in 1973, but Morales says that Peter Marino, former Director of the Office of Technical Services of the CIA, the group that headed MK-Ultra, was president and CEO of FATS (Fire Arms Training System), the highly-touted, life-sized interactive video simulation of a crime going down. "He's got a gun," the officer in training yells to his video-simulated partner, who can be easily mistaken for a real guy. The perpetrator runs out of the house, tension mounts and the officer fires his laser gun at the video assailant. He shoots again. "Are you okay?" he yells to his not-real partner. The guy in training is scared shitless, his voice shaking, trickles of sweat running down his cheek. "He's down." Dead. End of simulation.

You can't get more real than this.

Grossman believes FATS makes it so real that, once on the streets, cops shoot as a conditioned response, many not realizing it wasn't simulation until they see the stain on the sidewalk.

But it's not just simulation and repeated life-like drills. The making of a soldier begins in boot camp or at the academy.

It's instilled into their brains," says Acosta. "The trainer says, 'Look kid, do your eight hours and go home to your families. The animals will be out there tomorrow. You protect yourself. It's us against them kid, you remember that.'" And then there's the clothing. The black uniforms. Like Mussolini's black shirts or Hitler's brown shirts, it's all part of soldier making, a power trip. "They are trying to create an aura of destructive invincibility," says David Koppel of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.

So they've got the repetitive training, the clothing, the weapons. And once they're on the streets, it's dark and lonely. The kind of darkness born only of fear, that dirty, stinking, tongue-drying fear. The kind that makes your eyes dart back and forth, always listening, looking, waiting for the enemy. Then the silence, the dark is broken by a scream. The warrior snaps into action. The attack, the killing cue. And he's running in a swirl of noises. Click, like in the simulation, he's got the enemy in his site.

And so the war rages.

Take the case of 29-year-old Anthony Baez, Iris Baez' son. He came home to NYC for Christmas, the first time in three years.

His mother said the morning of December 19, 1994 he gave out his presents to his family, went to church and then said his good-byes. The family was packing his van when the four Baez brothers decided to play some football. A patrol car drives right into the middle of the boys playing football.

"Hey man, you trying to kill us?" one of the boys yells. The cop laughs. "I don't want you here," he says.

So the boys walk up the street a bit and resume their game. Anthony's younger brother David misses the ball, and it hits the patrol car.

"I told you to get the hell out of here, who's the leader of this gang?"

They explain that this is their neighborhood, they're just four brothers playing ball.

The officer handcuffs David. Anthony protests. "I'm a corrections officer, you can't do that." The officer grabs him in an illegal chokehold. "My son died in that officer's hands. He didn't give him CPR, they didn't call am ambulance," Mrs. Baez said. "They even restrained my husband from going to help him."

Not all cops are warriors.

David Durk, the NYPD detective who relentlessly fought corruption and helped the famed Frank Serpico, says that not all cops are bad. He ticks off some of the good ones—several are women. And Spike Lee's Clockers painfully portrays what it's like on the streets. There are good cops, bad cops and good cops pushed to desperate measures.

Lt. Robert Frazier, the midnight shift commander and SWAT commander for the Charlottesville, Virginia Police Department, cares about the job he's been doing for many years. He says they mentally screen potential officers. "We don't want the aggressors, those with a John Wayne Syndrome...we test for that," he says, adding that they only use the SWAT unit for hostage situations. "Everything revolves around us serving the community. And when you have a good SWAT team, it's proven that less rounds are fired and fewer people are hurt."

Former U.S. Marshall John Pascucci, who tracked the real bad guys like Nazi-Germany's Angel of Death, Josef Mengele, says, "Sometimes, with some criminals there is a certain degree of violence, but I don't believe you should hit someone more than once. You've got to be a real asshole, or a very scared person to use excessive force." He tells the story of a time a young female state trooper stopped him for speeding. "She was so afraid of me, she was almost in tears," he says. "Her excessive fear could have caused her to overreact."

Not a big fan of the rising number of SWAT teams, Pascucci says they have their place. He defends the way Border Patrol agents removed Elian Gonzalez. "All they would have needed was one person to have a gun, you can't stop in the middle of an arrest and get weapons. They had to be prepared."

Then there are the good cops who refuse to go dirty, like the famed Serpico, who was left to die by his fellow officers after he exposed corruption in the NYPD. Acosta says it becomes a hostile work environment. "They change your work schedule, they send you to dangerous locations, they put notes on your locker, they leave dead rats, slashed throats bleeding on your car. And many times they utilize internal affairs to get something on you."

U.S. Marshall Stephen Zanowic knows all about it. Early in his career, he noticed rampant racism. He's white, his partner was black. "I'd hear a group in a meeting talking, saying things like, 'fucking nigger.' And so I started speaking up to my supervisor, about the disparity of treatment. I was labeled a white rat."

Once they gave him a case to work but took away his car. So he tracked it by bus, and then they'd ask, "Why are you taking the bus?" He recounts numerous sordid details. He tells about the day he and his partner, William Scott, were in the office. Zanowic sees two white deputies, part of their special operations group, dressed in black fatigues with automatic weapons. After Scott gets up to go downstairs, they pull out their weapons, behind Scott's back, saying, "Let's take this black bastard out right now."

Zanowic stops them. But not too long after the incident, he was set up on a stake out, and there was no back up. About three years ago, he was forced to take Workmen's Compensation leave because of severe anxiety and stress. "That's what happens to whistle blowers, they portray you as crazy, a malcontent."

It's the middle of the night, and two Black Hawk helicopters descend upon the east end of Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. In a combat-style raid, they hold 15-year-old Crystal Leigh Grabeel at gunpoint. In a letter to President Clinton, she writes, "I was awakened by three men wearing camouflage uniforms, bullet-proof vests, ski masks and safety goggles. All three were carrying machine guns. They entered my sleeping quarters and started yelling, 'Put your hands where we can see them.' And they unzipped my sleeping bag and told me to get out and lay on the floor. I was handcuffed."

But Grabeel was not a fugitive or a criminal. She was a teenager on vacation. The 40 or so commandos were part of the National Park Service special operations unit who later arrested two employees of the hunting camp for guiding without a license, one for disturbing a Chumash Indian burial ground, and another was charged with cooking without a license.

Andre Barclay, an area resident sick of these warrior tactics, has been trying to make the park service accountable for their actions. He's been getting documents under FOIA and recounts a lengthy list of victims. "It's a frightening trend," he says.

United Airlines pilot Sandy Bradin fell prey to the park service. "You should've known better," they told him. And yeah, he says, he should have. But when Bradin slipped a shiny abalone shell into his bag while walking California's Santa Rosa Beach with his wife and brother-in-law, he was just thinking what a beautiful shell it was.

No asphalt cowboy, Bradin had been flying park rangers to the Channel Islands for years. And although he no longer had a contract with the National Park Service, friends living on the island often invited him out. So he knew all about preserving the island's Chumash Indian Burial grounds and about not taking artifacts. Still, it wasn't until rangers searched the trio, asking questions about digging up Indian graves, that he connected the two.

And then a few weeks later, while Bradin is away, his wife and son can't get into their Palisades Park home because the street is cordoned off. National Park Service cops, armed with a federal search warrant, break into the home. The evidence recovered—one Jacques Cousteau video, two eagle feathers Bradin had for 30 years and a few dozen personal photos—gave them enough to arrest the 59-year-old for felony artifact removal. "They said I was dealing in artifacts to supplement my income."

Wondering what happened to the shell? Bradin says that the National Park Service destroyed it while testing its age.

"You hear about abuses in the IRS and other federal agencies, but until it happens to when I see somebody with a badge, it makes my skin crawl," says Bradin, still shaken by what happened almost three years ago. "It had a profound effect on our life. I'd rather have ten felons go through my house than my federal government. It's unbelievable that this kind of police action can occur in this country."