Jeff Sessions Reveals Deadly Misunderstanding
August 30, 2017
Alan Pyke / ThinkProgress
Attorney General Jeff Sessions struck a new blow in his war against police reform by backing Donald Trump's plan to increase local cops' access to military hardware designed for war zones. The long-predicted move will put grenade launchers and bayonets back on small-town police department shopping lists. In a speech riddled with falsehoods, Sessions' explanation of the thinking behind Trump's move was a bizarre and unsubstantiated claim that police reform is somehow harmful to public safety.
Jeff Sessions Reveals Deadly
Misunderstanding of What Public Safety Actually Is
A twisted portrayal of what police
reformers want -- and why they want it
Alan Pyke / ThinkProgress
(August 29, 2017) -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions struck a new blow in his war against police reform on Monday, announcing that President Donald Trump will rescind an executive order from his predecessor restricting local cops' access to hardware designed for war zones.
The long-predicted move puts grenade launchers and bayonets back on small-town police department shopping lists. It also guts accountability measures for a much longer list of defensive equipment and military tools, which had remained available to police under President Barack Obama's reforms.
But the most striking thing in a speech riddled with falsehoods was Sessions' presentation of the thinking behind the administration's move -- dismissing police reform efforts as harmful to public safety.
"These restrictions that had been imposed went too far," the attorney general said before the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in Nashville. "We will not put superficial concerns over public safety."
Sessions was speaking to a receptive audience. Tennessee's Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security, David Purkey, opened by characterizing police as soldiers in a war for decency.
"You, my young friends, stand in the gap for this country. This country offers inspiration, and intimidation. We offer intimidation through our military," Purkey quoted Marine Corps Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis as having told soldiers in the field.
"When I look out on this crowd," Purkey went on, broadening the warzone sermon to include the police audience in Tennessee, "I see a group of men and women who stand in the gap for this country."
Sessions later characterized the new Trump order as part of its broader rejection of civilian complaints about police.
"We will always seek to affirm the critical role of police officers in our society, and we will never participate in anything that will give comfort to radicals who promote agendas that preach hostility rather than respect for police," he said.
The rise of these so-called "radicals" and the spread of distrust for police from minority communities to a wider band of the American public is directly connected to the kinds of abuses of force that Sessions ignored in his remarks.
While a new wave of public attention to individual police killings of unarmed black and brown people in recent years helped galvanize reform efforts, the drive for change draws on a long-running conversation about systematic rights violations by police.
Obama's order came out of a deliberative process informed by input from police, civic leaders, private researchers, and Pentagon officials. Its new controls on military materiel were modest, flexible, and grounded in decades of police violence and unnecessary death.
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The military is so eager to put war machines in cops' hands that it doesn't bother making sure they're, you know, actually cops
Alan Pyke / ThinkProgress
(July 25, 2017) -- Protests and violence in Ferguson, Missouri following the police killing of Michael Brown provided the immediate motivation for Obama's reforms. The heavily armored police response in St. Louis County provided striking visuals of cops as an occupying military force -- the tip of a counter-insurgency spear, not a shield that protects and serves.
But mass-protest crowd control is almost a more appropriate use of such heavy equipment than has been typical over the 25-year history of the "1033" program modified by Monday's order. When a police agency obtains a new tool or stands up a new unit, its mere existence creates an imperative: Leadership must find some reason to use the new toys, send out the new tactical team.
As paramilitary-style police thinking, tactics, and equipment found their way into even the smallest towns in America, where situations that actually require armored vehicles are rare, the imperative to justify equipment and personnel bred monstrous outcomes.
Sessions repeatedly depicted the now-canceled restrictions on Pentagon equipment dispersals to police as a cosmetic move born of a misguided focus on perceptions over reality. In his telling, concern about militarized policing inside US borders is feckless posturing that endangers police and harms public safety.
Sessions was roasting a straw man. The actual argument is that police should act from a sense of unity with those they serve rather than from the mindset of an occupying military force. The claim Sessions sidestepped is that the cop-as-conquistador mentality actually brings more violence into communities, not less.
So-called "dynamic entry" police raids -- the type of GI Joe police activity encouraged throughout the War on Drugs and enabled by Pentagon equipment -- are deadly and prone to error. More than 120 civilians and dozens of police officers have died in such raids since the 1990s, including 94 such deaths from 2010 to 2016 alone. These numbers are almost certainly low, as statistics about police violence always are thanks to lax recordkeeping.
Raids that don't go deadly can still inflict gore on innocents.When Georgia police burst into a family home before dawn in 2014, 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh was sleeping in his playpen.
An officer chucked a flashbang grenade in with him, tearing a massive hole in the toddler's chest. The child survived, and the officer was acquitted on federal charges after state officials declined to prosecute any of the police involved in the raid.
When officers are trained to think like soldiers on foreign soil, they learn to regard the "natives" around them with constant suspicion. That disposition makes investigators sloppy, eager to have their gut belief that something fishy is going on confirmed by any means possible. It only takes one cunning jailhouse snitch, familiar with the rewards of giving an officer the basis for a warrant he wants, to get a SWAT team dispatched to a sleepy family home.
Sessions never mentioned actual paramilitary tactics like these drug raids in his speech. Instead, he pretended that the Obama restrictions had kept life-saving gear like bulletproof vests and helmets out of police officer hands. That is a lie.
Only five categories of equipment were flat-out prohibited from the police recycling system: grenade launchers, bayonets, high-caliber ammunition, track-driven armored vehicles, and certain types of camouflage.
All other materiel covered by the 1033 redistribution program -- including the safety gear Sessions cited in Monday's remarks -- remained accessible to local cops as "controlled equipment." Departments were required to provide specific justifications for their requests, to establish training and use protocols for the gear, and to more closely track how officers actually use controlled equipment.
"These guidelines were created after Ferguson to ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality. Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone," Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights head Vanita Gupta said in a statement.
The rules would have meant greater scrutiny for the kinds of reckless assaults on civilian homes that lead to flashbangs in baby cribs and needless firefights between startled, sleeping homeowners and the black-clad invaders they do not realize are police. They would not have sent first responders into harm's way in flip-flops and Jimmy Buffett tee-shirts as Sessions insinuated.
Still, the FOP convention crowd ate it up.
The most prominent US leaders are not just walking back policies that curb law enforcement's institutional instinct toward dominance and hard power. They are actively decrying police critics as radical cop-haters, diminishing their nuanced observations about the incentive structures in our criminal justice system into simplistic notions of good and evil.
The remilitarization of American policing -- seen in both Sessions' speech on Monday and in Trump's blithe endorsement of police brutality in July -- is sold by the administration as simply deferring to what police say they need.
Yet the portrayal of Trump as an open ear and blank check for cops doesn't hold up to scrutiny. When police's experience in the field leads them to conclusions opposite to Trump's own preferences, he is happy to ignore them.
Cops across the country have made clear that the administration's push to deputize them into immigration enforcement work does grave harm to public safety in communities where people fear deportation. They reject Trump's desire to enlist them into his crackdown on undocumented immigrants, specifically because it makes people less likely to call 911 or cooperate with investigators.
If the administration were serious about promoting public safety, it would listen to the people who disagree with them about where safety comes from and what role police play in ensuring it.
Florida Sheriff Cuts
Tough-guy Video with Masked SWAT Team
Guilty people aren't the only ones
who should fear nighttime raids
Alan Pyke / ThinkProgress
(April 10, 2017) -- Tired of nuanced debate over police tactics and introspection by law enforcement leaders who recognize they can't do their jobs if their communities do not trust them? Pining for the real world to look more like the black-and-white moral simplicity of a Hollywood blockbuster?
Sheriff Peyton Grinnell of Lake County, Florida has your back.
In a video "message from the Lake County Sheriff's Office Community Engagement Unit" posted to Facebook on Friday, Grinnell is flanked by four silent, masked, flak-jacketed sheriff's deputies.
"To the dealers that are pushing this poison, I have a message for you: We're coming for you," Grinnell says.
"Enjoy trying to sleep tonight, wondering if tonight's the night our SWAT team blows your front door off the hinges." Grinnell seems not to realize that lots of innocent people might be wondering that too.
The sheriff's swaggerific tone and colorful script are meant to frighten the bad guys and, by the transitive property, comfort everyone else. The premise is that Grinnell's masked goons are competent enough that only lawbreakers need fear them. All other citizens can sleep more soundly.
Or maybe not. Police departments use the aggressive paramilitary tactics Grinnell boasts of here thousands of times per year. And in many cases, they simply take the wrong door.
Maybe the information was bad. Maybe the information was good but officers went to a different house by mistake. Either way, no-knock raids and dead-of-night "dynamic entry" tactics have become notorious in recent years precisely because they often terrorize innocent people. Grinnell's show of force and grim threats of nighttime police raids ignore a raft of evidence that these tactics are misapplied.
From 2010 to 2016, the New York Times found, at least 81 civilians and 13 cops have been killed in "dynamic entry" raids, oftentimes after police obtained a "no-knock" warrant allowing them to bust in a door and go in heavy without warning.
Most such raids, regardless of the type of warrant, are conducted in the wee hours of the night in hopes of catching residents off guard.
The consequences of that approach can be tragic when police are acting on bad information, as they did in Georgia in a 2014 raid where one cop tossed a flashbang into a baby's crib and blew a hole in the 19–month-old's chest, nearly killing him.
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Florida does not allow no-knock warrants, but police are authorized to use "dynamic entry" tactics as they deem necessary. Even when officers knock, they do not necessarily announce who they are -- and the knock can be followed almost immediately with a battering ram, stun grenades, and a sudden swarm of heavily-armed, adrenalized cops rushing into a sleeping home.
Sometimes -- in dozens and dozens of cases around the country, going back to the 1980s -- these keyed-up officers are barging into the wrong house.
Police in Hawaii twice raided the wrong house -- once throwing two elderly residents to the ground and holding guns to their heads in front of their grandchildren -- in pursuit of a drug ring in 2005. An article in Playboy in 1989 documented 18 separate examples from the previous few years of officers raiding the wrong home.
The NYPD sent a memo around in 1998 advising officers on how to contact locksmiths when they kicked in the wrong door -- "suggesting that mistakes were in fact fairly common," policing expert Radley Balko noted in a 2006 report documenting the overuse of SWAT tactics across the country. Balko's other research has uncovered at least 40 additional deaths in botched SWAT raids in the years prior to the Times' study.
While no comprehensive figures on mistaken-address raids are available, the stories and stats Balko and others have collected suggest that erroneous SWAT raids without fatalities are far more common than those where a death garners public outcry.
Lake County residents should know by now that the kind of terror-that-bumps-in-the-night ruthlessness Sheriff Grinnell promises is often visited upon innocent people.
Deputies there killed a man in 2012 after a botched attempt to catch a murder suspect. The deputies knocked that night, at 1:30 a.m., but reportedly failed to identify themselves as police. The apartment was not registered to their suspect, but his motorcycle was parked nearby.
When the actual resident, 26-year-old Andrew Lee Scott, answered the knock with his gun in his hand, the cops killed him. He had nothing to do with their case.
A judge later tossed out the Scott family's wrongful death suit against the county sheriff's office, which in turn declined its right to charge the family for the legal costs of defending the lawsuit.
The masked tough guys flanking Grinnell in his video are dressed to do a certain kind of job. The other kind of job -- public service, professional maintenance of public safety, and conflict resolution in service of the law -- requires a different kind of costume.
In some police departments where leaders have recognized they must reform their enforcement culture to regain the trust of their communities, brass have veered in the opposite direction. Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis recently ended all plainclothes police work, ordering his whole team back into standard uniforms in hopes of grounding their daily work in the higher-minded purposes of the job.
Davis' gesture on uniforms may seem small. But it's an abrupt course change from decades of recent history.
Dynamic-entry tactics and their attendant horrors became prevalent nationwide thanks in large part to the years-long spread of SWAT teams to small-town America. Communities with little real need for an independent, permanent group of videogame-style supercops nonetheless maintain such "Special Response Teams."
Tactics and organizational plans designed to respond to terrorist attacks, riots, and gang violence are instead applied almost exclusively to drug investigations, in sleepy towns where house raids are the only action available to these warrior cops.
This long process of militarizing law enforcement at the local level seemed poised for a reversal as recently as a few years ago, with broader police reform efforts gaining momentum and longstanding criticisms of heavy-handed policework coming to the fore.
But President Donald Trump ran on a promise to end that swerve and instead encourage police "to go and counterattack," and act "very much tougher than they are right now."
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