Speaking at a high-profile security conference in Colorado this summer, former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton touched on a subject we’ve been exploring here at Elevated Risk: the militarization of local police since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The legendary police leader joined a roster of star-studded attendees for the Aspen Security Forum, which included past homeland security honcho Michael Chertoff; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, and a host of inside-the-beltway journalists and one-time senior national security officials.
Bratton told an audience that even though the LAPD’s special weapons and tactics team had access to “several hundred high-powered firearms,” the 2008 bloodshed in Mumbai, India, led him to believe it wasn’t enough and the department needed more assault weapons, according to Government Security News, which both sponsored and heavily covered the event. Segments of the forum have also been appearing on C-SPAN.
During the Mumbai attacks carried out at several locations, gunmen killed nearly 180 people in a three-day spree of violence that demonstrated to the world terrorism isn’t limited to airliner hijackings. Also as a result of the Mumbai shootings, according to GSN:
The LAPD changed its entire strategy related to a hostage-taking incident conducted by terrorists in the future. Bratton said he concluded that terrorists are not interested in negotiating for the release of the hostages, but would try to gain as much media attention as possible, and would eventually kill their hostages. So, instead of negotiating, Bratton said he would plan for his police officers to break in on the terrorists quickly, and kill them, if possible. At the time [of the Mumbai shooting deaths], the LAPD had about 300 officers assigned to its counterterrorism units, said Bratton, and they were retrained ‘on a dime’ in the revised tactics.
Bratton added that terrorism was a low priority earlier in his career as a policeman, but when he announced plans to leave the LAPD in August of 2009, literally half his time was spent on terrorism-related issues.
Local police have sought to acquire more military-style equipment and techniques, and as we’ve noted in recent weeks, the LAPD isn’t the only force to argue it should be carrying more lethal weaponry. The Boston Police Department pushed for the right last year to accept 200 M-16s free from the Defense Department for its patrol officers citing terrorist threats as a justification. Community leaders condemned the plan, however.
Police agencies in addition have the used the hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-terrorism and preparedness grants handed out by Congress since the 9/11 hijackings to finance armored trucks, beefed-up incident command vehicles that resemble RVs on steroids, battering rams, surveillance devices and an endless array of expensive gear capable of defeating or at least limiting the impact of explosives and ammunition.
But the new, aggressive look of your neighborhood police department hasn’t been without political resistance from citizens and civilian elected officials. The police chief appointed by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing last year to take on the city’s notorious street violence was asked to step down in July following a string of headline-grabbing incidents that at least in part centered around the city’s SWAT team.
Chief Warren Evans made a habit of deploying the specialized unit for everyday law-enforcement activities. The department on his watch also became friendly toward reality TV cameras, and the crew of one program was present when an officer from Detroit’s Special Response Team shot and killed a 7-year-old girl during a botched raid. Weeks later, after the tragedy had agitated already deep divisions between the city’s black community and police, a Hollywood-style promotional video for another show called “The Chief” surfaced in which Evans wielded an assault rifle and promised he’d do “whatever it takes” to fix Detroit.
The instantly controversial video illustrated another habit for Evans – to join field-level police officers and march through frostbitten Detroit neighborhoods in combat boots, handcuffing perpetrators and seizing bags of drugs. “Instead of sitting at my desk with my feet up, eating potato chips and reading the newspaper, I’d much rather have my 61-year-old ass on the street in a scout car, working,” Evans says at one point in the promo. And elsewhere: “Every time I enter a dark building, I don’t know what’s waiting for me on the other end.”
Although the video was likely filmed prior to the death of Aiyana Jones, Bing eventually told the press he was “blindsided” by the department’s participation in reality TV and wasn’t aware of a contract it had signed with A&E’s “The First 48.” Bing announced a ban on camera crews after the deadly house raid.
It’s worth noting there were other factors that apparently contributed to Bing asking for the police chief’s resignation. Evans also had an ongoing relationship with a subordinate woman inside the department. The Associated Press sought comments from Evans last month about turmoil at the agency but after not hearing back referred to statements posted on his Facebook page that addressed the TV stints:
“I don’t get the big fuss! It’s a producers [sic] product. If the City doesn’t like it there won’t be a series Period! Does someone want to believe the streets aren’t like that? LOL.”
While the melodrama Evans brought to his campaign against crime isn’t shared by every police official in the United States, including Bratton, it fits a larger narrative maintained by the law enforcement community since Sept. 11. Police cast the world as more dangerous than ever before, arguing that without hundreds of millions of dollars in intelligence fusion centers, evermore military-type apparel and the right to carry powerful assault weapons, they won’t be able to protect and serve communities vulnerable to the 21st century’s brand of terrorism, drug cartels, ruthless street gangs and more.
But the rise and fall of Warren Evans raises questions about which solutions may go too far.