Federal agents wearing menacing black uniforms, body armor and carrying automatic weapons went into action recently. Using commando style tactics, they forced their way onto private property to detain individuals and locate evidence of wrongdoing.
Did agents break up a clique of terrorists? Did they find the hideout of a dangerous gang?
No. They were enforcing the Clean Water Act on an Alaska gold mine. And now United States Senators are demanding answers.
A Daily Caller investigation shows that the EPA did more than simply over equip its agents on a routine investigation. It also lied when asked why it adopted such extreme measures.
The EPA claimed that it told Alaska State Police that the targets were involved with drugs and human trafficking (mind you, in Chicken, Alaska.) State Police spokesmen strongly dispute the EPA claims.
John Stossel in Reason points out that SWAT raids have increased from 300 per year to over a hundred per day. He describes how SWAT teams even descended upon organic farms to end the dire social threat of unpasteurized milk.
Politicians accepted the idea that the war on drugs might mean reduced private property rights. It ended up in every police department wanting military style equipment. This resulted in police "terrorizing innocent people, raiding the wrong house and causing violence."
The vast majority of SWAT raids descend upon people suspected of drug possession or trafficking, even if the individual has no history of violence. Other agencies fear the threat from . . . libertarians. Concord, New Hampshire police justified the purchase of an armored vehicle to stave off "daily challenges" posed by libertarians.
In 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act. After the Civil War, the Army had been called upon in certain situations to act as law enforcement. Lawmakers recognized that the mission of the Army, to seek out and destroy foreign enemies, did not make it a viable police force. Congress forbade the military forces of the United States from doing routine law enforcement.
As a result, police forces emerged in most state and local jurisdictions by the end of World War I. Sheriff's departments dated back to medieval England, but most states did not create their own police forces until around a century ago. Cities had done so earlier, around the end of the 19th century. Interestingly, the colors of police uniforms reflect when they were created. As the US military went from dark blue to khaki in the 1890s, city police used surplus uniforms. State trooper dress still resembles that of World War I era soldiers.
They, however, retained the distinction between police technique and military tactics.
In the past generation, police have increasingly adopted military style weapons and tactics. In selected situations, this is reasonable. Violent street gangs' illicit acquisition of automatic weapons meant that police have to keep up to keep from being outgunned. Fair enough.
But police forces need stricter guidelines to govern when they may go into full commando mode. Raiding a lair of the dangerous MS-13 gang, yes. Raiding an organic farm selling raw milk (and perhaps a little weed), no.
The Department of Education even has a SWAT team to attack those accused of ducking student loans!
Police serve and protect. The military defends the nation and destroys its enemies. All too often in recent years, law enforcement at all levels has chosen to terrify the public rather than to serve it. Not every situation can be handled in the Sheriff Andy Taylor manner, without use of weapons and trusting in the goodness of the public, but a boundaries must be drawn.
And federal agencies without law enforcement missions must be stripped of enforcement agents.
The spirit of the Posse Comitatus Act relies on the idea of separation between the military and law enforcement. Police should not be routinely equipped and trained as if they patrol the streets of an Afghan village. Current practice does not violate the letter of this important act, but it certainly contradicts the spirit.
The militarization of police at all levels is one of the most serious threats to liberty.