US police departments are increasingly militarised, finds report

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  • ACLU cites soaring use of war zone equipment and tactics

  • Swat teams increasingly deployed in local police raids

  • Seven civilians killed and 46 injured in incidents since 2010

At 3am on 28 May, Alecia Phonesavanh was asleep in the room she was temporarily occupying together with her husband and four children in the small town of Cornelia, Georgia. Her baby, 18-month-old Bou Bou, was sleeping peacefully in his cot.

Suddenly there was a loud bang and several strangers dressed in black burst into the room. A blinding flash burst out with a deafening roar from the direction of the cot. Amid the confusion, Phonesavanh could see her husband pinned down and handcuffed under one of the men in black, and while her son was being held by another. Everyone was yelling, screaming, crying. “I kept asking the officers to let me have my baby, but they said shut up and sit down,” she said.

As the pandemonium died down, it became clear that the strangers in black were a Swat team of police officers from the local Habersham County force – they had raided the house on the incorrect assumption that occupants were involved in drugs. It also became clear to Phonesavanh that something had happened to Bou Bou and that the officers had taken him away.

“They told me that they had taken my baby to the hospital. They said he was fine he had only lost a tooth, but they wanted him in for observation,” Phonesavanh said.

When she got to the hospital she was horrified by what she saw. Bou Bou was in a medically-induced coma in the intensive care unit of Brady Memorial hospital. “His face was blown open. He had a hole in his chest that left his rib-cage visible.”

The Swat team that burst into the Phonesavanh’s room looking for a drug dealer had deployed a tactic commonly used by the US military in warzones, and increasingly by domestic police forces across the US. They threw an explosive device called a flashbang that is designed to distract and temporarily blind suspects to allow officers to overpower and detain them. The device had landed in Bou Bou’s cot and detonated in the baby’s face.

“My son is clinging to life. He’s hurting and there’s nothing I can do to help him,” Phonesavanh said. “It breaks you, it breaks your spirit.”

Bou Bou is not alone. A growing number of innocent people, many of them children and a high proportion African American, are becoming caught up in violent law enforcement raids that are part of an ongoing trend in America towards paramilitary policing.

The American Civil Liberties Union has released the results of its new survey into the use of Swat teams by police forces across the country. It concludes that policing has become dangerously and unnecessarily militarized, literally so with equipment and strategies being imported directly from the US army.

The findings set up a striking and troubling paradox. The Obama administration is completing its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the US is on the verge of being free from war for the first time in more than a decade; yet at the same time the hardware and tactics of the war zone are quietly proliferating at home.

The ACLU’s report, War Comes Home, looks at 818 Swat incidents that were carried out by more than 20 law enforcement agencies in 11 states. The raids spanned the period from July 2010 to last October.

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