Civil Liberties Being Sacrificed to Stop Crime?

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - Are civil liberties becoming the latest casualty in the war on crime? One author says yes.

In Warrior Cops: The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments, published recently by the Cato Institute, Diane Cecilia Weber tracks the increasing use of paramilitary SWAT units in criminal cases across the U.S. According to Weber, political pressure to show victories in the war on drugs and violent crime may be driving some police departments to use paramilitary tactics and weaponry that confuses the natures of the police and the military - and may violate civil liberties.

"Politicians talk about a war on drugs, but who is the enemy, and where is the front?" Weber told from her home in Charlottesville, Va. "In the meantime, we increasingly run the risk of having SWAT teams break into homes and hold people at gunpoint over trivial matters."

Cases like the suppression of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex., or the use of a SWAT team against Samuel Heflin in Colorado (as reported earlier this week by are occurring with greater frequency as police departments share training and weaponry with military units.

That trend is a dangerous one, says Weber, because it confuses the nature of the police with that of the military.

"The sharing of training and technology is producing a shared mindset," Weber observed. "The problem is that the mindset of the soldier is simply not appropriate for the civilian police officer."

In fact, said Weber, police and military should have distinctly different mindsets, because they serve different needs and function in different ways.

"The job of a police officer is to keep the peace, but not just by any means. Police officers are expected to apprehend suspected lawbreakers while adhering to constitutional procedures. They are expected to use minimum force and to deliver suspects to a court of law," Weber told

"The soldier, on the other hand, is an instrument of war. In boot camp, recruits are trained to inflict maximum damage on enemy personnel. Confusing the police function with the military function can have dangerous consequences."

Weber also notes that the Founding Fathers specifically warned against giving the police military powers. "They knew that police had to be different from the military, or they could become agents for tyranny."

While Weber stresses that most police officers involved in SWAT team activity are "good people," nonetheless the system is set up in such a way that there is no "check on bad cops who abuse the power of the SWAT team. . . . There's no nationwide standards on when SWAT team should or should not be used."

In most cases, said Weber, there is little need for a police department to have a SWAT team. However, the media has consistently supported SWAT activities, while downplaying the problems it causes.

However, A.N. Moser, executive director of the National Sheriff's Association, told that SWAT teams are necessary to fight crime effectively.

"If they aren't available, what is a sheriff supposed to do if he's faced with criminals who have overwhelming weaponry?" said Moser.

Moser agrees that the possibility exists that a SWAT team could be used illegally, but says that most SWAT teams have effective training.

"Training is a state and local issue, but as long as [SWAT team members] are trained in the proper use of weaponry, physical fitness, and constitutional law, they shouldn't have a problem."