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Matthew Harwood: One Nation Under SWAT

Think of it as a different kind of blowback. Even when you fight wars in countries thousands of miles distant, they still have an eerie way of making the long trip home.

Take the latest news from Bergen County, New Jersey, one of the richest counties in the country. Its sheriff’s department is getting two mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs — 15 tons of protective equipment — for a song from the Pentagon. And there’s nothing special in that. The Pentagon has handed out 600 of them for nothing since 2013, with plenty more to come. They’re surplus equipment, mostly from our recent wars, and perhaps they will indeed prove handy for a sheriff fretting about insurgent IEDs (roadside bombs) in New Jersey or elsewhere in the country. When it comes to the up-armoring and militarization of America’s police forces, this is completely run-of-the-mill stuff.

The only thing newsworthy in the Bergen story is that someone complained. To be exact, Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan spoke up in opposition to the transfer of the equipment. “I think,” she said, “we have lost our way if you start talking about military vehicles on the streets of Bergen County.” And she bluntly criticized the decision to accept the MRAPs as the “absolute wrong thing to do in Bergen County to try to militarize our county.” Her chief of staff offered a similar comment: “They are combat vehicles. Why do we need a combat vehicle on the streets of Bergen County?”

Sheriff Michael Saudino, on the other hand, insists that the MRAPs aren’t “combat vehicles” at all. Forget the fact that they were developed for and used in combat situations. He suggests instead that one good reason for having them — other than the fact that they are free (except for postage, gas, and upkeep) — is essentially to keep up with the Joneses. As he pointed out, the Bergen County police already have two MRAPs, and his department has none and, hey, self-respect matters! (“Should our SWAT guys be any less protected than the county guys?” he asked in a debate with Donovan.)

A striking recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union indicates that, as in Bergen County, policing is being militarized nationwide in all sorts of unsettling ways. It is, more precisely, being SWATified (a word that doesn’t yet exist, but certainly should). Matthew Harwood, senior writer and editor for the ACLU, as well as TomDispatch regular, offers a graphic look at just where policing in America is heading. Welcome to Kabul, USA.


(Reprinted from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
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