Habibah Abdul-Hakeem saw it unfolding on television first-through a News 8 broadcast detailing an impending New London Police raid.
Moments later, it was at her home. The doorbell rang and she came out to find between 15 and 20 officers in SWAT gear and brandishing rifles.
This was last winter.
“It wouldn’t occur to me that it would happen to me because I’m not a criminal,” says Abdul-Hakeem, a former city court employee who was working at a halfway house at the time. “I’m an upstanding citizen. I do not have a criminal record.”
She says that the officers asked about the location of her neighbor, who they said had been seen visiting the residence. Abdul-Hakeem told them that she didn’t know, after which “they went about their business”, but the incident shook her.
“The rest of the day, my stomach was in knots,” she says.
This is a scenario that has become more frequent since the 1980’s, when police conducted an average of 3,000 SWAT raids per year, says David McGuire, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU) of Connecticut. By 2007, that number hit an average of around 60,000, he says, citing testimonies from Congressional hearings that took place after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The increase-galvanized by military equipment surfacing in local police department’s around the country courtesy of the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program-has put some people on edge, and New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman says that he understands why.
“A lot of people have lost trust in the police,” Esserman says. “It’s not just about the equipment, because if you trust the police, you trust their equipment. If you don’t trust me, you won’t trust me with a pillow.”
He’s sitting next to McGuire in Room 208 of Yale University’s Harness hall on the night of November 5 to discuss the “militarization of police” before a group of students, members of the Connecticut ACLU-the hosts of the event-and Connecticut residents such as Abdul-Hakeem, who told her story during a concluding question and answer segment.
Paul Bass, editor of The New Haven Independent, moderates the discussion.
“I think you’ll all be disappointed by how much I agree with the ACLU,” Esserman told the audience jokingly.
What the two do agree on is what they describe as a need for accountability and oversight when it comes to the use of the military equipment-which includes armored vehicles, tear gas canister firing weapons that were used overseas as grenade launchers, and even helicopters-obtained by Connecticut police departments through the Hartford Courant reported $12.9 million in 1033 funds.
McGuire and the Connecticut ACLU have been pushing for state level standards to direct how and when local law enforcement handles military gear, as well as a mandate that they report usage-proposals that Esserman says make sense, but would be unlikely to catch on in a police culture that he thinks would overwhelmingly reject any form of centralized control.
“I was abhorred but what I saw in Ferguson,” Esserman says. “It’s about how, when, and where you use it. Ferguson was about how, when, and where you don’t use it.”
Ferguson, where St. Louis police were deployed with riot gear and armored vehicles to meet protests that followed Brown’s shooting, pushed the 1033 Program and the “militarization” issue into the national spotlight, but it’s not new, McGuire says.
“The ACLU has been concerned about the militarization of police prior to Ferguson,” McGuire says. “It really goes back to SWAT.”
SWAT, or Special Weapons and Tactics, originated within the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1960’s and spread to municipalities nationwide with the help of a wave of surplus military equipment handed down during the 1990’s.
While the weapons changed, that was a by-product of a need for a change in tactics, Esserman says. He pointed to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and similar incidents that have followed. His recounting of pre-Columbine crisis policing is right from the script of Al Pacino’s Dog Day Afternoon.
“You have a little bit of a belly,” Esserman says. “You’re a good talker. [You] slow it down, trade some hostages for pizza pies and a plane out of the country. Those days are gone.”
What’s replaced them is a darker reality, he says.
“The police had to be trained and equipped in something we did not ever have to do: deal with an active shooter-stop someone who would not stop shooting until they died,” Esserman says.
But running parallel to that narrative is one that is written with statistics. Active shooter situations such as Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and others are tragic, but rare. SWAT raids, however? Not so much. Again, McGuire points to the post-Ferguson Congressional testimonies-85 percent are on residences, he says.
“This is not a hostage event,” McGuire says. “This is predetermined, break down the door and go inside. It was always reactive. Now most of the time it’s ‘we know this person is keeping drugs’.”
Almost 80 percent of SWAT raids included in an ACLU investigation conducted between 2011 and 2012 were to execute search warrants-62 percent of which were prompted by drug suspicions. In 36 percent of the cases in which a SWAT unit was deployed, no contraband was found at the scene. Thirty-five percent of the incidents yielded drug evidence, but in 29 percent of the raids the results are “unknown”, according to the ACLU report.
And like the War on Drugs that prompts them, the searches tend to target people of color, McGuire says. Sixty-one percent of SWAT raids made in a search for contraband were directed at minorities, according to the ACLU report.
“I think Chief Esserman would agree that the War on Drugs has not been effective,” McGuire says.
He does, but this summer, the Department was drafted into it. At the request of the Board of Alderman-which cited complaints of dealing and violence on neighborhood street corners-Esserman reestablished a police narcotics unit.
“They want a drug war but they don’t want soldiers in the streets,” Bass says. “Is bringing back a narcotics unit militarizing the police?”
“I think if we’re not careful, yes,” Esserman responds. “I’m not trying to stop narcotics in New Haven-that would be a fantasy. I’m trying to respond to the Board of Alderman. Am I worried that if we’re not careful, it’ll become a self-perpetuating institution? Yes, but I think the Board of Alders was right.”
The War on Drugs itself-often characterized by the term, “self-perpetuating”-has been fueled by an initiative that after 9/11 was branded as a measure to equip police to combat domestic terrorism. The Department of Defense’s 1033 Program-a provision of the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)-has doled out $4.3 billion worth of surplus military property to 17,000 state and federal law enforcement entities throughout the nation, according to the ACLU report.
“This funding can be used for really great things, like rehabilitation centers,” McGuire says. “But it can also be used for really aggressive things.”
Before Esserman’s time, New Haven used it to purchase two BearCat vehicles and automatic rifles.
“When I got here they [the rifles] were in a box, unused, with nobody trained to use them,” he says.
That was in 2011. Since then, 30 of the Department’s almost 500 officers have been trained to carry them, Esserman says. They take refresher courses four times a year.
“Thank God I’ve never had to ask them to use them,” he says.
There are also MRAP armored personnel transport vehicles, which in other cities, have proven instrumental in severe weather and evacuation situations, Esserman says. New Haven doesn’t have one, but the chief bought an MRAP when he was running Providence’s police department.
He recalls deploying the vehicle to rescue two elderly women from a flood.
“That truck saved lives that day,” Esserman says.
Case in point: advanced equipment has its place. The two agree on that, but a clear distinction between where that is and use that strays into the realm of excessive force needs to be established, McGuire says.
The state legislation the Connecticut ACLU is pushing for would require that police departments hold public hearings in their respective municipality-to ensure that residents are more informed and have the opportunity to weigh in-as well as approval from local governing bodies, McGuire says.
“That’s the kind of transparency you need,” he says. “Right now a department can use a tank and nobody would know it.”