The Secret Joys of Police Militarization


Behold! The Johnston, Rhode Island SWAT team and their gear. According to, taxpayer largesse has equipped Johnston’s paramilitary-style police with two Freightliner tractor-trailers, twelve Humvees; 30 M-16 rifles and conversion parts to transform them into M-4 weapons; 599 M-16 magazines containing about 18,000 rounds; a sniper targeting calculator; night vision equipment, 44 bayonets for ceremonial purposes; five generators from M1 tanks; and 23 snow blowers. In this federally subsidized hardware bounty they are not alone . . .

First formed in LA for hostage rescue, SWAT teams have multiplied like M-16-wielding rabbits. (Take that Elmer Fudd.) Back in ’97, there were 690 law enforcement agencies policing U.S. cities with populations of more than 50k. According to an academic survey, 90 percent of them had active a SWAT team. That’s a lot of SWAT.

This number is not on the decline. So what are we doing with all these paramilitary [style] police?

Hostage rescues? Not so much to start with and not so many now. But the flood of federal funding has increased arithmetically and no-knock raids with it. The SWAT team’s modus operandi has jumped from 2k to 3k a year in the mid-1980s to 70k – 80k annually, according to Peter Kraska, criminal justice prof at Eastern Kentucky University [via].

So let’s zoom in on the eight-member SWAT team in Johnston:

The town of Johnston has received more than $4.1 million in military equipment over the past two years through a U.S. military surplus program that has supplied its Police Department with 30 M-16 rifles, 12 humvees, and military night-vision equipment, among others tools.

Supporters of the $2.5-billion surplus program see many valuable uses for municipal police departments. Johnston Police Detective Raymond Peters says the program is helping equip a SWAT team capable of becoming a “world-class hostage rescue team.”

Capable of becoming a world class hostage rescue team? You’d kinda hope they’d be there already; I make the federal contribution to the Johnston SWAT team’s quest for excellence $256,250 per officer (eight shown), per year, for the last two years.

A number that does not include Uncle Sam’s previous years’ contributions, or local or state-funded salaries, pensions, ammo, gas, facilities and other “ancillary” expenses.

So how many hostage rescues has Johnston’s SWAT team performed in the last, well, ever? According to our friends at fuckyeahrhodeisland “Johnston, Rhode Island [has a] population 28,769 (as of 2010). The town hasn’t seen a murder since 2004, and has had all of four since 1999.”

No hostage rescues then. But hot damn the Johnston SWAT team is ready! Ready for . . . fun! The secret truth about SWAT teams: they’re more like a professional sports league than a useful law enforcement resource.

As reported back in October, “there’s nothing like a little friendly competition with rifles and gas masks.” SWAT team competitions are held all around the country. Here’s the Connecticut edition, in which Johnston didn’t participate or place (although RI was well represented):

Even though there’s not a lot of tax money behind these SWAT comps, equipment manufacturers are all over them, the media is well on board and the troops get a fantastic day out (on the clock).

From a pro-LEO perspective, these SWATfests are excellent for creating world class teams for hostage rescue, high risk police operations and anti-terrorist response (regardless of whether any of that is needed). From my point-of-view they’re a way to perpetuate a pricey paramilitary force that poses a grave risk to personal liberty.

“Congrats to all the great teams and individuals who reminded all of us that we are an elite group who are bound together by an invisible tie that is stronger than steel.” You might find that fine in an Oorah kinda way, but it creeps me out. Maybe I’m just being a baby about it.