While Occupy movements around California are struggling to maintain a presence in the face of ever-increasing pressures from local governments, law enforcement “tactical officers” from around the State are ensconced at San Diego’s Manchester Hyatt this week for their annual State-wide confab and trade show. There are well over a hundred departments within California featuring SWAT Teams—which is the common name for tactical police groups—, with San Diego County along offering up eleven such outfits. There are so many such outfits—not including University and other specialized police departments—that the California Association of Tactical Officers (CATO-not to be confused with the conservative/libertarian think tank of the same name) breaks the State into seven regions for administrative purposes.
The San Diego Police Department’s own Lt. Ken Hubbs is currently serving as president of the group. Membership in CATO is open to current and honorably retired sworn police personnel, active or reserve duty US military, and support services personnel for law enforcement agencies. Their statement of Goals, as listed on their website is as follows:
To Increase the Professionalism and Proficiency of Special Weapons Teams and Members across the State. To provide a forum for the exchange of current and relevant issues and information; maintain a secure online Web site; provide and/or sponsor superior training and conference programs; maintain a liaison with tactical teams across the nation; stimulate the research and development of innovative techniques, methods of operation and equipment; provide training assistance and support; and become the largest non-profit organization in the state dedicated exclusively to personnel in all levels of tactical operations.
The use of paramilitary police units began in Los Angeles in the 1960s and spread nationwide through the1970s. Until the 1980s, SWAT teams and other paramilitary units were used mostly in volatile, high-risk situations such as bank robberies or hostage situations. America’s War on Drugs spurred a significant rise in the use of SWAT teams, to the point where, in some jurisdictions, drug warrants are exclusively served by SWAT teams or similar paramilitary units.
The rise of the Occupy movement over the past few months has given police departments around the country new uses for the tactics and equipment typically reserved for SWAT raids, including tear gas, pepper spray and surveillance equipment. One Florida department went so far as to deploy what some have been calling a “tank” to a park in downtown Tampa. The “Amphibious Rescue Vehicle” which is designed for transporting personnel in extreme conditions. It is bullet resistant and “virtually unstoppable,” can drive through five feet of water, handle winds up to 130 miles per hour, carry 13 passengers, and reach 60 miles per hour. The unit, dubbed Rescue 2 is billed to be used for “search and rescue during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.” It is also equipped with “a raised platform that has a rotatable 360 degree platform” for mounting weapons as needed.
Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper characterizes the modern day situation quite succinctly: “Everyday policing is characterized by a SWAT mentality, every other 911 call a military mission. What emerges is a picture of a vital public-safety institution perpetually at war with its own people.”
That “war with its own people” is at the heart of what CATO is doing this week at San Diego’s Manchester Hyatt. There’s been a big push since the end of the Cold War by the big defense, security and IT companies (many of which are based in this region) to sell things like video surveillance systems, geographic mapping systems, and—the latest must have– drone systems, like those that have been used in the assassination raids in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and elsewhere, for use in domestic policing technology. It’s basically a really big, booming market, particularly in a world where surveillance and security is being integrated into buildings, into cities, into transport systems, on the back of the war on terror and, now, the Occupy movement.
Aside from the panels on crowd control and “SWAT K9 Incident debriefs” the purpose of this week’s convention is two-fold: to proved a secure space where lots of shiny new toys can be displayed for sale, and to re-enforce the “us vs. them mentality in law enforcement philosophy.
There will be no shortage of goodies for the Tactical Officers Association to look over at this year’s “Tactical Vendor Show” on Monday and Tuesday. One of the many locally based vendors is Pepperball Technologies. From their “Our History” section of the website:
PepperBall Technologies, Inc. (PTI) was originally formed in 1996 as an engineering project group of Jaycor, a defense contractor for over 30 years. Jaycor entered the defense sciences marketplace in the late 1970’s and was involved in numerous U.S. Government sponsored projects including: the development of guidelines for the employment of non-lethal technology in operations other than war, product development for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that culminated in Jaycor’s wireless electro-magnetic device projectile, and Board level participation at the National Institute of Justice Office of Law Enforcement Technology. Tasked with developing non-lethal weapon alternatives for government agencies and commercial markets, a task force developed PepperBall® as its first product for commercialization. A business division was formed in 1998 to bring this product to market.
Perhaps one of local drone makers will display a sanitized version of the military’s hummingbird drone. It looks like a real hummingbird with quickly flapping wings, and just like the real bird, can hover in mid-air and fly backwards. The tiny bird-like drone has a camera and transmitter and a wingspan of just 17 centimeters. It’s perfect for getting evidence against Occupy protestors for those hard-to-convict crimes like loitering or littering. Although it’s been touted in the media as the “latest” technology, similar versions have been used in the intelligence community going back more than a decade. Several foreign governments have been known to warn their diplomatic personnel to be on the lookout for such devices.
The militarization of the police and the use of such tools and tactics against the general public depends of the continuation of the “blue wall” mind-set, one where law enforcement officers are asked to conceive of themselves as being somehow separate and better than the population they serve. This outlook predates the militarization movement, and was used as a training tool to aid officers in being able to overcome reluctance in using force or deadly force against citizens. In recent times modern police managers have recognized the inherent dangers (vigilantism, corruption) in such a mind-set, but it continues to prevail in so-called elite units within police departments.
In the face of national efforts by conservative politicians to discredit and defame public workers and their unions, the “blue wall” mentality is being used to drive a wedge between law enforcement officers and other public employees. Police pension funds have been spared (somewhat) and the tactic of decrying “overpaid” public employees is rarely rolled out against law enforcement officers. But once they’re through using the cops to break up picket lines, the meme of privatization being necessitated by excessive expenses will also be applied to policemen and women.
The Occupy movement has provided us all with a clear cut case that demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt the militarization of policing in the U.S. The issues this raises go to the core of what democracy means. We have a major economic crisis in this country that was brought on by the greedy and irresponsible behavior of big banks. No banker has been arrested, and certainly none have been pepper sprayed. Arrests and chemical assault is for those trying to defend their homes, their jobs, and their schools.
Based on what I have read is standard battlefield procedure in Afghanistan, it seems as though cops now have a lower standard for use of force that the military does. And this week those “Tactical Officers” will be meeting in San Diego. I expect that Doug Manchester (Former Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego Hotel Owner and soon-to-be Local Media Overlord) will offer special tours so officers from out of town can see the local Occupy actions first hand.