May 25, 2013
Men in heavy armor carry assault rifles, patrolling streets alongside armored personnel carriers. These are scenes from the manhunt in Watertown, following April 15’s Boston Marathon Bombings. After locking down the area, local, state, and federal agencies sent SWAT teams out in force in search of the remaining suspect. The images from those days are striking, and raise serious questions about how and when the use of paramilitary policing tools should be used.
SWAT teams originated in the late 1960s, but their use greatly expanded in the 1980s as the Reagan administration doubled down on the drug war. In 1988 the Byrne Grant Program passed Congress, allocating substantial funding for anti-drug policing. As money was awarded for drug arrests, resources shifted toward drug raids, increasingly using SWAT teams for this purpose. Meanwhile federal programs were introduced increasing training and cooperation between the military and domestic law enforcement to battle drug crime.
Other Reagan-era policies encouraged the transfer of surplus military hardware to law enforcement, which in the 1990s became firmly established by the Clinton Administration’s 1033 Program, incorporating millions of pieces of equipment designed for war zones into domestic policing agencies.