Unholy Alliance | News | Salt Lake City Weekly
Support the Free Press | Facts matter. Truth matters. Journalism matters
Salt Lake City Weekly has been Utah's source of independent news and in-depth journalism since 1984. Donate today to ensure the legacy continues.


Unholy Alliance

Military and police technology sharing sends shivers up civil libertarians’ spines.



In the opening scene of the 1987 film RoboCop, the megacorporation OCP unveils its newest product: Ed-209. Originally designed for the military, the robot has been modified for “urban pacification.” Its mission is to clean up a Detroit whose streets are “a war zone.”

Before a meeting of executives, the hulking monster demonstrates its crime-fighting abilities. One of the executives is asked to volunteer, so he points a gun at the robot. Rob-209 says: “Please put down your weapon. You have 20 seconds to comply.” The suit complies. But Rob-209 is on the fritz, it seems, and the countdown continues. At zero, the robot opens fire, tearing open the man’s chest with a torrent of bullets. Oops. “Only a glitch,” someone explains'so much for using a killing machine for police work.

At the recent National Sheriff’s Association convention in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, the triad of military technology, corporate manufacturing and law enforcement symbolized in RoboCop’s Ed-209 was more than just fiction.

Besides six days of seminars on everything from in-custody deaths to character building, the annual gathering of sheriffs also acts as a marketplace for law-enforcement gadgetry. Everything was on offer in the exhibition hall: tracking devices, facial-recognition technology, communication networks, paddy wagons, riot gear, surveillance equipment and guns'lots of guns.

But most conspicuous were the numerous permutations of America’s military machine'all at the disposal of the 6,000-plus sheriffs on hand. For example, Chris Kincaid, a senior consultant with the Department of Defense’s Technology Transfer Program, was present to aid law enforcement agencies with what he calls “technological transfer.” The federal program was set up in 2002 to aid the transfer of technology and equipment from the military to law enforcement.

While much of the transferred equipment'such as medical supplies'is mundane, some of the items passed on to police by the DOD are much more militaristic. For example, 26 armored personnel carriers on loan in South America were returned to the U.S. military and sold to police departments across the country for use by their SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams, Kincaid says.

This program, Kincaid says, continues what began in 1994 with the National Defense Authorization Act. The act made huge amounts of mothballed, Cold War military supplies available to local law enforcement, ostensibly for the war on drugs.

But current DOD programs are bringing military and police forces even closer together. The DOD recently formed the Irregular Warfare Support (IWS) program using the Pinellas County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office as a technology test bed, says Scott McCallum, a systems analyst from Pinellas Sheriff’s Office. He led a seminar on the topic at the convention.

IWS, McCallum says, hopes to learn from the Pinellas Sheriff’s advanced facial recognition technology. Biometrics technology, as it is called, allows police to identify suspects by photographing their faces and matching them to other faces in a database. With over 4.5 million faces in their system, Pinellas has one of the most advanced biometric programs in the country, according to McCallum.

The IWS’s aim in this collaboration is to “solve non-traditional problems” by learning from police in fighting terror. The rationale for this cooperation is rooted in the changing face of warfare, says McCallum. Modern wars are rarely as simple as soldiers facing off on the battlefield. In a landscape of shadowy insurgents and chaotic settings like those in Iraq, IWS hopes to create a new paradigm for the military in which police work and soldiering converge.

“We look at it as a good opportunity to aid the military,” McCallum says.

Closer to home, military training and tactics have been intermingling with law enforcement, too. Dressed in riot gear, Geoff Perrin, a former British soldier, stood beside a paddy wagon in the convention center. Perrin is an instructor at the soon-to-be-opened National Tactical Training School in Ogden. Some of the training in crowd control, as well as riot and urban warfare tactics, come from the British military’s experience in Northern Ireland, Perrin says.

The convention’s many examples of overlapping military and police techniques concern some civil-rights advocates. Critics of this drift toward paramilitary police forces say that the increased training and equipping of police with military tactics and hardware may have deep and lasting influence on the philosophy and actions of the men and women who uphold the law.

“They collect all of these innovative tools and weapons and they figure, ‘OK, now we have to use them,’” says Brian Barnard, a civil-rights attorney in Salt Lake City who has watched the growth of SWAT teams over the past 30 years. Still, he can’t quantify how much, or if, this has adversely impacted the public. But, he says, it’s a possibility. “Do you really need 50 police dressed as ninjas raiding a house in the middle of the night because someone sold a pound of marijuana a week ago?”

Other critics of militarization say it has more philosophical implications. In a brief on the subject for the Cato Institute, a Washington D.C.-based Libertarian research foundation, Diane Cecilia Weber wrote that the most troubling effect of this change might be one of mentality: “The sharing of training and technology by the military and law-enforcement agencies has produced a shared mindset, and the mindset of the warrior is simply not appropriate for the civilian police officer charged with enforcing the law.”

Marina Lowe, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, says that her organization is always concerned when the military and law enforcement become intertwined. “Those two roles are diametrically opposed. Law enforcement has the goal of using minimal force and trying to protect people’s constitutional rights,” she says. “Whereas the military tends to use a lot more force, has different objectives and often relaxes civil liberties to achieve security in times of war.”