Police use of military technology, tactics in Pennsylvania eyed by ACLU in open-records request
by Adam Brandolph
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania wants to know whether police departments are using federally subsidized military technology and tactics, claiming their use erodes civil liberties and encourages aggressive policing.
The group on Wednesday filed public-records requests for 31 state agencies, including Pittsburgh police, Allegheny County, Beaver County, state police and the National Guard. It's part of a national effort.
“We've already seen the negative impact of police militarization from G-20,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, a Pittsburgh-based legal fellow at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We want to see how much that has extended.”
Clashes between protesters and heavily armed police during the Group of 20 economic summit in Pittsburgh in September 2009 led to dozens of lawsuits.
A spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl referred calls to Solicitor Dan Regan, who did not return a call. Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said she hadn't seen the request and could not comment.
The ACLU is seeking the number of times SWAT teams have been deployed, the type of weapons and training materials SWAT teams use, funding sources, and the number of injuries to civilians during deployments since January 2011.
The group also is seeking information about GPS tracking devices, the use of drones, and military weaponry and vehicles obtained through federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.
“Equipping state and local law enforcement with military weapons and vehicles, military tactical training, and actual military assistance to conduct traditional law enforcement erodes civil liberties and encourages increasingly aggressive policing, particularly in poor neighborhoods and communities of color,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel for ACLU's Center for Justice in Washington, which is coordinating the investigation.
When police use military tactics it's because they have to, not because they've chosen to, said Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association in suburban Philadelphia.
“We didn't create this, the bad guy did,” Lomax said. “This is policing that has had to adapt to the crime, the criminal, and to the type of weaponry that's out there today.”
Lomax said a release of information should come with stipulations.
“When it comes to tactics, equipment, and when it comes to certain incidents that may be under investigation or litigation, those types of records should not be released,” Lomax said.
Terry Mutchler, executive director of the state's Office of Open Records, said issues dealing with police enforcement and training “get more deep scrutiny” because of the potential security issues involved.
“There certainly is a policy argument related to the release of them, but as to whether they'll be available under the law, we'll have to wait for the legal analysis,” she said.
The ACLU wants to recommend changes in law and policy governing the use of military tactics and technology in law enforcement, Morgan-Kurtz said.
Mpls. police chief's night job: Teaching about changing demographics
by Brandt Wil
MINNEAPOLIS — Policing, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau says, is mostly about interacting with people.
Sometimes that involves responding to dangerous situations, but it also means understanding communities that often differ demographically from the officer.
When she's not leading the state's largest police department, Harteau teaches a night class at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis to current and prospective officers about how to better understand the different communities they interact with.
The class starts with a range of questions from Harteau, who has a master's degree in public safety administration from St. Mary's. Where are you from? How many siblings do you have? Have you ever voted for a contestant on American Idol?
Harteau is not just trying to get to know her students better, she's illustrating a point central to the focus of her class: Demographic Influences on Policing.
"My focus is to not give them answers as much as to get them to ask better questions and from a different lens — a different frame of reference," she said.
Harteau wants this crop of current and prospective police officers to first consider how their own personal upbringing and social status affects how they see different communities. She said most officers come from middle-class families and like this class, were raised in the suburbs or small towns.
"The more we can have a wider scope the better we'll be as people and the better police officers we'll make," she said.
Several of Harteau's students are current Minneapolis police officers. Michael Sullivan, the commander of the third precinct and a veteran of the department, said one of the reasons he's taking the class is that the area of the city he serves has prominent Latino and Somali communities.
"Being new in my role, I'm finding out very quickly how important diversity is," Sullivan said. "This class is going to be great in learning that and putting my job duties and the education together."
The Minneapolis Police Department is not that different from other urban police forces, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington D.C. He said as in Minneapolis, a large proportion of police officers in cities around the country are white, middle class and suburban. He said it is important to help them understand how to relate to the communities they serve.
"There was a time when someone went into the police academy and learned about policing simply by learning about rules and regulations and things like that," Wexler said. "There's a realization that policing and community policing in particular, that 80 percent of what police do is service related. So it means dealing with people and dealing with different kinds of people in different circumstances."
The Minneapolis Police Department is also hiring more officers of color. Harteau's class contains three Somali men — one of whom is in the department's new class of recruits.
According to police department data, 20 percent of sworn Minneapolis police officers are people of color. That's as diverse as the department has ever been, but is still not representative of the city as a whole. More than 30 percent of Minneapolis residents are ethnic and racial minorities.
Harteau is pleased to see the department becoming more racially diverse. However, only three women signed up for her class, and she worries that not enough women are showing interest in law enforcement careers.