Why does the EPA have a SWAT team? I want to start with an incident that took place in Alaska and use it as a vehicle to discuss the broader topic of militarized police forces. Essentially an EPA SWAT team raided an Alaska mine to investigate violations of the clean water act. That is bad enough, but more important from my perspective is why does the EPA even have a SWAT team? I have talked about this before but in the last decade and a half more and more federal civilian agencies have been building their own private "armies" of SWAT capable enforcement arms while more local police agencies are arming their officers like soldiers. Is it hyperbole to consider this the beginning of a police state?
Though 18 USC authorizes the EPA to perform a law enforcement function, Congress clearly did not intend for the EPA to become a militarized force raiding businesses and terrorizing US citizens. 20 years ago this would have been handled differently. An EPA investigator would begin gathering information on the mine and a certain point may reach out to inform the mine they are under investigation and require them to cooperate in providing information. They may also be given official notice that Civil Money Penalties or even a federal prosecution may be involved. If the EPA believes the mine is stonewalling the EPA gets a judge to authorize inspection and the EPA would appear on site in coordination with local police authorities to execute the warrant. Today they just send in a swat team, kick in doors and raid the place like its Sadr City, Iraq? Which of those sounds more like the America we thought we lived in?
The changes at the EPA are just one example but it is illustrative of a drastic change in the mindset of regulatory and law enforcement at every level in the United States. According to information from the Rutherford Institute, a Civil Liberties organization, “While the frequency of SWAT operations has increased dramatically in recent years, jumping from 1,000 to 40,000 raids per year by 2001, it appears to have less to do with increases in violent crime and more to do with law enforcement bureaucracy and a police state mentality…75-80 percent of SWAT callouts are now for mere warrant service”.
There was a similar incident in California where a SWAT team burst into a man’s house and dragged him handcuffed to the front lawn on orders from the Department of Education to look for evidence his ex-wife had committed financial aid fraud. This gets to the crux of the problem at the heart of these incidents. Whether because of the increasing militarization of law enforcement, or blowback from the “War on Terror” or just bureaucratic movement the rise of paramilitary policing in the United States has been staggering. This fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the enforcement officer and risks the enforcement officer thinking more like and occupying solider.