Submachine guns like the MP5 are common among SWAT police units, including Detroit’s Special Response Team. Flickr image courtesy Mateus 27:24&25

The military-style methods promoted by Detroit’s police chief have come under fire since officers shot and killed a small girl last month during a botched house raid that ignited public outrage. Chief Warren Evans took over the police department there last year and embarked on an aggressive campaign to win back the city from its stubbornly high violent-crime rate by among other things dispatching a so-called Special Response Team for everyday law enforcement activities.

The unit’s members dress in intimidating SWAT attire and carry submachine guns capable of unleashing an extraordinary 800 rounds per minute. At least that’s how their firepower is described on the website of “S.W.A.T.,” a television program hosted by the cable TV network A&E that showcases Detroit’s elite law enforcement team alongside two others in Dallas and Kansas City.

Elevated Risk previously asked whether the tragedy that exacerbated already deep fissures in Detroit between the black community and police also showed that local law enforcement in the United States had become overly militarized since Sept. 11. Time magazine answered that question in part by later reporting that the techniques Evans preferred for turning around Detroit were backfiring and Mayor Dave Bing had publicly declared the city would be “reigning him in.”

Before the SWAT raid, Evans appeared to be someone who could reinvigorate a city in slow decay. As Time notes, Evans was born and raised in Detroit where notable black radicals visited his parents and family members helped break down barriers to employment for African Americans in health care and public safety. The mayor no doubt believed Evans was capable, because Bing hired him even though the two were at one time political opponents. Responses to 911 calls improved on Evans’ watch, and reported homicides dropped, too.

The police department’s leadership is now under a microscope following last month’s killing. The Detroit Free Press on June 6 reported in depth on another unit in the agency known as the Mobile Strike Force that openly turns even the smallest infractions – including jaywalking and loitering – into a search for drugs and weapons. “In a city where an average of three people are shot every day,” the paper wrote, “Chief Warren Evans said the only way to combat guns is to get the illegal ones off the street. If that means stopping people breaking minor laws, he said, so be it.” Inevitably, that’s led critics to accuse the police of profiling citizens and relying on tactics better suited for Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the increased use in Detroit of its SWAT team parallels an ongoing trend nationally of police departments seeking to emulate the armed forces. Many officers are in fact reservists who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. A flood of federal homeland security grants awarded by the billions since 2001 has further encouraged this new look of local law enforcement, enabling police agencies to buy armored assault vehicles, muscle-bound RVs known as incident-command trucks, beefy tactical body armor and battering rams.

As part of our months-long project examining homeland security in the United States, the Center for Investigative Reporting has seen community after community snap up such special tactics gear amid thousands of pages of grant spending records reviewed – night-vision binoculars, ballistic helmets, “under-door remote viewing” devices, material for outfitting snipers, bullet-proof entry shields and much more. (Attempts to learn about Michigan’s purchases stalled after the state police demanded over $1,000 in fees to process an open-government request.)

The man identified as having fired the bullet that killed young Aiyana Jones during a “no-knock” raid, Officer Joseph Weekley, still appeared on the website of A&E’s “S.W.A.T.” when Elevated Risk first wrote about the subject May 26. He continues to be featured on the site today. Weekley poses grim-faced in the photo and handles a hefty-barreled “multi-launcher” that shoots “less-lethal rounds” designed to halt unruly crowds or suspects without anyone getting killed. He’s a lead driver of the unit’s armored personnel carrier, the site says.

To some degree the 9/11 attacks only added fuel to a movement in policing that was already underway. But it’s now influenced heavily by the rhetoric of the war on terror and a perception in local police circles that the world is growing more unstable every day, even as crime in most corners of America drops to historic lows. These revolutionary changes in American law enforcement could have unintended consequences, Time says:

Detroit is not the only city to go the paramilitary route. Since the 1980s drug war, experts say, many local police departments have developed such units, often with surplus U.S. military gear. Initially, the units responded to hostage situations. Increasingly, they’re used proactively to search for illegal contraband, like guns and drugs, says Peter Kraska, professor of criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University and author of Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System. Local police have a fundamental mission: to use the minimum amount of force to bring criminals to justice. That’s a very different mission from that of the military: to destroy the enemy.

Detroit also isn’t the only city where special weapons and tactics squads are being scrutinized for their conduct. Just this week in Columbus, Ohio, city leaders announced that they wanted to know more about a mask-wearing, non-uniformed group of local police officers who leaped out of unmarked vans during a traffic stop. Police searched the car and its two occupants explaining later that they believed it was stolen. But the driver reportedly turned out to be a teenage boy who’d just picked up his father from work during the early morning hours of May 7. The youth’s pants were allegedly pulled down during a search for drugs and weapons.

Officers present were later identified as part of the local Strategic Response Bureau, which, according to the Columbus Dispatch, “often operates undercover to gather intelligence, investigate gangs and handle other special operations.” At the time, they were “dressed in black fatigues, and some wore masks. Neither father nor son saw badges, but one of the men wore a ball cap with the word police.” The incident is also being investigated by internal affairs, the Dispatch reports.

Additional image by Cyril Thomas and the Tenafly Police Department

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.