On April 19, 2013, during a manhunt in the Boston suburb of Watertown, MA, for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, police and federal agents spent the day storming people’s homes and performing illegal searches
Heavily armed SWAT police ripped people from their homes at gunpoint, marched the residents out with their hands raised above their heads in submission, and then stormed the homes to perform their warrantless searches.
This was part of a larger operation that involved a total lockdown of Watertown. A No-Fly Zone was declared over the town of 31,915; roads were barricaded; vehicle traffic was prohibited. People were ordered to stay indoors; businesses were told not to open. National Guard soldiers helped with the lockdown, and were photographed checking IDs of pedestrians on the streets, while SWAT teams searched house to house, all without a warrant.
Giuseppe Macri reports for The Daily Caller, April 17, 2014, that a year later, in the name of securing Boston against future attacks, an artificially intelligent, self-learning surveillance network is in place, watching the entire city and all of its inhabitants.
Built by Texas-based Behavioral Recognition Systems, Inc. (BRS Labs), headed by former Secret Service special agent John Frazzini, Boston’s city-wide surveillance system, AISight, not only watches and analyzes human behavior, but learns from it to identify suspicious or abnormal activity, completely free of additional human programming, guidance or monitoring.
AISight starts out by simply monitoring its environment, which is recorded through a closed-circuit television network of high-quality surveillance cameras spread throughout Boston, and builds up a profile of normal behavior. After accumulating enough data, AISight draws upon its artificial neural networks that are designed to mimic analytical human brain functions, to recognize, learn and permanently register abnormal behavior without any additional pre- or post-programming.
The core of the system itself needs surprisingly little installation and additional hardware, and can be attached to huge, sprawling networks of outdated cameras already present in any city. After a few days of hardware and software installation, AISight can begin autonomously building an ever-changing knowledge base of activity seen through every camera on a city’s video network.
AISight’s analysis of human behavior based on surveillance footage promises to change the way humans conduct their surveillance of other humans, and is already being adopted in Chicago and Washington, D.C. as well.
Though BRS Labs states it is “concerned about the privacy rights of individuals everywhere,” the potential for abuse by such a pervasive surveillance systems is evident, which only adds to Americans’ privacy concerns about the bulk surveillance programs conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA).
Ironically, although both the NSA and AISight surveillance is justified in the name of anti-terrorism and national security, numerous government officials, congressional representatives, national security experts and even the White House have admitted such surveillance has done little to nothing to prevent potential terrorist incidents.
All of which prompted John Fund, national-affairs columnist for the National Review and a senior editor at The American Spectator, to raise the alarm about America’s devolution into a police state.
In an article title “The United States of SWAT?” for National Review Online, April 18, 2014, Fund warns that “Military-style units from government agencies are wreaking havoc on non-violent citizens”:
Regardless of how people feel about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management over his cattle’s grazing rights, a lot of Americans were surprised to see TV images of an armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary wing of the BLM deployed around Bundy’s ranch.
They shouldn’t have been. Dozens of federal agencies now have Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams to further an expanding definition of their missions. It’s not controversial that the Secret Service and the Bureau of Prisons have them. But what about the Department of Agriculture, the Railroad Retirement Board, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Office of Personnel Management, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? All of these have their own SWAT units and are part of a worrying trend towards the militarization of federal agencies — not to mention local police forces.
“Law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier,” journalist Radley Balko writes in his 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop. “The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop — armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.”
Fund notes that the proliferation of paramilitary federal SWAT teams inevitably brings abuses that have nothing to do with either drugs or terrorism against harmless, often innocent, Americans, including:
- Kenneth Wright of Stockton, Calif., who was “visited” by a SWAT team from the U.S. Department of Education in June 2011. Agents battered down the door of his home at 6 a.m., dragged him outside in his boxer shorts, and handcuffed him as they put his three children (ages 3, 7, and 11) in a police car for two hours while they searched his home. The raid was allegedly intended to uncover information on Wright’s estranged wife, Michelle, who was suspected of college financial-aid fraud but who wasn’t even living with Wright.
- In 2010, a SWAT team from the Food and Drug Administration raided the farm of Dan Allgyer of Lancaster, Pa. His crime was shipping unpasteurized milk across state lines to a cooperative of young women with children in Washington, D.C., called Grass Fed on the Hill. Raw milk can be sold in Pennsylvania, but it is illegal to transport it across state lines. The raid forced Allgyer to close down his business.
- In 2010, a Phoenix, Ariz., sheriff’s SWAT team that included a tank and several armored vehicles raided the home of Jesus Llovera. What was Llovera’s alleged crime? Staging cockfights. During the sheriff’s raid, his dog was killed, and later all of his chickens were put to sleep. The tank, driven by the newly deputized action-film star Steven Seagal, plowed right into Llovera’s house. The incident was filmed and, together with footage of Seagal-accompanied immigration raids, was later used for Seagal’s A&E TV law-enforcement reality show.
Heritage Foundation senior legal analyst Brian Walsh says it is inexplicable why so many federal agencies need to be battle-ready: “If these agencies occasionally have a legitimate need for force to execute a warrant, they should be required to call a real law-enforcement agency, one that has a better sense of perspective. The FBI, for example, can draw upon its vast experience to determine whether there is an actual need for a dozen SWAT agents.”
Since 9/11, the feds have issued a plethora of homeland-security grants that encourage local police departments to buy surplus military hardware and form their own SWAT units. By 2005, at least 80% of towns with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 people had their own SWAT team. Once SWAT teams are created, they will be used. The number of raids conducted by local police SWAT teams has gone from 3,000 a year in the 1980s to over 50,000 a year today.
Many veteran law-enforcement figures have severe qualms about the turn police work is taking, and for good reasons. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution’s Third Amendment, against the quartering of troops in private homes, was part of an overall reaction against the excesses of Britain’s colonial law enforcement. “It wasn’t the stationing of British troops in the colonies that irked patriots in Boston and Virginia,” Balko writes. “It was England’s decision to use the troops for everyday law enforcement.”
Short of disbanding the paramilitary SWAT units which he recognizes is “politically impossible,” Fund recommends the following:
- The feds should stop shipping military vehicles to local police forces.
- Federal SWAT teams shouldn’t be used to enforce regulations, but should focus instead on potentially violent criminals.
- Like cameras mounted on the dashboards of police cars, SWAT-team members should be similarly-equipped with helmet cameras to bring abuses to light and exonerate officers falsely accused of abuse.
UPDATE (Nov. 15, 2014):