Police use of military technology, tactics in Pennsylvania eyed by ACLU in open-records request
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.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or [email protected].