Jason Westcott was afraid.
One night last fall, he discovered via Facebook that a friend of a friend was planning with some co-conspirators to break in to his home. They were intent on stealing Wescott’s handgun and a couple of TV sets. According to the Facebook message, the suspect was planning on “burning” Westcott, who promptly called the Tampa Bay police and reported the plot.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the investigating officers responding to Westcott’s call had a simple message for him: “If anyone breaks into this house, grab your gun and shoot to kill.”
Around 7:30 pm on May 27, the intruders arrived. Westcott followed the officers’ advice, grabbed his gun to defend his home, and died pointing it at the intruders. They used a semiautomatic shotgun and handgun to shoot down the 29-year-old motorcycle mechanic. He was hit three times, once in the arm and twice in his side, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
The intruders, however, weren’t small-time crooks looking to make a small score. Rather, they were members of the Tampa Bay Police Department’s SWAT team, which was executing a search warrant on suspicion that Westcott and his partner were marijuana dealers. They had been tipped off by a confidential informant, whom they drove to Westcott’s home four times between February and May to purchase small amounts of marijuana, at $20–$60 a pop. The informer notified police that he saw two handguns in the home, which was why the Tampa Bay police deployed a SWAT team to execute the search warrant.
In the end, the same police department that told Westcott to protect his home with defensive force killed him when he did. After searching his small rental, the cops indeed found weed, two dollars’ worth, and one legal handgun—the one he was clutching when the bullets ripped into him.
Welcome to a new era of American policing, where cops increasingly see themselves as soldiers occupying enemy territory, often with the help of Uncle Sam’s armory, and where even nonviolent crimes are met with overwhelming force and brutality.
The War on Your Doorstep
The cancer of militarized policing has long been metastasizing in the body politic. It has been growing ever stronger since the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were born in the 1960s in response to that decade’s turbulent mix of riots, disturbances and senseless violence like Charles Whitman’s infamous clocktower rampage in Austin, Texas.
While SWAT isn’t the only indicator that the militarization of American policing is increasing, it is the most recognizable. The proliferation of SWAT teams across the country and their paramilitary tactics have spread a violent form of policing designed for the extraordinary but in these years made ordinary. When the concept of SWAT arose out of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Police Departments, it was quickly picked up by big-city police officials nationwide. Initially, however, it was an elite force reserved for uniquely dangerous incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations or large-scale disturbances.