As day gives way to the enveloping darkness of night three ten man squads of police officers in combat boots, black jumpsuits, military helmets and body armor lock and load their Heckler & Koch MP-54 submachine guns and fan out through the neighborhood. Welcome to Fresno's Violent crime Suppression Unit. Deemed local law enforcement's "special forces” and Americas most aggressive swat team. Since 1994 the VCSU has patrolled Fresno's have-not suburbs in full military gear, with automatic assault rifles at the ready. The VCSU is backed by two helicopters with infrared scopes and an Army surplus armored personnel carrier, the unit is also equipped with attack dogs, smoke bombs, tear gas, pepper spray, metal clubs and less than lethal "blunt trauma” projectiles. .
In the name of Crisis management, the VCSU is free to utilize aggressive and unorthodox tactics. At times the unit deploys troops on foot to surround "hot spot” corners of sweep neighborhoods. At other times, it rolls in a fleet of new Crown Victorias "like a wolf pack” looking for "contact”(as a VCSU officer put it). Tonight the area of operation is a desolate African-American neighborhood known on the street as the "Dog Pound.” Most "contacts” involve swooping down on corners and forcing pedestrians to the ground, searching them running warrant checks, taking photos and entering all the new "intelligence” into a state database from the high tech "mobile computer terminals” in each patrol car. All the suspects are black, all of the cops are white and every encounter is scored to the furious growling and barking of the VCSU's tightly leashed Alsatians. "If you're 21, male, living in one of these neighborhoods and you're not in our computer then there's definitely something wrong,” says VCSU officer Paul Boyer as he enters information into his onboard laptop.
Throughout the nation, paramilitary, SWAT or tactical policing-that is, law enforcement that uses the equipment, training, rhetoric and group tactics of war is on the rise.