Tag: militarization

Graffiti Problem … So Call in the SWAT Team!?

From today’s Washington Post:

Hethmon had an up-close and unpleasant experience with the same kind of local police he had done so much to empower.The problem began with graffiti on a highway overpass in Bowie. Police there suspected that Hethmon’s teenage son might be involved and obtained a search warrant. They arrived at 7 a.m. on March 9 with a heavily armed team of county officers.

“Come in with masks, guns, screaming. You know, knocking everybody down,” Hethmon recalled. “I tried to explain to them, you know: ‘Look, I’m a lawyer, this is outrageous.’ [The reply was:] ‘Shut up and lie down on the floor.’ ”

Police said they found 2.5 grams of marijuana in the house. They filed charges against Hethmon, his son and his wife — all for the same drugs. The charges against Hethmon will be dropped, prosecutors said last week.

Hethmon said the experience has not changed his work.

“The fact that a law is legitimate and serving a purpose doesn’t mean that it can’t be abused,” he said. “Human beings are flawed people.”

And so, for the lesser-known of this duo, there has been a personal test. After he did so much to place greater trust in local police officers nationwide, police in Prince George’s County sent a SWAT team to his house to look for . . . spray paint.

It would be comical if it were not so serious.  Once the paramilitary unit arrives, heavy-handed methods are often employed to ensure ‘officer safety,’ i.e. break windows to distract occupants from the doorway and flashbang grenades. The militarization of police tactics is out of control, but policymakers do nothing focus on expanding the power of the government.

More background here,  here and here.

When Cops Go Commando, It’s No Laughing Matter

I received a response to my recent blog post on the Department of Education serving a warrant and dragging Kenneth Wright of Stockton, California from his home at six in the morning (incident added to the Raidmap, and here’s an updated link to the story). Here is the word from Department of Education Press Secretary Justin Hamilton:

“Yesterday, the Depart of Education’s office of inspector general executed a search warrant at Stockton California residence with the presence of local law enforcement authorities.

While it was reported in local media that the search was related to a defaulted student loan, that is incorrect. This is related to a criminal investigation. The Inspector General’s Office does not execute search warrants for late loan payments.

Because this is an ongoing criminal investigation, we can’t comment on the specifics of the case. We can say that the OIG’s office conducts about 30-35 search warrants a year on issues such as bribery, fraud, and embezzlement of federal student aid funds.

All further questions on this issue should be directed to the Department of Education’s Inspector General’s Office.”

This does not change my analysis one bit. The Department of Education doesn’t need a squad of “operators” busting down doors in white collar crime cases.

Search warrants issued pursuant to an investigation of bribery, fraud or embezzlement shouldn’t require door breaching at dawn unless there’s some exigent circumstances justification. Did the agents think that Kenneth Wright was going to resist the warrant service with deadly weapons, or destroy evidence? If so, say so. At least it would provide some evidence of surveillance prior to the raid or actual investigation. Investigation or surveillance might have revealed that the target of the warrant, Wright’s estranged wife, would not be home when agents came knocking.

Some gunbloggers wondered a while back about a federal website soliciting contracts to provide short-barreled shotguns for the Department of Education (H/T Uncle and Tam). Now we know what they’re intended for, and it’s incompatible with a free society.

Operator Disconnect

My latest op-ed, now available at Politico, highlights the continued militarization of American police forces. I focus on the statements of officers involved in the fatal shooting of Marine combat veteran Jose Guerena.

After the SWAT team entered Guerena’s home, the supervisor left one or two “operators” with the body while the rest searched the house.

What did he mean by operator? Well, a police officer. But the term connotes something entirely different.

“Operator” is a term of art in the special operations community. Green Berets, SEALs and other special operations personnel often refer to themselves as operators. It’s a recognition of both the elite standards of their units and the hybrid nature of their duties — part soldier, part spy, part diplomat. But importing operator terminology into domestic law enforcement is not a benign turn of the phrase.

Perceiving yourself as an operator plasters over the difference between a law enforcement officer serving a warrant and a commando in a war zone. The former Mirandizes, the latter vaporizes, as the saying goes — and as the recent Osama bin Laden raid vividly illustrated.

Language matters, and importing military terminology into peace officer lingo contributes to police militarization. There are plenty of alternative terms for SWAT officers that would carry elite connotations, such as “tactical officer,” as in the National Tactical Officers Association. Unfortunately, the NTOA website could use a good operator scrubbing (start here, here, and here).

Video of the Guerena raid:

The Guerena raid is posted over at the Raidmap, and Radley Balko provided an excellent write-up. Balko’s Overkill is essential reading on this topic.

More Discipline for SEAL in Afghanistan than SWAT Officer in Fairfax?

You’ve probably heard that Linda Norgrove, the kidnapped British aid worker in Afghanistan who died in a rescue attempt, appears to have been killed by a grenade thrown by one of the Navy SEALs coming to her aid, not a suicide bomb vest as initially reported.

Two things come to mind here.

First, the fact that it was a grenade and not a suicide vest that killed her only came to light because of the video cameras capturing the event. The unit performing the rescue had cameras mounted on the helicopters and the helmets of the SEALs on the ground. As I said in this video and this blog post, cameras provide an honest witness in these dangerous situations.

Second, compare the accountability the SEAL will face with what would happen to a SWAT team member. It appears that the SEAL who threw the grenade will face disciplinary action. If I had to guess, this will be a memorandum of reprimand from a general officer. That would go into the SEAL’s permanent personnel file, and cause a “slow death” of his career. Unable to get promoted in an up-or-out personnel system, the SEAL could be forced out of the service before he is eligible for retirement.

This is an elite Navy SEAL performing a hostage rescue mission in an armed camp in the Korengal Valley, arguably one of the most dangerous places in the world. The SEALs didn’t know where the hostage was, and the last Taliban kidnapper alive on the objective was firing at other SEALs with an automatic weapon. Yet the SEAL who threw the grenade, in a situation that justifies the use of a dynamic raid, may face the end of his career.

Compare this with the discipline that Fairfax County Police Officer Deval J. Bullock faced for killing optometrist Sal Culosi. Culosi ran a sports betting operation, and an undercover officer had placed bets with him in the prelude to a prosecution. Fairfax officers served the arrest warrant with a SWAT team, and Officer Bullock had an accidental discharge with his handgun at point blank range into Culosi’s chest, killing him almost instantly. Bullock was suspended for three weeks and kicked off the SWAT team. Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan didn’t take Bullock’s case to a grand jury, declaring that when someone fires a gun without malice and accidentally kills someone, “they do not commit a crime.” Sorry, that’s negligent homicide. And, according to police union officials, the three-week suspension was still too stiff a punishment.

So, an elite military hostage-rescue team member may face more consequences for a judgment error – when a kidnapper is threatening the lives of everyone on the objective with an automatic weapon at the tail end of a 30-minute gunfight necessitated by the imminent threat that the hostage will be moved to a more hostile location across the Pakistan border – than a suburban police officer who negligently murders a non-violent offender in a situation that didn’t warrant the use of a SWAT team to begin with.

In some instances, to call this “police militarization” is to slander the military. Here are some parallel thoughts from Radley Balko, and a whole lot more on paramilitary police raids in Radley’s Overkill and at the Raidmap.

Right and Left Take on Feds

The New York Times has a good article about how lawyers on both the right and left are working together to try and roll back state power in the criminal justice system. Here is an excerpt:

“It’s a remarkable phenomenon,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The left and the right have bent to the point where they are now in agreement on many issues. In the area of criminal justice, the whole idea of less government, less intrusion, less regulation has taken hold.”

There’s plenty to be concerned about – overcriminalization, federalization of crime, and the militarization of police tactics.  I told the reporter that Cato has been uniquely positioned on this subject – that is, we remind our friends on the left that businesspeople have their rights violated all the time.  And we remind our friends on the right that police and prosecutors abuse their powers in the “blue collar” context as well.  It is encouraging that more organizations are taking a more skeptical view of government power generally and are embracing more principled positions with respect to the rights of the accused set forth in the Constitution.

Other blogs are covering this article and subject too – go here, here, and here.

It was also nice to see that our friend Harvey Silverglate’s new book (Three Felonies a Day) was mentioned.  We had a book forum for Harvey a few weeks ago and C-Span was here to cover it.

For additional Cato work on criminal justice, go here,  here, and here.