Commentary

Buffalo’s Stampede Against Privacy

This article appeared on Reason.com on June 21, 2006.

“We’re going to have to be mobile, agile and slightly hostile in trying to get the job of policing done in the City of Buffalo,” Buffalo Police Chief H. McCarthy Gipson announced when he was appointed to his position in February 2006.

In April, Buffalo police made good on the boss’s promise. The city conducted a massive anti-drug sweep from April 18 to April 20, dubbed “Operation Shock and Awe.” Scores of police officers dressed in battle gear conducted 38 no-knock SWAT raids over the course of three days. They deployed diversionary grenades, broke down doors with battering rams, stormed residences with guns ablaze, and arrested 78 people.

“We are declaring war on street-level drug dealing,” Gipson told two reporters from the Buffalo News, whom he invited along for one of the raids. The reporters described the scene:

A loud “flash bang” concussion device detonated inside a Kensington Avenue house as Buffalo police SWAT officers, clad in black armor and brandishing automatic assault rifles, stormed a lower apartment. “Buffalo police. Search warrant. Buffalo police,” the officers yelled to the stunned occupants inside. Within seconds, several shotgun blasts were fired. At the same instant, another officer cradled a 1-year-old boy out the front door and down a flight of steps to safety. When the smoke cleared, three large pit bull terriers lay dead, in pools of their own blood. And five people were in handcuffs.

By April 21, police were boasting of their take: six pounds of marijuana, seven ounces of crack cocaine, and five guns. Given the size of and scope of the operation, however, the bounty was rather spare. Six pounds of marijuana and seven ounces of crack from nearly forty residences, all of which housed suspected drug dealers? A massive, armored force of SWAT teams in battle garb, storming “all corners of the city,” was necessary to seize just five guns?

Nevertheless, shortly after the raids, Chief Gipson declared victory. “This has put a dent in the drug trade, put some operations out of business and addressed the fears of some of the residents,” he said.

Or not. A month later, the Buffalo News ran a follow-up piece under the headline “How effective is drug war?; After flurry of arrests, many cases dismissed or suspects released.” Turns out, Gipson’s “dent” was barely a nick. The six pounds of marijuana police claimed to have seized was actually 4 pounds, 13 ounces. Three-and-a-half pounds of that came by way of an unrelated traffic stop that had nothing to do with the raids.

Not surprisingly, twenty-one ounces of marijuana and seven ounces of crack wasn’t enough contraband to keep the 78 people rounded up from the raids in jail. Sixteen were immediately released with no criminal charges. Another 32 were out of jail within 24 hours, due to insufficient evidence. Just 20 face felony charges, though it’s unclear how many of those will actually stick.

City leaders were furious. Not because the Buffalo police department carpet-bombed the city with violent, highly militaristic raids in a manner that needlessly terrorized dozens of innocent citizens. Civic leaders fumed because they had already rushed to the media to take credit for the “get tough” approach, and now had some explaining to do.

City Council Member Dominic Bonifacio Jr. called the dismissals “a slap in the face to our men in blue,” and blamed—apparently with a straight face—New York State’s Rockefeller drug laws. “There’s always talk about New York [State] being too hard on drug users,” he said. “But maybe they need to be harder on the drug dealers.”

More ominously, many civic leaders in Buffalo are now looking at a program called “Operation Clean Sweep,” a project started in the city several years ago that sends housing and safety inspectors out with drug cops. The inspectors’ presence enables police to get inside the home without a search warrant. One can only imagine how it might be used in conjunction with “Operation Shock and Awe.”

It’s an increasingly common tactic. In June 2004, for example, more than 70 police officers conducted a massive SWAT raid on a billiards bar in Manassas Park, Virginia under the pretext of an inspection from the state alcohol board. It was unquestionably a drug raid, and officers turned the bar upside down in pursuit of evidence against its owner. But the presence of the Alcohol Beverage Control officers allowed the entire raid to take place without the legal hurdle of procuring a search warrant.

The Buffalo News reports that several police officials referenced Operation Clean Sweep in speculating how they might go about organizing future raids, adding that, “Police also are looking into working with federal housing officials to seize problem drug houses.”

The timing of the Operation Shock and Awe is also suspicious. The raids came just days after Erie County Executive Joel Giambra publicly came out against the Drug War. Giambra held a press conference with members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a new group of ex-cops and prosecutors advocating the decriminalization or legalization of drugs. Giambra’s not exactly a profile in political courage—his tenure has been plagued by allegations of fraud and corruption. Still, his apostasy on the issue stands in stark contrast to the hardened positions of the political leaders around him. And his long-running feud with local police organizations, including the Buffalo PD, casts doubt on the timing of the raids.

As for the specific raid described by those reporters from the Buffalo News, a different account emerged weeks later in the paper’s letters to the editor:

The warrant they had was for marijuana only, not guns or narcotics, as one News reporter wrote. A loud, concussion device was detonated first, and then shotgun blasts were heard all the way down the street. A 1-year-old child was present at the time, and he wasn’t carried out of the house in the same instant as the shotgun blasts started, as reported. This child not only heard all this, but also witnessed his beloved pets get brutally slaughtered right in front of his tender eyes. Oddessy, a boxer mix; her pup, Snoop; and a pit bull terrier, Ginger, were all pets. They weren’t fighters, vicious or unlicensed—they were friendly, lovable dogs; just ask anyone who knew them. When the officers came in, they came to kill the dogs. Oddessy ran between one of her owner’s legs, and was blasted in the head. Snoop was shot twice. Ginger was shot as she ran into a back bedroom, where she was cornered by officers and hit with four more shotgun blasts. The dogs were carried out of the house in garbage bags.

It’s unlikely that city officials will be deterred. Buffalo PD Chief of Detectives Dennis Richards told the Buffalo News that Shock and Awe was “just the beginning.” “There will certainly be more raids in the future,” he said. “You can count on that… We’re looking at small-scale, large-scale, street-level… We’re looking at top to bottom.”

That’s troubling news for low-income residents of Buffalo, those most likely to be targeted by wide-net operations like Shock and Awe. It’s even worse news for their pets.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst specializing in “nanny state” issues and author of the forthcoming study “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Drug Raids in America.”