Commentary

The Drug War Goes to the Dogs

This article appeared in Reason.com on April 5, 2006.

In the course of researching paramilitary drug raids, I’ve found some pretty disturbing stuff. There was a case where a SWAT officer stepped on a baby’s head while looking for drugs in a drop ceiling. There was one where an 11-year-old boy was shot at point-blank range. Police have broken down doors, screamed obscenities, and held innocent people at gunpoint only to discover that what they thought were marijuana plants were really sunflowers, hibiscus, ragweed, tomatoes, or elderberry bushes. (It’s happened with all five.)

Yet among hundreds of botched raids, the ones that get me most worked up are the ones where the SWAT officers shoot and kill the family dog.

I have two dogs, which may have something to do with it. But I’m not alone. A colleague tells me that when he and other libertarian commentators speak about the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco many people tend to doubt the idea that the government was out of line when it invaded, demolished, and set fire to a home of peaceful and mostly innocent people. But when the speaker mentions that the government also slaughtered two dogs during the siege, eyes light up, the indifferent get angry, and skeptics come around. Puppycide, apparently, goes too far.

One of the most appalling cases occurred in Maricopa County, Arizona, the home of Joe Arpaio, self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America.” In 2004 one of Arpaio’s SWAT teams conducted a bumbling raid in a Phoenix suburb. Among other weapons, it used tear gas and an armored personnel carrier that later rolled down the street and smashed into a car. The operation ended with the targeted home in flames and exactly one suspect in custody—for outstanding traffic violations.

But for all that, the image that sticks in your head, as described by John Dougherty in the alternative weekly Phoenix New Times, is that of a puppy trying to escape the fire and a SWAT officer chasing him back into the burning building with puffs from a fire extinguisher. The dog burned to death.

In a massive 1998 raid at a San Francisco housing co-op, cops shot a family dog in front of its family, then dragged it outside and shot it again.

When police in Fremont, California, raided the home of medical marijuana patient Robert Filgo, they shot his pet Akita nine times. Filgo himself was never charged.

Last October police in Alabama raided a home on suspicion of marijuana possession, shot and killed both family dogs, then joked about the kill in front of the family. They seized eight grams of marijuana, equal in weight to a ketchup packet.

In January a cop en route to a drug raid in Tampa, Florida, took a short cut across a neighboring lawn and shot the neighbor’s two pooches on his way. And last May, an officer in Syracuse, New York, squeezed off several shots at a family dog during a drug raid, one of which ricocheted and struck a 13-year-old boy in the leg. The boy was handcuffed at gunpoint at the time.

There was a dog in the ragweed bust I mentioned, too. He got lucky: He was only kicked across the room.

I guess the P.R. lesson here for drug war opponents and civil libertarians is to emphasize the plight of the pooch. America’s law-and-order populace may not be ready to condemn the practice of busting up recreational pot smokers with ostentatiously armed paramilitary police squads, even when the SWAT team periodically breaks into the wrong house or accidentally shoots a kid. I mean, somebody was probably breaking the law, right?

But the dog? That loyal, slobbery, lovable, wide-eyed, fur-lined bag of unconditional love?

Dammit, he deserves better.

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.”