Commentary

Drug War Police Tactics Endanger Innocent Citizens

Winston Churchill is commonly credited with having said, “Democracy means that when there’s a knock in the door at 3 am, it’s probably the milkman.”

One wonders what Churchill would make of modern-day, drug war America.

For the last year, I’ve been researching a study on SWAT teams, “no-knock” raids, and the rise of paramilitary tactics in domestic policing (the study was released this week). The trends I’ve found are troubling, and some of the individual stories are absolutely heartbreaking.

Each day in America, police SWAT teams raid more than 100 private homes, many times very late at night, or very early in the morning. Many times, these teams don’t even bother to knock. Because these raids are violent, confrontational, and often conducted on questionable intelligence (I’ll get to that in a moment), they’ve left a long trail of “wrong address” raids on frightened innocents, needless injury, and even death.

Since the early 1980s, the U.S. has seen a 1,300 percent rise in the number of SWAT team deployments, from 3,000 per year in 1981, to more than 40,000 per year in 2001 (the number is likely even higher today). It’s of no coincidence that this dramatic increase has taken place over the period the U.S. has reinvigorated its war on drugs.

According to Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska, who has tracked the trend, the vast majority of these raids are to serve routine drug warrants, many times for crimes no more serious than possession of marijuana.

If you’ve seen an episode of Cops or Dallas SWAT, you know the routine. These raids are commonly conducted late at night, or just before dawn, to catch suspects by surprise. Police sometimes deploy “flash grenades,” then batter down or blow up doors with explosives. They then storm the home, subduing occupants, handcuffing them at gunpoint, sometimes pushing them to the ground.

They then search the home, typically with little regard for personal belongings. If the family dog gets in the way, he’ll be executed.

This would all be acceptable if SWAT teams were used as they were originally intended. L.A. police chief Darryl Gates invented the concept in the 1960s shortly after the Watts riots. Gates wanted an elite team of police who could defuse dangerous situations like riots, hostage-takings, or bank robberies. For about a decade, that’s how SWAT teams were used, and they performed marvelously.

Unfortunately, in the 1980s Congress began making surplus military gear available to local police departments, with the intent that they use it for drug enforcement. Millions of dollars worth of military-grade rifles, tanks, helicopters, body armor, and other gear made its way to civilian police organizations.

In some cases, the trend grew absurd. One rural county in Florida assembled its own air force with the helicopters and planes it got from the Pentagon. Another tiny town had more M-16s in its police department than the town had stoplights.

With all of this war gear, cities, towns, and even small towns decided to start their own SWAT teams. As often happens with government entities, the mission of these SWAT teams began to expand over time, to include not just emergency situations, but more routine police work as well. Federal grants for drug arrests and asset forfeiture laws that make drug policing more lucrative than other types of policing offered further incentives to use SWAT teams to serve drug warrants.

The problem is, drug policing is quite a bit different than sending an elite paramilitary team to deal with a known, immediate threat to the community. When there’s a hostage situation, a bank robbery, or a riot, it’s pretty clear where the incident is happening, and who’s involved. That’s not true of the drug trade.

Because most drug crimes are consensual crimes, there’s no direct victim to report them. Therefore, police have to rely on informants to tip them off to whose dealing, and where. These informants are notoriously unreliable. They tend to be criminals themselves, looking for leniency. Or they could be rival drug dealers, looking to bump off the competition.

The problem is, these violent, highly-confrontational SWAT raids are conducted based on information first gleaned from informants. Which means the information isn’t always accurate. Which means an untold number of innocent Americans have been subjected to the horrifying predicament of having armed men invade their homes in the middle of the night, and needing to decide immediately upon waking if the intruders are cops or criminals, and if they should submit or resist.

Of course, even if the suspect is guilty of small-time dope use or dope dealing, I would argue that that doesn’t mean there’s justification for kicking down their doors and invading their homes as they’re sleeping.

Have a look at this map. It plots nearly 300 botched SWAT raids I’ve found over the course of about a year of research. It is by no means comprehensive. My guess is that it doesn’t even begin to make a full accounting for how many times this has happened, both because police are reluctant to report their mistakes, and because the victims of botched raids are often too afraid or embarrassed to come forward.

As I’ve begun to write about this issue, many more victims of these raids have called or emailed to tell me their own stories - most of which never made it into the newspaper.

But even the documented cases should be cause for concern. They include the cases of Salvatore Culosi and Cory Maye, both of whom I’ve written about previously in this column. They include 40 cases in which a completely innocent person was killed. There are dozens more in which nonviolent offenders (recreational pot smokers, for example, or small-time gamblers like Culosi) or police officers were needlessly killed.

There are nearly 150 cases in which innocent families, sometimes with children, were roused form their beds at gunpoint, and subjected to the fright of being apprehended and thoroughly searched at gunpoint. There are other cases in which a SWAT team seems wholly inappropriate, such as the apprehension of medical marijuana patients, many of whom are bedridden.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for change. When a 2003 mistaken raid in New York City ended with the death of 57-year-old Alberta Spruill — who was completely innocent — public outrage and media scrutiny forced the city to promise reforms. One attorney who specializes in these cases tells me that barely three years later, the mistaken raids are happening again, and that the city maintains the reforms it promised were merely “discretionary.”

Increasingly, these raids are moving beyond the drug war. SWAT teams are now being employed to serve white collar warrants, too, as was the case with Culosi. Sad as it is, perhaps that’s what it will take. Perhaps once upper-class people with more power and social leverage begin to feel the brunt force of this blunt law enforcement tool, we’ll begin to see some change.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst specializing in civil liberties issues and is the author of the Cato study, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”