The sheriff’s office in Pima County, Ariz., raided the home of former Marine and Iraq combat veteran Jose Guerena, shooting 71 rounds at Guerena and hitting him with 22. The department is now facing a serious controversy over Guerena’s death.
But the raid isn’t the real tragedy. It’s a symptom of the real tragedy: the militarization of U.S. law enforcement.
Pima County released a video of the raid and supporting documents. The video isn’t anything new — a squad of police officers dressed up for combat. But the statement of the SWAT supervisor is worth reading. 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.
Targeted killing is legal in a war zone but not on the streets of Anytown, USA. The war on drugs has done incalculable damage to the character of law enforcement by encouraging police officers to forget they are civilians.
True, they are civilians charged with enforcing the law and are empowered to use force to do so — but they are civilians nonetheless. When police officers refer to their fellow citizens as civilians and mean to exclude themselves from that category, they’ve mentally leapt from enforcing the law to destroying the enemies of the state. That’s incompatible with a free society.
I had reservations about the term “operator” during the years I served in special operations. Most of the time, the label was interchangeable with “soldier.” But sometimes it became a tool for diminishing the need for planning — and relying on brawn and talent instead. “Don’t worry; we’re operators,” was the overall attitude. “We can handle it.”
Some of that is evident in the raid on Guerena’s home. Unless otherwise specified, warrants are supposed to be served with a knock on the door and an announcement that a peace officer is the one knocking.
Police can request a no-knock warrant that allows entry without warning when they anticipate armed resistance. If Guerena was in fact moonlighting with a home-invasion crew, as the Pima County sheriff alleges, then this may have been a rare situation in which a no-knock warrant would be justified.
Ideally, suspects are taken into custody outside their homes, in an environment law enforcers are more easily able to predict and control. Instead, Pima County authorities produced enough noise with sirens and a battering ram to spark instant chaos and confusion in Guerena’s residence, where he was sleeping after working the night shift.
Once the SWAT team breached the door, it’s not clear from the available video that they again announced themselves as law enforcement officers and not the sort of home invaders who killed two of Guerena’s wife’s relatives last year.
Some law enforcement officers certainly qualify for operator status. The FBI team that snatched CIA headquarters shooter Mir Aimal Kansi from a hotel room in the badlands of Pakistan makes the grade.
But securing evidence in suburban America is the antithesis of operator status. It’s a basic law enforcement function, not an international manhunt or the targeted killing of a terrorist leader. While a group of SWAT officers may have felt like operators on a battlefield, an honorably discharged Marine — possibly seeking only to defend his family from what he thought was a home invasion — bled out in Arizona.