Commentary

Overkill: The Latest Trend in Policing

This article appeared in the Washington Post, February 5, 2006.
On Jan. 24, a SWAT team in Fairfax shot and killed Salvatore J. Culosi Jr., an optometrist who was under investigation for gambling. According to a Jan. 26 front-page story in The Post, Culosi had emerged from his home to meet an undercover officer when a police tactical unit swarmed around him. An officer’s gun discharged, killing the suspect. Culosi, police said, was unarmed and had displayed no threatening behavior.

It’s unlikely that the officer who shot Culosi did so intentionally. But it’s also unlikely that the investigation into this shooting will address why police sent a military-style unit to arrest an optometrist under investigation for a nonviolent crime and why the officers had their guns drawn when approaching a man with no history of violence.

This isn’t the first time a SWAT team in Virginia has killed someone while serving a gambling warrant. In 1998 a team in Virginia Beach conducted a 3 a.m. raid at a private club believed to be involved in organized gambling. Security guard Edward C. Reed was sitting in a parked car outside the club, which had been robbed a few months earlier.

As the black-clad police team raided, a few officers confronted Reed, who had fallen asleep. Reid awoke and, probably startled by the sight of armed men outside his car, reached for his gun. The SWAT team shot and killed him. Reed’s last words were, “Why did you shoot me? I was reading a book.”

During the past 15 years, The Post and other media outlets have reported on the unsettling “militarization” of police departments across the country. Armed with free surplus military gear from the Pentagon, SWAT teams have multiplied at a furious pace. Tactics once reserved for rare, volatile situations such as hostage takings, bank robberies and terrorist incidents increasingly are being used for routine police work.

Eastern Kentucky University’s Peter Kraska — a widely cited expert on police militarization — estimates that SWAT teams are called out about 40,000 times a year in the United States; in the 1980s, that figure was 3,000 times a year. Most “call-outs” were to serve warrants on nonviolent drug offenders.

That statistic is troubling enough, but it is compounded by the raids, particularly in drug cases, being based on tips from notoriously unreliable informants, often with no corroborating investigation. This leads to the “wrong address” raids we frequently hear about in the news.

Now police military-style units are increasingly being deployed on gambling raids, too. Last November, police with guns and K-9 units raided a charity poker game in Baltimore. Police in New York are using similar tactics against gambling clubs. Last April, a SWAT team of 52 officers raided a small-stakes poker game in a Denver suburb. An alternative weekly, the Cleveland Scene, reported last year that Jaycees and American Legion clubs in northeastern Ohio “are being raided with the kind of firepower once reserved for drug barons and killers on the lam.”

These gambling crackdowns carry a whiff of hypocrisy. Even as it sends SWAT teams to protect citizens from the scourge of gambling, Virginia spends $20 million a year promoting its state lottery. As police in Ohio knock over private poker games, the Ohio Lottery pulled in $2.15 billion in 2005. And while Maryland police have been busting charity tournaments, the state’s lottery cashes in on the poker craze with scratch-off games such as Royal Flush, Aces & 8s and Poker Showdown.

Fairfax apparently serves all of its search warrants with SWAT teams. But officials and county residents need to ask themselves if they want to live in a community in which routine police work and vice warrants are carried out by officers armed with gear more appropriate to a battlefield. Their answer may determine whether Salvatore Culosi represents an accident or a trend.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst specializing in “nanny state” and consumer choice issues, including alcohol and tobacco control, drug prohibition, obesity, and civil liberties.