WASHINGTON — The last 25 years have seen a 1,300 percent increase in the number of paramilitary raids on American homes. The vast majority of these are to serve routine drug warrants, including for offenses as trivial as marijuana possession, according to a new study by the Cato Institute.
“These raids, 40,000 per year by one estimate, are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping,” writes Cato policy analyst Radley Balko, “usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as peace officers, but as soldiers.”
“Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America” provides a legal, historical, and policy background explaining the trend. Balko offers a critique of “no‐knock” and “short‐notice” raids, explains how such confrontational tactics cause violence rather than lessening risks, and offers recommendations for reform.
The paper has an appendix of nearly 150 examples of documented botched raids, including: the case of Alberto Sepulveda, an 11‐year‐old boy shot in the head during a bungled raid in Modesto, California; Clayton Helriggle, a 23‐year‐old shot and killed when an inexperienced SWAT team raided a house of college‐aged men guilty of recreational marijuana use; Sal Culosi, an optometrist in Fairfax, Virginia mistakenly killed by a SWAT team that had come to his home to arrest him for betting on sports games; and Mississippi police officer Ron Jones, shot and killed when Cory Maye, a man asleep at home with his daughter and who had no criminal record, mistook Jones’ raid team for criminal intruders.
Balko has found more than three dozen examples of completely innocent people killed in mistaken raids, twenty cases of nonviolent offenders who’ve been killed, and more than a dozen cases of police officers killed by suspects or mistakenly targeted civilians who thought the police were criminal intruders.
Accompanying Balko’s report, Cato is releasing also an interactive Google Maps application that plots nearly 300 examples of mistaken raids since the mid‐1980s. Users can zoom in to street level, and sort raids by their end result (death of an innocent, death of a police officer, etc.), and the year of the raid. The map is available at https://www.cato.org/raidmap.
Balko concludes that these policing tactics “bring unnecessary violence and provocation to nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom were guilty only of misdemeanors, they terrorize innocents when police mistakenly target the wrong residence, and they have resulted in dozens of needless deaths and injuries, not only of drug offenders, but also of police officers, children, bystanders, and innocent suspects.”