I just finished reading Overkill, Radley Balko’s white paper from 2006 on the rise in SWAT-style policing. From the 1960s until now, paramilitary police units have gone from being rarely used specialty forces, only called when lives were in immediate danger, to being a routine way of serving drug warrants and a number of other situations with a non-violent offender. Balko has been studying this trend for years at the CATO Institute and is now a senior editor at Reason Magazine. I’ve been following his work for a long time, and I think he’s getting at the heart of a very problematic trend in this country, one that started with the drug war and is being continued with the war or terror. We’ve allowed greater militarization within our civil society because we’re at “war”.
Balko chronicles numerous instances of innocent people having their homes invaded and being physically harmed solely because police either got the address wrong or were lied to by an informant. The recent case of Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta, the innocent 88-year-old woman who was shot by invading police officers (one of whom was later charged with murder), was one of the first incidents to actually gather some widespread attention. Even while SWAT teams are glorified on TV, some high-level reflection on their use is starting to occur.
At the CATO Institute website, an interactive map is set up to review hundres of botched raids nationwide. Two from this area were particularly maddening:
In March 1992, police in Everett, Washington storm the home of Robin Pratt on a no-knock warrant. They are looking for her husband, who would later be released when the allegations in the warrant turned out to be false.
Though police had a key to the apartment, they instead choose to throw a 50-pound battering ram through the apartment’s sliding-glass door. Glass shards land inches away from the couple’s six-year-old daughter and five-year-old niece. One officer encounters Robin Pratt on the way to her bedroom. Hearing other SWAT team members yell “Get down!” Pratt falls to her knees. She then raises her head briefly to say, “Please don’t hurt my children.” At that point, Deputy Anthony Aston fires his weapon, putting a bullet in her neck, killing her.
Officers next entered the bedroom, where Dep. Aston then put the tip of his MP-5 assault submachine gun against Larry Pratt’s head. When Pratt asked if he could move, another officer said that if he did, he’d have his head blown off.
Though a subsequent investigation by a civilian inquest jury found the shooting “unjustified,” the officer who shot and killed Pratt was never charged.
And amazingly, one of them happened while they were filming an episode of Cops:
In May 1992, police in King County, Washington conduct a no-knock raid with cameras from the television show Cops in tow.
Police break open the door of the Glover family and their four children. They put a gun to Floyd Glover’s head and order him to the floor. Theresa Glover is handcuffed at gunpoint. Despite being half-dressed, and with the cameras still rolling, police at first refuse to let her cover up. Other officers then storm the children’s bedroom, screaming, “Everyone on the floor!”
Police had targeted the wrong home.
Cops would later decide not to air the raid. The same police department had conducted two other “wrong door” raids in the previous year.
I don’t know the full history of how SWAT teams have been used in the Seattle area (I moved here in 1997), but I do know that compared to the rest of the country, we’ve had way fewer incidences than other major cities since the early 90s. Someone will have to fill me in on whether there was ever a public debate over their use or whether police officials just realized their ineffectiveness and stopped the practice. (Or do they still continue to do them in some places with more oversight?)
This topic also leads to a related discussion that plays a role in paramilitary drug war policing – on confidential informants. When people talk about the Stop Snitching movement, they often confuse the real issue, even the clueless rappers who go on TV to defend it. In many cases like the one of Kathryn Johnston, the raid is predicated upon the word of a confidential informant, a person the police relies on to give them information on where drugs are being sold. In Johnston’s case in Atlanta, it was discovered that the police bypassed using an actual informant and then tried to get a former informant to lie for them to say they did. But in many cases, individuals will become confidential informants in order to make money or to take down a rival. They can very easily entrap others and send them to prison. In this context, the Stop Snitching movement isn’t the clear cut moral issue some believe it to be. But the distinction is often lost in the outrage when eyewitnesses to real crimes stay silent.
It’s not a surprise that much of this paramilitary policing goes on in poor, minority neighborhoods around the country. Some of it has been supported by those without racial animosity, but out of a belief that by attacking the drug trade in these communities we’d be helping them. As should be clear to anyone, knocking down people’s doors at 3AM doesn’t help anyone in any neighborhood. The list of tragedies chronicled by Balko in his white paper is terrifying. When you send police to serve basic drug warrants, especially at night, you invite violent confrontations rather than what the original intent of these team were, to diffuse them.