John Whitehead's Commentary
SWAT Team Mania: The War Against the American Citizen
“He [a federal agent] had his knee on my back and I had no idea why they were there.”—Anthony Wright, victim of a Dept. of Education SWAT team raid
The militarization of American police—no doubt a blowback effect of the military empire—has become an unfortunate part of American life. In fact, it says something about our reliance on the military that federal agencies having nothing whatsoever to do with national defense now see the need for their own paramilitary units. Among those federal agencies laying claim to their own law enforcement divisions are the State Department, Department of Education, Department of Energy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service, to name just a few. These agencies have secured the services of fully armed agents—often in SWAT team attire—through a typical bureaucratic sleight-of-hand provision allowing for the creation of Offices of Inspectors General (OIG). Each OIG office is supposedly charged with not only auditing their particular agency’s actions but also uncovering possible misconduct, waste, fraud, theft, or certain types of criminal activity by individuals or groups related to the agency’s operation. At present, there are 73 such OIG offices in the federal government that, at times, perpetuate a police state aura about them.
For example, it was heavily armed agents from one such OIG office, working under the auspices of the Department of Education, who forced their way into the home of a California man, handcuffed him, and placed his three children (ages 3, 7, and 11) in a squad car while they conducted a search of his home. This federal SWAT team raid, which is essentially what it was, on the home of Anthony Wright on Tuesday, June 7, 2011, was allegedly intended to ferret out information on Wright’s estranged wife, Michelle, who no longer lives with him and who was suspected of financial aid fraud (early news reports characterized the purpose of the raid as being over Michelle’s delinquent student loans). According to Wright, he was awakened at 6 am by the sound of agents battering down his door and, upon descending the stairs, was immediately subdued by police. One neighbor actually witnessed the team of armed agents surround the house and, after forcing entry, they “dragged [Wright] out in his boxer shorts, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him.”
This is not the first time a SWAT team has been employed in non-violent scenarios. Nationwide, SWAT teams have been employed to address an astonishingly trivial array of criminal activity or mere community nuisances: angry dogs, domestic disputes, improper paperwork filed by an orchid farmer, and misdemeanor marijuana possession, to give a brief sampling. In some instances, SWAT teams are even employed, in full armament, to perform routine patrols.
How did we allow ourselves to travel so far down the road to a police state? While we are now grappling with a power-hungry police state at the federal level, the militarization of domestic American law enforcement is largely the result of the militarization of local police forces, which are increasingly militaristic in their uniforms, weaponry, language, training, and tactics and have come to rely on SWAT teams in matters that once could have been satisfactorily performed by traditional civilian officers. Even so, this transformation of law enforcement at the local level could not have been possible without substantial assistance from on high.
Frequently justified as vital tools necessary to combat terrorism and deal with rare but extremely dangerous criminal situations, such as those involving hostages, SWAT teams—which first appeared on the scene in California in the 1960s—have now become intrinsic parts of local law enforcement operations, thanks in large part to substantial federal assistance. For example, in 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Defense agreed to a memorandum of understanding that enabled the transfer of federal military technology to local police forces. Following the passage of the Defense Authorization Security Act of 1997, which was intended to accelerate the transfer of military equipment to domestic law enforcement departments, local police acquired military weaponry—gratuitously or at sharp discounts—at astonishing rates. Between 1997 and 1999, the agency created by the Defense Authorization Security Act conveyed 3.4 million orders of military equipment to over 11,000 local police agencies in all 50 states. Not only did this vast abundance of military weaponry contribute to a more militarized police force, but it also helped spur the creation of SWAT teams in jurisdictions across the country.
In one of the few quantitative studies on the subject, criminologist Peter Kraska found in 1997 that close to 90 percent of cities with populations exceeding 50,000 and at least 100 sworn officers had at least one paramilitary unit. In a separate study, Kraska determined that, as of 1996, 65 percent of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had a paramilitary unit, with an additional 8 percent intending to establish one.
While the frequency of SWAT operations has increased dramatically in recent years, jumping from 1,000 to 40,000 raids per year by 2001, it appears to have less to do with increases in violent crime and more to do with law enforcement bureaucracy and a police state mentality. Indeed, according to Kraska’s estimates, 75-80 percent of SWAT callouts are now for mere warrant service. In some jurisdictions, SWAT teams are responsible for servicing 100 percent of all drug warrants issued. A Maryland study, conducted in the wake of a botched raid in 2008 that resulted in the mistaken detainment of Berwyn Heights mayor Cheye Calvo and the shooting deaths of his two dogs, corroborates Kraska’s findings. According to the study, SWAT teams are deployed 4.5 times per day in Maryland with 94 percent of those deployments being for something as minor as serving search or arrest warrants. In the county in which the Calvo raid occurred, more than 50 percent of SWAT operations carried out were for misdemeanors or non-serious felonies.
This overuse of paramilitary forces and increased reliance on military weaponry has inevitably resulted in a pervasive culture of militarism in domestic law enforcement. Police mimicry of the military is enhanced by the war-heavy imagery and metaphors associated with law enforcement activity: the war on drugs, the war on crime, etc. Moreover, it is estimated that 46 percent of paramilitary units were trained by “active-duty military experts in special operations.” In turn, the military mindset adopted by many SWAT members encourages a tendency to employ lethal force. After all, soldiers are authorized to terminate enemy combatants. As Lawrence Korb, a former official in the Reagan Administration, put it, soldiers are “trained to vaporize, not Mirandize.”
Ironically, despite the fact that SWAT team members are subject to greater legal restraints than their counterparts in the military, they are often less well-trained in the use of force than are the special ops soldiers on which they model themselves. Indeed, SWAT teams frequently fail to conform to the basic precautions required in military raids. For instance, after reading about a drug raid in Missouri, an army officer currently serving in Afghanistan commented:
My first thought on reading this story is this: Most American police SWAT teams probably have fewer restrictions on conducting forced entry raids than do US forces in Afghanistan. For our troops over here to conduct any kind of forced entry, day or night, they have to meet one of two conditions: have a bad guy (or guys) inside actively shooting at them; or obtain permission from a 2-star general, who must be convinced by available intelligence (evidence) that the person or persons they’re after is present at the location, and that it’s too dangerous to try less coercive methods.
Remember, SWAT teams originated as specialized units dedicated to defusing extremely sensitive, dangerous situations. As the role of paramilitary forces has expanded, however, to include involvement in nondescript police work targeting nonviolent suspects, the mere presence of SWAT units has actually injected a level of danger and violence into police-citizen interactions that was not present as long as these interactions were handled by traditional civilian officers. In one drug raid, for instance, an unarmed pregnant woman was shot as she attempted to flee the police by climbing out a window. In another case, the girlfriend of a drug suspect and her young child crouched on the floor in obedience to police instructions during the execution of a search warrant. One officer proceeded to shoot the family dogs. His fellow officer, in another room, mistook the shots for hostile gunfire and fired blindly into the room where the defendant crouched, killing her and wounding her child.
What we are witnessing is an inversion of the police-civilian relationship. Rather than compelling police officers to remain within constitutional bounds as servants of the people, ordinary Americans are being placed at the mercy of law enforcement. This is what happens when paramilitary forces are used to conduct ordinary policing operations, such as executing warrants on nonviolent defendants. Yet studies indicate that paramilitary raids frequently result in misdemeanor convictions. An investigation by Denver’s Rocky Mountain News revealed that of the 146 no-knock raids conducted in Denver in 2000, only 49 resulted in charges. And only two resulted in prison sentences for suspects targeted in the raids.
General incompetence, collateral damage (fatalities, property damage, etc.) and botched raids tend to go hand in hand with an overuse of paramilitary forces. In some cases, officers misread the address on the warrant. In others, they simply barge into the wrong house or even the wrong building. In another subset of cases (such as the Department of Education raid on Anthony Wright’s home), police conduct a search of a building where the suspect no longer resides. SWAT teams have even on occasion conducted multiple, sequential raids on wrong addresses or executed search warrants despite the fact that the suspect is already in police custody. Police have also raided homes on the basis of mistaking the presence or scent of legal substances for drugs. Incredibly, these substances have included tomatoes, sunflowers, fish, elderberry bushes, kenaf plants, hibiscus, and ragweed.
All too often, botched SWAT team raids have resulted in one tragedy after another for the residents with little consequences for law enforcement. Judges tend to afford extreme levels of deference to police officers who have mistakenly killed innocent civilians but do not afford similar leniency to civilians who have injured police officers in acts of self-defense. Even homeowners who mistake officers for robbers can be sentenced for assault or murder if they take defensive actions resulting in harm to police.
And as journalist Radley Balko shows in his in-depth study of police militarization, the shock-and-awe tactics utilized by many SWAT teams only increases the likelihood that someone will get hurt. Drug warrants, for instance, are typically served by paramilitary units late at night or shortly before dawn. Unfortunately, to the unsuspecting homeowner—especially in cases involving mistaken identities or wrong addresses—a raid can appear to be nothing less than a violent home invasion, with armed intruders crashing through their door. The natural reaction would be to engage in self-defense. Yet such a defensive reaction on the part of a homeowner, particularly a gun owner, will spur officers to employ lethal force.
That’s exactly what happened to Jose Guerena, the young ex-Marine who was killed after a SWAT team kicked open the door of his Arizona home during a drug raid and opened fire. According to news reports, Guerena, 26 years old and the father of two young children, grabbed a gun in response to the forced invasion but never fired. In fact, the safety was still on his gun when he was killed. Police officers were not as restrained. The young Iraqi war veteran was allegedly fired upon 71 times. Guerena had no prior criminal record, and the police found nothing illegal in his home.
The problems inherent in these situations are further compounded by the fact that SWAT teams are granted “no-knock” warrants at high rates such that the warrants themselves are rendered practically meaningless. This sorry state of affairs is made even worse by recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have essentially done away with the need for a “no-knock” warrant altogether, giving the police authority to disregard the protections afforded American citizens by the Fourth Amendment.
In the process, Americans are rendered altogether helpless and terror-stricken as a result of these confrontations with the police. Indeed, “terrorizing” is a mild term to describe the effect on those who survive such vigilante tactics. “It was terrible. It was the most frightening experience of my life. I thought it was a terrorist attack,” said 84-year-old Leona Goldberg, a victim of such a raid. Yet this type of “terrorizing” activity is characteristic of the culture that we have created. As author Eugene V. Walker, a former Boston University professor, wrote some years ago, “A society in which people are already isolated and atomized, divided by suspicious and destructive rivalry, would support a system of terror better than a society without much chronic antagonism.”