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Cops at War: The Drug War and the Militarization of Mayberry

By Joel Miller
December 30, 2002

Waking up to the concussive sound of explosions, the rumble of heavy machinery, and the blaring crackle of a public-address system is hardly how most people enjoy greeting the day. Much worse when those things are accompanied by nearly four-dozen heavily armed police officers with a tank-like armored vehicle, seizing control of a city block.

This isn't a scene out of Judge Dredd or some dystopian cop movie set in the near-distant future. As far as news cycles go, it's actually old news, happening, as it did, in the wee hours of Oct. 17, 2002, in Whiteaker, Ore., when police staged what residents described as a military-style invasion of their neighborhood.

While laying siege to the block, authorities were, according to the Dec. 5 Eugene Register-Guard, targeting three houses in particular with hopes of nabbing a sizeable cache of cannabis. Once on the block, police stormed through the properties and secured the area, blocking traffic and guarding alleyways. An ambulance waiting in the wings tells volumes about the danger involved for police and suspects alike.

As has become common practice in such situations, police did not knock to announce their presence at the targeted houses. They burst through the doors in a massive display of force, setting off flash-bang grenades, to quickly gain control of the residents and the grounds.

"Police pulled four people–including a nude woman and another woman wearing only underpants and a T-shirt–from their beds and kept them in handcuffs in a room of one of the houses for several hours," reported Rebecca Nolan for the Register-Guard. "One woman reported that an officer covered her head with a black fabric bag and removed it only when she agreed to cooperate."

"They came in here and scared everyone to death," said Marcella Monroe, who co-owns the three houses with her husband Tam Davage. She was the woman who got the black-bag treatment. "They trashed our houses and accused us of a crime that they have no evidence for."

There was some evidence. Court documents say that more than 500 pot plants were found at a friend's Portland home in an August raid. But the Whiteaker raid turned up almost nothing. One tenant was found with less than an ounce of marijuana–only a misdemeanor and hardly the sum the force was anticipating. The team did find evidence of cannabis cultivation, but nothing that cannot be explained away by other factors, including Monroe's landscaping business, along with the equipment and materials from renovation work being done on two of the houses. The contractor doing the renovation, in fact, said she saw no evidence of drug growing or distribution.

Regardless of the guilt, what about the raid tactics?

"We rely on the element of surprise and speed," said Capt. Steve Swenson, headman of special operations for Eugene police. "The third element is an overwhelming display of force when you come through the door." Swenson admitted that the tactic "sounds bad, but it prevents problems. We don't know who we're dealing with when we go through the door."

The overwhelming display of brute force is routine in SWAT raids. "Particularly in narcotics warrant service, to make their entry as dynamic and overwhelming as possible, SWAT teams often use the swarm or saturation method," explains Capt. Robert L. Snow in his book, SWAT Teams: Explosive Face-offs With America's Deadliest Criminals. "This technique involves the immediate flooding of the inside of a location with police officers. Doing this gives the officers immediate control of the inside of the location, discourages thoughts of resistance, and prevents the destruction of any evidence. The idea behind the technique is to immediately dominate the site with officers and firepower."

But Snow points to a problem: "This tactic, however, has a certain inherent danger level should any shooting break out, since officers could very easily be caught in the cross fire." Interestingly, Snow doesn't seem to share the same concern for the suspects–even plainly innocent ones. He only mentions police being accidentally shot. The reader is left with the presumption that if the residents are "caught in the cross fire," then that's just tough turkey–they're only criminals.

But, of course, they're not only criminals. Primarily, our legal system regards them as suspects, and police are expected to protect the civil rights of suspects just as much as any other citizen. They are, after all, innocent until proven guilty. Sometimes, sadly, raid victims never get a chance to prove their innocence.

When the sheriff's office of Preble County, Ohio, got word from an informant that residents at a rural farmhouse were dealing marijuana, it conducted a three-day investigation, and then sent its emergency services unit on a late-evening, no-knock raid. Because the farmhouse had possibly more than a dozen men on site, a heavily armed team of 15 officers was sent.

The result, besides what the Dayton Daily News referred to as "a small amount of marijuana, pipes and a bong, papers used in rolling the drug, and weapons," was a dead suspect, Clayton J.  Helriggle, who police shot as he came down the stairs with what they claim was a 9mm handgun.

Helriggle's own mother admits that it was regular practice for her son and men at the house to smoke pot in the evening after work. But was such a raid necessary? Police said they found materials used to distribute marijuana, true, but sandwich bags are also used to wrap up a ham-and-cheese. The other items found indicate nothing more than use of the drug, which was found only in "a small amount"–hardly worth sending in the big guns.

As for possessions of weapons, it was a farmhouse; what farmhouse doesn't have varmint rifles and the like? The very incident which led to Helriggle's death is likely the police's fault more than anything. By raiding a house at twilight, can a suspect be expected to behave any differently than picking up a personal defense weapon and coming down the stairs to face an invader of his home? Responsible homeowners and renters should be expected to defend their residencies from invaders.

What we are seeing here is the militarization of police, with law enforcement officers becoming shock troops in the war on drugs and crime.

The problem goes back to the metaphor itself. War and policing are vastly different. In common parlance the military's job is to kill people and break things. David B. Kopel of the Independence Institute quotes Reagan administration Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb's observation: Soldiers are supposed to "vaporize, not 'Mirandize.'" On the other hand, with scrupulous attention to the suspect's civil rights, police are trained to solve problems with a multitude of solutions, lethal violence being the last rung on the escalating ladder of force.

Considering the vastly different roles of police and military, it is odd to find the U.S. military helping to train local police and SWAT teams. But given this ever-closing gap, should we be surprised when our police act like soldiers?

Some police chiefs recognize the contradiction in police and military roles and the danger of mixing them. As Diana Cecilia Weber points out in a Cato Institute briefing paper, "Warrior Cops," because of a partnership between the Department of Justice and Department of Defense, local police forces are able to get their hands on pretty stunning equipment. "I was offered tanks, bazookas, anything I wanted," said Nick Pastore, former police chief of New Haven, Conn. (The Whiteaker armored vehicle in which police arrived was actually a loaner from the National Guard.) Pastore said he "turned it all down because it feeds a mind-set that you're not a police officer serving a community, you're a soldier at war."

Pastore is in the minority, however. Around the nation police are grabbing military handouts like kids with toys at Christmas. Says Weber, "Between 1995 and 1997 the Department of Defense gave police departments 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers. The Los Angeles Police Department has acquired 600 Army surplus M-16s." While one might expect that from L.A., the militarism trend is national. "Even small-town police departments are getting into the act. The seven-officer department in Jasper, Florida, is now equipped with fully automatic M-16s."

This "militarization of Mayberry," as some have called it, is a far cry from how the founders envisioned law enforcement.

When the founders wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they were living close to a time when the British Crown would send soldiers to search properties without warrants. At the same time, officers of the Crown could get Writs of Assistance that were technically search warrants but were really just blanket licenses to search anyone without cause. Today we're seeing a melding of the two. With the militarization of the police and the overriding pressure to combat drugs, the constitutional protections framed by the founders in response to the crimes of their day are being violently repealed.

It's hard for people to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects," as the Fourth Amendment ensures, when black-fatigued men set off flash-bang grenades, kick down doors, and storm in armed with machine pistols and unpleasant demeanors.

What if the search is "reasonable"–supported by probable cause, etc.? In principle, that's the type of search the founders would approve. But in both raids mentioned previously, the investigations by police indicated they'd find serious drug cultivation and distribution operations. Considering what they actually found, it may not have been improbable, but it certainly wasn't probable cause. In the Preble raid, the investigation only lasted three days.

As the militarization of police presses on, the Fourth Amendment's protections–designed to shield citizens from government abuse–mean less and less. As a result, so do your freedom and safety, even in your own home.

Joel Miller is managing editor of WND Books, a partnership between and Thomas Nelson Publishers.