What provoked 88-year-old Kathryn Johnston to grab her gun and open fire in the middle of the night? Maybe it was the black-masked men toting assault guns who burst into her home, less than a month after she had been burgled.
Unfortunately, the heavily armed raiders were a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, who promptly gunned the octogenarian down. The cops thought they were busting a crack den, but only found a small amount of pot—the raid was a mistake. Poor Kathryn joined a long series of other accidental victims of U.S. paramilitary-style police raids:
• Dr. Salvatore Culosi Jr., a 37-year-old optometrist: Killed by a SWAT team member while standing unarmed outside his house. He was under investigation for gambling with friends.
• Cheryl Lynn Noel, a church-going mother: Shot and killed after grabbing her legal handgun when masked intruders—a SWAT team—stormed into her bedroom in Baltimore. The justification for the assault? Police investigators had found marijuana seeds in the family’s trash bin.
• Rev. Accelyne Williams, a 75-year-old retired minister in Boston: Died of a heart attack after a SWAT team broke into his house and chased him. As a police source subsequently told the Boston Herald, "Everything was done right, except it was the wrong apartment." Oops.
And the list goes on.
It seems doubtful that heavily armed paramilitary units are really necessary to bust local gamblers, pot smokers, or ministers. But when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail—and we’ve witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of hammers.
The militarization of domestic law enforcement began with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)—that bastion of honest police work—and has gradually spread throughout the country. Now 70 percent of U.S. municipalities have SWAT units, and in cities with over 50,000 people, the number rises to 90 percent. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a dramatic escalation in the number of SWAT team deployments—over 50,000 last year, according to Professor Peter Kraska at Eastern Kentucky University. That’s 137 raids per day.
SWAT teams—originally called "Special Weapons Attack Teams"—are designed to deal with special, highly dangerous threats such as hostage takings. These paramilitary raids are usually done in conjunction with a no-knock warrant, which gives the police the right to forcibly enter a private home without announcing themselves. Although these teams and tactics might be justified in very dangerous situations, the last time I checked the U.S. doesn’t have 137 daily hostage takings. Instead, as the numbers suggest, SWAT teams are used for routine police work, especially drug arrests.
Of course, breaking into homes with overwhelming force is tremendously exciting. Kraska says that "these elite units are highly culturally appealing to certain sections of the police community. They like it, they enjoy it […] The chance to strap on a vest, grab a semi-automatic weapon and go out on a mission is […] an exciting reason to join." Emphasizing this glamorous appeal, the LAPD’s recruiting video presents a day in the life of a cop: Catching robbers, rescuing hostages, and taking on gun-toting kidnappers with air support and a SWAT team. Do we really want cops playing out action-hero fantasies?
As University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds points out, bringing battlefield tactics to the bedroom blurs the line between "soldiers" and "police." Soldiers are trained for "killing people and breaking things," which is incompatible with the police’s (theoretical) commitment to maintaining law and order with as little violence as necessary. When the police are breaking down doors as if Boston were Baghdad, it gets hard to distinguish the armed forces from the public servants.
On a more practical level, turning arrests into gung-ho combat raids increases the risk for everyone involved. There are no federal training requirements for SWAT teams—despite the Fed’s role in distributing used army equipment—and therefore training is erratic. More importantly, even disciplined cops can make a mistake when placed in a high-intensity, low-light environment that demands split-second decisions. Arming them with assault rifles and delusions of military grandeur only increases the chance of creating a violent, deadly situation.
Using SWAT teams for routine drug arrests is peculiarly dangerous because these warrants are often based on a single informant, and snitches are notoriously unreliable. Motivated by cash rewards, reduced sentences, or even the chance to eliminate a competing dealer, informants regularly give inaccurate or incomplete leads. Rev. Accelyne Williams’ case shows how using paramilitary units can turn an error into a tragedy: The deadly Boston raid was based on a single snitch’s statement, and three of the cops involved had previously been sued for making up information to get a warrant.
But the use of heavily armed units hasn’t been limited to drug arrests, which are at least conceivably dangerous for officers. What are the chances that a couple of DJs will put up a fight? That didn’t stop the Fulton Country police department from deploying a SWAT team with guns drawn in a RIAA-sponsored copyright violation bust. Or take the South Carolina high school drug sweep where SWAT officers forced kids to lie prone at gunpoint as dogs searched their lockers (no drugs were found).
These scenarios, and many others like them, are not inherently dangerous and involve suspects with no history of violence. Using a SWAT team only risks causing a tragic accident. Is it a surprise that when cops are given inspirational action-flick videos, a bit of tactical training, assault rifles, and placed in front of alleged criminals, lots of innocent nails get whacked?
Piotr Brzezinski ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.