SWAT America


AP Photo/The Record Searchlight,Andreas Fuhrmann

In response to yesterday’s post on the drug war, a commenter left the following story:

10 years ago while my family was having dinner at my parents house here in Florida.

The local federal drug task force dressed in black and wearing masks kicked in the doors an traumatized my entire family. Including chasing my 9 yo daughter through the house with a 9 mm as she ran for her life and having my entire family including elderly parents lie on the ground with guns held inches from our heads.

Why ? Because my pothead 18 yo nephew, who had been staying at my mothers house, car was spotted at a drug house on two occasions. Which a local judge thought was enough probable cause to issue a no knock search warrant. No evidence of drugs were found although they claimed that the sandwich bags they took from the kitchen drawer on their way out of the house could have been used for selling drugs.

After contacting several lawyers we found this was common and there was nothing we could legaly do because it was a legal search.

For the record we are white professionals and the house was worth almost a million dollars and had been paid for for years. Which one lawyer suggested may have been the real reason for the raid.

That was the day the police quit being the good guys.

In covering police militarization for about the last 10 years, I hear these stories fairly often. They are of course anecdotes, left in comments threads, emailed to me or told to me in person. So I hear one side. I’m sure some are exaggerated. Possibly some are made up entirely. But I doubt all or even most of them are. What I find striking is that (a) they’re usually told to me by white, upper middle class people, and (b) they’re usually tales of raids that were never covered by any media outlet.

What this suggests to me is that for every mistaken or botched raid you hear or read about in the news, there’s probably a subset of raids that are never reported. (It’s worth noting that this raid probably wouldn’t even be considered botched — the guy the police were looking for did live at the address.) Inevitably, the person relaying the story will say they were too frightened or traumatized to go the media or hire an attorney. That, or they feared repercussions if they did.

But again, these are almost always white people, of middle class status or wealthier. That isn’t the demographic usually targeted by these raids. The more targeted demographic is of course lower income people, disproportionately black or Latino. Those would also be groups of people even less likely to report one of these incidents, and less likely to have access to an attorney, or to a platform to talk about what happened to them.

There are about 50,000 of these raids per year. In Maryland, the only state that keeps track of how these teams are used, about half those raids are for what the FBI calls “misdemeanors and non-serious felonies.” Which is to say, low-level drug crimes. That 50,000 figure is from 2005, and it’s a conservative estimate from criminologist Peter Kraska. And it only includes SWAT teams, not the drug task forces, narcotics units and other police teams that serve warrants by kicking down doors.

A spokesperson for the police department in St. Louis County, Mo.. recently told a local TV station that every felony search warrant is now served with the SWAT team, regardless of the crime. Last month, Texas Dep. Adam Sowders was killed during a pre-dawn, door-busting raid over some pot plants. He’s far from the first. In many of these cases, the suspects have claimed—plausibly—that they had no idea the men breaking into their homes were police.

The country is shifting in its opinion on the prohibition of pot. What hasn’t yet changed is the violent, confrontational, militarized way we still enforce the laws that keep pot illegal.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko | January 29