Aggressive police raids for thee, but not for me

It’s amazing how quickly a politician can change his position when he becomes a victim of aggressive government policies he previously supported.

Witness Mark Shurtleff. During Shurtleff’s 12 years as Utah attorney general, he set up a unit called the Statewide Enforcement of Crimes by Undocumented Residents Strike Force — or the SECURE Strike Force for short. The unit sent armed police to raid businesses that were suspected of employing undocumented workers, suspected fake ID makers and suspected human traffickers. (To his credit, Shurtleff did actually support fairer immigration policies while in office.)

Some of the unit’s targets have been legitimately dangerous people. Others, like suspected copyright violators, probably weren’t. A video of one of these raids that I posted a couple of years ago (no longer available online) showed armed SECURE Strike Force cops breaking down the door to a home to serve a warrant for pirated CDs. (They did at least knock first.)

In fact, Shurtleff sent his strike force on so many raids of suspected copyright violators that in 2012, the Recording Industry Association of America gave him an award.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) presented the honorary gold record to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and each member of the SECURE Strike Force for their unprecedented numbers of arrests and seizing of pirated music.

“Usually you have to sell a lot of albums to get a Gold record, but this is a great recognition for recovering thousands of forged CDs,” says Shurtleff. “These pirated discs represent lost jobs for businesses and lost taxes for state coffers.” . . .

“Those are real results,” said RIAA Anti-Piracy Executive Vice-President Brad Buckles. “On behalf of the major U.S. music labels, we are pleased to present Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and members of the SECURE Strike Force with honorary Gold Records as a token of our appreciation for all the hard work they’ve done to meaningfully address piracy on the streets of Utah.”

In an effort to boost the state economy, the SECURE Strike Force was launched in June 2009 to stop major crimes of music piracy, and the illegal aliens involved. Suspects have been undocumented residents charged with forgery, racketeering and piracy, but agents have also seized drugs, fake government documentation, and several thousand pirated movies.

As William Grigg points out, Shurtleff was also attorney general during the massive police raid on a rave party in Spanish Fork Canyon, Utah. Here’s a description of that raid from my book:

In August 2005, more than 90 police officers from several state and local SWAT teams raided 1,500 people at a peaceful, outdoor dance party in Spanish Fork Canyon, Utah. The police were armed with assault weapons, full SWAT attire, police dogs, tear gas, and dressed in camouflage. Many attendees say that police beat, abused, and swore them and fellow partygoers. Police denied the allegations, though amateur video/audio clearly showed the police barking out orders laced with profanity. In truth, the party was pretty well run. Private security stationed outside the event searched partygoers as they entered, and took any illegal drugs they found. The raiding SWAT cops later arrested the private security guards for the drugs they had confiscated, and charged them with possession.

Shurtleff found nothing untoward about that raid and declined requests to open an investigation into the raid. Shurtleff was also in office during a period that saw a dramatic increase in the use of SWAT teams and the militarization of domestic police in Utah. In 2000, he opposed an important ballot initiative to rein in the abuse of civil asset forfeiture, the absurd legal doctrine that lets police seize and keep cash, cars, houses and other property without ever convicting the owner of a crime. The practice has been a major funder of police militarization.

I bring all of this up because Shurtleff and his successor John Swallow are currently under investigation for allegedly violating campaign finance law. That investigation recently led to a raid on Shurtleff’s home. He wasn’t in the house at the time, but his son and daughter were. And now that it has affected members of his family, Shurtleff has taken an active interest in the growth of aggressive police tactics.

Former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff on Tuesday accused law enforcement agents of using “Dirty Harry” tactics when they searched his house, breaking through his door and pointing automatic weapons at his children who were home at the time.

Agents with the Utah Department of Public Safety and the FBI executed search warrants Monday evening on the Sandy homes of Shurtleff and his handpicked successor, John Swallow, as part of a sweeping, months-long criminal investigation that appears to be nearing its end.

“It was way overboard, a horrific abuse, an extremely improper abuse of force, given the nature of the alleged charge, the fact there were minors in the home — there was no reason for it,” Shurtleff, who is in Washington, D.C., told The Salt Lake Tribune …

Shurtleff lashed out Tuesday at the conduct of investigators who searched his home Monday evening. He said the raid traumatized his teenage daughter, who was in the bathroom when officers in body armor pounded on the door and ordered her out, a laser sight pointed at her chest.

“To go in and point a gun at 5-foot-3, 117-pound minor who was coming out of the bathroom, for crying out loud, is absolutely wrong,” Shurtleff said. “How do you get that out of the mind of a 17-year-old who is innocent of everything. I don’t care what you think of me or what you’re looking at me about.”

This isn’t the fist time Shurtleff’ has changed his mind about a policy issue when that issue began to affect him personally. In a 2011 interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Shurtleff said that he was “tempted” to use medical marijuana to treat his nausea while undergoing cancer treatment and that the whole experience had made him aware of the drug’s benefits — although even that wasn’t enough to inspire him to push for concrete legislation.

Unfortunately, I still don’t think Shurtleff quite gets it. Even in criticizing the raid on his home, he implied that such tactics are still fine when used on drug offenders.

Shurtleff said he taught search and seizure and the proper use of force and has been on raids of drug houses. In this instance, he said, there was no need for a search warrant, no need for weapons, and agents knew he was out of town when they came.

Drug crimes are consensual crimes. Raids on “drug houses” can also be unnecessarily violent and can needlessly end in tragedy. Just ask the families of Matthew David Stewart and Jared Francom.

It’s swell that Shurtleff now sees the danger of excessively aggressive police raids, at least when they’re waged on people like him. It’s swell that he could see the potential medicinal benefits of marijuana for sick people, at least once he got sick. What would be nice is if politicians like Shurtleff had the capacity to empathize with the victims of these policies without needing to first become victims themselves.

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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