Last fall, I published an investigation into the way the Little Rock Police Department has been serving its drug warrants. The piece explored three general allegations: First, the LRPD has been serving drugs warrants with extraordinarily powerful explosives that other SWAT veterans told me are wholly inappropriate.
Second, there’s irrefutable video evidence that one LRPD informant and his police handlers were misleading about their investigation into a man named Roderick Talley. There’s also persuasive evidence that they did the same in other cases as well.
Finally, when I reviewed nearly 100 drug warrants from the past several years, I noticed that nearly all of them were for no-knock raids. To get a no-knock warrant, the police must provide specific evidence that the suspect is dangerous, or a threat to destroy evidence if police were to observe the knock-and-announce rule. The LRPD officers were offering no such evidence. Instead, they were using boilerplate language about how all drug suspects are dangerous and/or a threat to destroy evidence. The Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that such boilerplate language is not sufficient. Therefore, every one of these raids was illegal. Worse yet, Little Rock judges were signing off on these warrants, in spite of the law.
I’ll have a post soon laying out what has happened in Little Rock since we published that report. But over the weekend, I received a document that adds a bit more to the original story. It’s a page from a 2014 LRPD report about a drug raid. The raid in question was a no-knock raid that was served by the city’s SWAT team. In this particular case, the report says the suspect was known to have possessed firearms in the past, though it isn’t clear whether that information was conveyed in the search warrant. It also includes the broad statement that “many times guns and violence are associated with narcotics."
But one line seems particularly significant: “It is a mandate from the Office of the Chief of Police that the SWAT team execute all search warrants.”
All search warrants. I emailed Little Rock city attorney Tom Carpenter on Monday about this alleged mandate, and asked if this is still LRPD policy, and have not received an answer to that question. It’s at least possible that the sergeant who wrote the report made a mistake. Perhaps he misstated the policy, or wrote “search warrants” when he meant “narcotics search warrants.” But a blanket policy does seem consistent with the more general manner with which LRPD has been carrying out warrant service — increasingly aggressively, and with increasing force. If it is still LRPD policy, that’s pretty significant. The mandate would also seem to conflict with the LRPD’s own written policy on SWAT. According to the department’s general orders, the SWAT team is to assist with “hazardous warrants” and to “resolve high-risk situations.” If every search warrant is considered “hazardous,” there would presumably be no reason to distinguish warrants that are hazardous from those that aren’t.
But there’s a reason, at least in policy manuals, the LRPD and other police agencies make that distinction. SWAT teams were initially envisioned and trained to respond to volatile emergencies such as active shooters, bank robberies or terrorist incidents. During the 1980s and 1990s, they were increasingly used to serve drug warrants, to the point where surveys have shown that 70 percent to 80 percent of SWAT deployments today are to serve search warrants for drugs — and the majority of those for marijuana.
I documented this shift in my first book. It was a major change in how our governments use this sort of force. Where SWAT teams were once used to defuse an already violent situation, today they’re primarily used in a way that creates violence and confrontation. Where they were once used to stop someone in the process of committing a violent crime, today they’re primarily used to investigate people who are still only suspected of nonviolent crimes.
The argument for using SWAT to serve drug warrants is, again, that illicit drugs are often associated with violence. There are plenty of counterarguments to that, but at least they’re making the claim that this sort of force is proportional to the threat faced by law enforcement.
But over the past decade or so, we have seen even more SWAT mission creep. We have increasingly seen SWAT teams used to enforce other laws against nonviolent activity. We have even seen SWAT teams sent for code enforcement and regulatory inspections. If Little Rock is actually serving all search warrants with a SWAT team, it also wouldn’t be the first city to adopt that policy. In 2013, a local TV station reported that this was also the policy in St. Louis County, Mo. (The TV station looked into the policy after neighbors complained because the police sent a SWAT team to serve a warrant for a white-collar crime.) The department later claimed that a spokesperson misstated the policy, but two years later, a woman sued the police after a SWAT team sent by the county raided her home and killed her dog, all to check to make sure she was complying with a local law requiring her to have gas and electric service.
We already know that the LRPD has been serving nearly all of its drug warrants with illegal no-knock raids, serving some of them with incredibly dangerous explosives, and, at least in some cases, blowing down doors based on false statements from informants and police officers. If the 2014 memo is accurate, and if the mandate is still in place, we also now know that the LRPD has been sending SWAT every time they serve a search warrant, regardless of the seriousness of the alleged crime.
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