SWAT Team Mania: The War Against the American Citizen
by John W. Whitehead
by John W. Whitehead: The
Changing Face of the Police and the Death of the Fourth Amendment
[a federal agent] had his knee on my back and I had no idea why
they were there."
~ Anthony Wright, victim of a Dept. of Education SWAT team raid
of American police – no doubt a blowback effect of the military
empire – has become an unfortunate part of American life. In fact,
it says something about our reliance on the military that federal
agencies having nothing whatsoever to do with national defense now
see the need for their own paramilitary units. Among those federal
agencies laying claim to their own law enforcement divisions are
the State Department, Department of Education, Department of Energy,
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service, to
name just a few. These agencies have secured the services of fully
armed agents – often in SWAT team attire – through a typical bureaucratic
sleight-of-hand provision allowing for the creation of Offices of
Inspectors General (OIG). Each OIG office is supposedly charged
with not only auditing their particular agency’s actions but also
uncovering possible misconduct, waste, fraud, theft, or certain
types of criminal activity by individuals or groups related to the
agency’s operation. At present, there are 73 such OIG offices in
the federal government that, at times, perpetuate a police state
aura about them.
it was heavily armed agents from one such OIG office, working under
the auspices of the Department of Education, who forced their way
into the home of a California man, handcuffed him, and placed his
three children (ages 3, 7, and 11) in a squad car while they conducted
a search of his home. This federal SWAT team raid, which is essentially
what it was, on the home of Anthony Wright on Tuesday, June 7, 2011,
was allegedly intended to ferret out information on Wright’s estranged
wife, Michelle, who no longer lives with him and who was suspected
of financial aid fraud (early news reports characterized the purpose
of the raid as being over Michelle’s delinquent student loans).
According to Wright, he was awakened at 6 am by the sound of agents
battering down his door and, upon descending the stairs, was immediately
subdued by police. One neighbor actually witnessed the team of armed
agents surround the house and, after forcing entry, they "dragged
[Wright] out in his boxer shorts, threw him to the ground and handcuffed
This is not
the first time a SWAT team has been employed in non-violent scenarios.
Nationwide, SWAT teams have been employed to address an astonishingly
trivial array of criminal activity or mere community nuisances:
angry dogs, domestic disputes, improper paperwork filed by an orchid
farmer, and misdemeanor marijuana possession, to give a brief sampling.
In some instances, SWAT teams are even employed, in full armament,
to perform routine patrols.
How did we
allow ourselves to travel so far down the road to a police state?
While we are now grappling with a power-hungry police state at the
federal level, the militarization of domestic American law enforcement
is largely the result of the militarization of local police
forces, which are increasingly militaristic in their uniforms, weaponry,
language, training, and tactics and have come to rely on SWAT teams
in matters that once could have been satisfactorily performed by
traditional civilian officers. Even so, this transformation of law
enforcement at the local level could not have been possible without
substantial assistance from on high.
justified as vital tools necessary to combat terrorism and deal
with rare but extremely dangerous criminal situations, such as those
involving hostages, SWAT teams – which first appeared on the scene
in California in the 1960s – have now become intrinsic parts of
local law enforcement operations, thanks in large part to substantial
federal assistance. For example, in 1994, the U.S. Department of
Justice and the Department of Defense agreed to a memorandum of
understanding that enabled the transfer of federal military
technology to local police forces. Following the passage of the
Defense Authorization Security Act of 1997, which was intended to
accelerate the transfer of military equipment to domestic law enforcement
departments, local police acquired military weaponry – gratuitously
or at sharp discounts – at astonishing rates. Between 1997 and 1999,
the agency created by the Defense Authorization Security Act conveyed
3.4 million orders of military equipment to over 11,000 local police
agencies in all 50 states. Not only did this vast abundance of military
weaponry contribute to a more militarized police force, but it also
helped spur the creation of SWAT teams in jurisdictions across the
In one of the
few quantitative studies on the subject, criminologist Peter Kraska
found in 1997 that close to 90 percent of cities with populations
exceeding 50,000 and at least 100 sworn officers had at least one
paramilitary unit. In a separate study, Kraska determined that,
as of 1996, 65 percent of towns with populations between 25,000
and 50,000 had a paramilitary unit, with an additional 8 percent
intending to establish one.
While the frequency
of SWAT operations has increased dramatically in recent years, jumping
from 1,000 to 40,000 raids per year by 2001, it appears to have
less to do with increases in violent crime and more to do with law
enforcement bureaucracy and a police state mentality. Indeed, according
to Kraska’s estimates, 75-80 percent of SWAT callouts are now for
mere warrant service. In some jurisdictions, SWAT teams are responsible
for servicing 100 percent of all drug warrants issued. A Maryland
study, conducted in the wake of a botched raid in 2008 that resulted
in the mistaken detainment of Berwyn Heights mayor Cheye Calvo and
the shooting deaths of his two dogs, corroborates Kraska’s findings.
According to the study, SWAT teams are deployed 4.5 times per day
in Maryland with 94 percent of those deployments being for something
as minor as serving search or arrest warrants. In the county in
which the Calvo raid occurred, more than 50 percent of SWAT operations
carried out were for misdemeanors or non-serious felonies.
of paramilitary forces and increased reliance on military weaponry
has inevitably resulted in a pervasive culture of militarism in
domestic law enforcement. Police mimicry of the military is enhanced
by the war-heavy imagery and metaphors associated with law enforcement
activity: the war on drugs, the war on crime, etc. Moreover, it
is estimated that 46 percent of paramilitary units were trained
by "active-duty military experts in special operations."
In turn, the military mindset adopted by many SWAT members encourages
a tendency to employ lethal force. After all, soldiers are authorized
to terminate enemy combatants. As Lawrence Korb, a former official
in the Reagan Administration, put it, soldiers are "trained
to vaporize, not Mirandize."
despite the fact that SWAT team members are subject to greater legal
restraints than their counterparts in the military, they are often
less well-trained in the use of force than are the special ops soldiers
on which they model themselves. Indeed, SWAT teams frequently fail
to conform to the basic precautions required in military raids.
For instance, after reading about a drug raid in Missouri, an army
officer currently serving in Afghanistan commented:
thought on reading this story is this: Most American police
SWAT teams probably have fewer restrictions on conducting forced
entry raids than do US forces in Afghanistan. For our troops over
here to conduct any kind of forced entry, day or night, they have
to meet one of two conditions: have a bad guy (or guys) inside
actively shooting at them; or obtain permission from a 2-star
general, who must be convinced by available intelligence (evidence)
that the person or persons they’re after is present at the location,
and that it’s too dangerous to try less coercive methods.
teams originated as specialized units dedicated to defusing extremely
sensitive, dangerous situations. As the role of paramilitary forces
has expanded, however, to include involvement in nondescript police
work targeting nonviolent suspects, the mere presence of
SWAT units has actually injected a level of danger and violence
into police-citizen interactions that was not present as long as
these interactions were handled by traditional civilian officers.
In one drug raid, for instance, an unarmed pregnant woman was shot
as she attempted to flee the police by climbing out a window. In
another case, the girlfriend of a drug suspect and her young child
crouched on the floor in obedience to police instructions during
the execution of a search warrant. One officer proceeded to shoot
the family dogs. His fellow officer, in another room, mistook the
shots for hostile gunfire and fired blindly into the room where
the defendant crouched, killing her and wounding her child.
What we are
witnessing is an inversion of the police-civilian relationship.
Rather than compelling police officers to remain within constitutional
bounds as servants of the people, ordinary Americans are being placed
at the mercy of law enforcement. This is what happens when paramilitary
forces are used to conduct ordinary policing operations, such as
executing warrants on nonviolent defendants. Yet studies indicate
that paramilitary raids frequently result in misdemeanor convictions.
An investigation by Denver’s Rocky Mountain News revealed
that of the 146 no-knock raids conducted in Denver in 2000, only
49 resulted in charges. And only two resulted in prison sentences
for suspects targeted in the raids.
collateral damage (fatalities, property damage, etc.) and botched
raids tend to go hand in hand with an overuse of paramilitary forces.
In some cases, officers misread the address on the warrant. In others,
they simply barge into the wrong house or even the wrong building.
In another subset of cases (such as the Department of Education
raid on Anthony Wright’s home), police conduct a search of a building
where the suspect no longer resides. SWAT teams have even on occasion
conducted multiple, sequential raids on wrong addresses or executed
search warrants despite the fact that the suspect is already in
police custody. Police have also raided homes on the basis of mistaking
the presence or scent of legal substances for drugs. Incredibly,
these substances have included tomatoes, sunflowers, fish, elderberry
bushes, kenaf plants, hibiscus, and ragweed.
All too often,
botched SWAT team raids have resulted in one tragedy after another
for the residents with little consequences for law enforcement.
Judges tend to afford extreme levels of deference to police officers
who have mistakenly killed innocent civilians but do not afford
similar leniency to civilians who have injured police officers in
acts of self-defense. Even homeowners who mistake officers for robbers
can be sentenced for assault or murder if they take defensive actions
resulting in harm to police.
And as journalist
Radley Balko shows in his in-depth study of police militarization,
the shock-and-awe tactics utilized by many SWAT teams only increases
the likelihood that someone will get hurt. Drug warrants, for instance,
are typically served by paramilitary units late at night or shortly
before dawn. Unfortunately, to the unsuspecting homeowner – especially
in cases involving mistaken identities or wrong addresses – a raid
can appear to be nothing less than a violent home invasion, with
armed intruders crashing through their door. The natural reaction
would be to engage in self-defense. Yet such a defensive reaction
on the part of a homeowner, particularly a gun owner, will spur
officers to employ lethal force.
what happened to Jose Guerena, the young ex-Marine who was killed
after a SWAT team kicked open the door of his Arizona home during
a drug raid and opened fire. According to news reports, Guerena,
26 years old and the father of two young children, grabbed a gun
in response to the forced invasion but never fired. In fact, the
safety was still on his gun when he was killed. Police officers
were not as restrained. The young Iraqi war veteran was allegedly
fired upon 71 times. Guerena had no prior criminal record, and the
police found nothing illegal in his home.
inherent in these situations are further compounded by the fact
that SWAT teams are granted "no-knock" warrants at high
rates such that the warrants themselves are rendered practically
meaningless. This sorry state of affairs is made even worse by recent
U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have essentially done away with
the need for a "no-knock" warrant altogether, giving the
police authority to disregard the protections afforded American
citizens by the Fourth Amendment.
In the process,
Americans are rendered altogether helpless and terror-stricken as
a result of these confrontations with the police. Indeed, "terrorizing"
is a mild term to describe the effect on those who survive such
vigilante tactics. "It was terrible. It was the most frightening
experience of my life. I thought it was a terrorist attack,"
said 84-year-old Leona Goldberg, a victim of such a raid.
Yet this type of "terrorizing" activity is characteristic
of the culture that we have created. As author Eugene V. Walker,
a former Boston University professor, wrote some years ago, "A
society in which people are already isolated and atomized, divided
by suspicious and destructive rivalry, would support a system of
terror better than a society without much chronic antagonism."
attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
him mail] is founder and president of The
Rutherford Institute. He is the author of The
Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).
© 2011 The Rutherford Institute
Best of John W. Whitehead