The Magazine

Forces in Excess

As always, who will guard the guardians?

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By MIKE RIGGS
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Late one night last October, a SWAT team from the police department in Billings, Montana, served a search warrant on what they thought was a home meth lab. Dressed in military gear and toting assault rifles and a battering ram, the officers surrounded the house. As one group staged near the front door, an officer knocked out a bedroom window and dropped a flash-bang grenade inside. The grenade landed next to a sleeping 12-year-old girl, where it exploded, inflicting second-degree burns on the girl’s back, abdomen, and arms. 

SWAT team preparing to execute a search warrant, Racine, Wisconsin, 2008

SWAT team preparing to execute a search warrant, Racine, Wisconsin, 2008

associated press

Seconds later, officers battered in the front door and stormed inside, where they restrained the girl’s parents at gunpoint. One thing the officers did not find was evidence of a meth operation. The girl’s mother, Jackie Fasching, says that she would have told the officers this if they had given her a chance to open the door: “A simple knock on the door, and I would’ve let them in.”

Stories like the Faschings’ populate Rise of the Warrior Cop. These anecdotes, as well as data and interviews with police veterans, paint a troubling picture of law enforcement’s current mode: military guns, military vehicles, and military training; late-night, no-knock raids on all kinds of suspects; and every horrible-but-avoidable policing mistake you can think of, ranging from raiding the wrong house to accidentally burning a sleeping little girl to shooting a prostrate little boy in the head. 

There are victims, like the Fasching family, who should have never been bothered; but there are also victims like the Whitworth family of Columbia, Missouri: a father, mother, and son who saw their pets—a pit bull and a corgi—shot during a late-night SWAT raid in which police were searching for marijuana. (And found it, a misdemeanor amount and pipe belonging to Mr. Whitworth, or more than enough to retroactively justify a raid meant to capture a trafficker.) 

This is a history of sorts, but it is also a cri de coeur for policymakers to take up the tough work of reforming America’s police. And it’s hard to argue that reform isn’t needed. In 1980, domestic cops conducted roughly 3,000 paramilitary raids; in 2005, they conducted between 50,000 and 60,000. Eighty percent of towns with between 25,000 and 50,000 residents have SWAT teams; so, too, do the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Department of Education! SWAT teams have been used to break up charity poker games, shut down (legal) medical marijuana dispensaries operating in the open, even serve warrants on people suspected of committing student loan fraud. 

This is not what SWAT was invented for. The late Chief Daryl Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department came up with the idea for a Special Weapons and Tactics team during the 1965 Watts riots, when armed rioters shot at under-armed and under-armored first responders. (He originally wanted to call it the Special Weapons Attack Team but was told he could not use the word “attack.”) Gates knew he had to see the idea to fruition after reading reports about the bloodbath Charles Whitman orchestrated from atop the University of Texas clock tower in August 1966. 

The SWAT team was first deployed against a heavily fortified Black Panther hideout, and shortly thereafter against the Symbionese Liberation Army, who had holed up in South Los Angeles after a spree of murdering, bank-robbing, and kidnapping. 

But something happened between May 17, 1974, when the LAPD used its SWAT team as a last-resort weapon against a psychopathic SLA, and this past summer, when the Wisconsin Department of National Resources used a SWAT team to raid the Society of St. Francis, a no-kill animal shelter that had taken in a baby deer. Apparently, keeping a wild animal without a proper license is illegal, so the SWAT team tranquilized the fawn, and then killed it. When asked by local media why the Department of Natural Resources didn’t just call the shelter and ask it to surrender the deer, an agency spokesman replied: “If a sheriff’s department is going in to do a search warrant on a drug bust, they don’t call them and ask them to voluntarily surrender their marijuana or whatever drug that they have before they show up.”

That’s actually a germane response, considering that it was the War on Drugs that turned SWAT from a Los Angeles phenomenon to a Your Town thing. President Richard Nixon and his advisers realized that drug crime was the only kind of local crime against which the federal government could wage a demonstrable, if largely theatrical, battle. Never mind that even the biggest federal busts represented only a drop in the supply bucket, or that drug users weren’t actually committing the violent crimes of which they were accused: Seized drugs could be stacked for the camera, drug money splayed out like a green, fibrous fan. Figures could be listed in kilos, pounds, thousands, millions. 

Americans came to see the drug trade not just as an explanation for what had happened to great cities but also as a bogeyman to be kept out of their own neighborhoods, whatever the price. And so the executive, legislative, and judicial branches hacked away at the Fourth Amendment, watering down evidentiary requirements and expanding the circumstances under which police could forcibly enter Americans’ homes. Police militarization gained momentum in the 1980s and ’90s, as Congress armed domestic police departments with military surplus, increased the funding for antidrug efforts, and empowered police to seize assets not just of convicted drug offenders but from people remotely associated with crimes yet never charged. 

After 40 years of funding and encouragement from local, state, and federal politicians, it’s understandable that police departments don’t want to cede ground on how much force they can use, and when. But police are too vital to modern society to be allowed to determine, without challenge or supervision, the best way to protect our democracy and preserve order. Moreover, the need for reform is all the more pressing considering how little empirical knowledge has been applied to the militarization experiment, a deficit that’s reflected in the wide array of situations in which police use extreme force. How likely is it that an independent body of legal experts, psychologists, and police veterans would conclude that a charity poker game and a hostage situation merit the same response? 

Radley Balko’s suggestions range from the unlikely (decriminalize drugs) to the sensible (stop sending military surplus to nonmilitary bodies). And insofar as this book is tangentially about the conflicts between policing strategies—police as members of the community versus police as “us” and the communities they police as “them”—he also calls for a return to community policing, which requires cops to be members of their community, to know business owners and school principals and community power brokers. The benefit of this model is that police know the lay of the land, and residents can trust them to mediate without violence. 

It also means relying less on brute force to keep peace. But then, as Balko argues, SWAT teams often introduce violence where previously there had been none. 

Mike Riggs is a staff writer at the Atlantic Cities