It’s a no-knock raid,
Don’t be afraid
We’ll shoot your dogs,
In front of your kids
Cuz we’re the SWAT
We’re here for your pot,
And all the cash that you got,
We are adrenalin junkies taking orders from the top,
(The song is depressing enough, but I should warn you that the link is to the video, which includes graphic footage from real police raids. I find the song haunting, but I’m never going to watch the video again.)
I’ve been doing a close reading of Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, and I’m trying to unweave the major narrative threads that explain how things got so bad. In Part 1, I summarized Radley’s history of policing, Part 2 discussed how the War On Drugs provides justification for raids permitted by the erosion of the Castle Doctrine, and Part 3 described the perverse federal funding incentives that fueled the rise of the warrior cop.
This fourth part discusses how the warrior cops evolved.
The Changing Role of SWAT
Daryl Gates created the SWAT concept for the LAPD in the 1970’s, with the goal of giving the department a way to handle very dangerous incidents. Although most police officers carried guns, they had little experience with gunfights — many officers went their whole career without drawing their gun in the line of duty, let alone firing it at someone. However, after a number of violent incidents for which the police had been ill-prepared, Gates got the LAPD to accept his idea for an elite team of officers who would respond to such incidents with effective force. When the bad guys started a violent encounter, SWAT could end it.
Other major cities soon copied the SWAT concept, but many of these departments faced pressure to deploy their teams in more situations in order to justify the cost. Using them for drug raids was an obvious solution. SWAT teams end up going on a lot of drug raids — raids on homes, raids on bars, raids on raves, even raids on schools. A 1997 survey found that 20 percent of departments used SWAT teams for patrols in bad neighborhoods. Sometimes they pretty much just raided whole neighborhoods, with frightening fervor but largely unimpressive results. And they weren’t always looking for drugs:
By the end of the [2010's], state and local SWAT teams were regularly being used not only for raids on poker games and gambling operations but also for immigration raids (on both businesses and private homes) and raids on massage parlors, cat houses, and unlicensed strip clubs. Today the sorts of offenses that can subject a citizen to the SWAT treatment defy caricature. If the government wants to make an example of you by pounding you with a wholly disproportionate use of force, it can. It’s rare that courts or politicians even object, much less impose consequences.
The courts have ruled often and in some detail on the rules for issuing search warrants or entering homes without them, but other than the pretense of a knock/no-knock distinction, there have been very few rulings on the tactics police can use to serve those warrants — it could be a friendly officer knocking at the door, or it could be a SWAT team battering down the door.
Because of federal incentives (see Part 3), many small departments have formed SWAT teams over the past few decades. That leads to problems:
Stephen Downing, who worked in the same LAPD patrol bureau as Daryl Gates while Gates was developing his SWAT idea, explains how the move to smaller police departments makes already dangerous SWAT raids even more perilous. “You’d have this ‘I want one too’ phenomenon,” Downing says. “And so the SWAT teams get bigger, and they start to spread. And standards would start to drop. You have to be very careful about who you put on the SWAT team. The guys who want it most are the last ones who should be given a spot. At LAPD, you were choosing from a force of nine thousand strong. You’re getting elite, disciplined officers, and the pool is big enough that you can screen them. For fitness and marksmanship and all the usual stuff. But also for attitude and psychology.”
Choosiness isn’t a luxury at smaller police agencies. “Right now, I’m preparing to testify in a lawsuit stemming from a wrongheaded raid by a SWAT team in a twenty-eight-man police department,” Downing says. “How do you even begin to select from twenty-eight people?” [...] “And how do they find time to train? At LAPD, the SWAT team will spend at least half their on-duty time in training. In these smaller towns, the SWAT team is something these guys do on the side. They’re patrol officers. And so what happens is that they train by practicing on the people.”
There is very little tracking of SWAT deployments and even less civilian oversight.
Radley has often pointed out that as originally conceived, SWAT teams were intended to confront criminal violence, but nowadays most SWAT-style drug raids actually create violent confrontations where none existed before.
I would go further and argue that most of these raids aren’t actually conducted by real SWAT teams at all. Police departments may call them “SWAT” teams, and they may superficially resemble SWAT teams, but that aren’t SWAT teams in the original sense. They’re something more specialized and limited that I’m going to call dynamic entry teams. (If you know a better term for these units, tell me.)
Sometimes the distinction is explicit. I’ve heard that New York City narcotics officers don’t like to use the Emergency Services Unit (NYPD’s world-class SWAT team) for search warrants because they are too deliberate. They clear buildings methodically and with a lot of attention to safety, but for serving drug warrants their approach would give occupants too much time to destroy evidence, so drug cops prefer to use specialized dynamic entry teams that hit the target fast and hard.
Smaller cities and towns can’t afford to operate two different types of SWAT teams. They don’t have as many officers to choose from, and they don’t have the budget for the kinds of extensive training it takes to build a traditional SWAT team. So they build the kind of team that’s less expensive to operate, the kind of team that trains on the job doing dynamic entries, and perhaps most importantly, the kind of team that pays for itself by doing drug raids.
Although police leaders usually justify SWAT teams to the public by invoking the specters of terrorism and school shootings, Radley correctly points out that school shootings are incredibly rare, and terrorist incidents are all but non-existent. Statistically speaking, the average school can expect an on-campus shooting of a student once every few thousand years, and excluding 9/11 (which no SWAT team could have stopped), terrorists only kill about 3 people per year in the United States. So most SWAT teams will never be deployed in either of these situations.
I suspect it’s even worse than that, though, because given the small choice of personnel, the lack of training, and the focus on only one operation — dynamic entry warrant service — I doubt many of these teams are up to the task of handling the kinds of incidents used to justify them. The school shooting at Columbine was used for years afterwards to justify SWAT teams everywhere, but SWAT was not a decisive factor at Columbine:
Though there were eventually eight hundred police officers and eight SWAT teams on the Columbine campus, the SWAT teams held off from going inside to stop shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris because they deemed the situation too dangerous.
Fortunately, the shooters apparently got bored with killing students and committed suicide.
(To be fair, most active shooting incidents are over in a few minutes, and Columbine was no exception. By the time most of the police got there, the shooting had already stopped. However, at least one person is known to have bled to death while waiting for rescue that didn’t come for hours.)
I’m no expert on SWAT tactics, but it seems to me that dynamic entry teams must gain a big advantage from controlling the initiative: They get to choose their target, they have time to gather intelligence, and they control when the assault begins. If they arrive on scene and the situation is different from what they expected, they can postpone the operation so they can do more planning and assemble a larger team, or they can just leave and go raid some other drug dealer.
In an active shooter incident, the SWAT team has no control over when and where they deploy, they have little to no intelligence, and they can only use team members who happen to be available at the time. If the shooters are terrorists or well-prepared individuals, they can equip and train themselves to fight, they can fortify the location, and they can take hostages, so they’ll be ready when SWAT arrives. I don’t believe a dynamic entry team’s experiences serving warrants will prepare them for this level of conflict.
Furthermore, if dynamic entry teams are training on the job by doing drug raids, it means they are only getting practice dealing with the most common scenarios. So when something unusual happens, they will find themselves in a situation they are unprepared for. We can see some evidence of this, for example, in the Atlanta police raid on the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. She apparently thought they were intruders and pulled a gun, getting off only a single shot before the raid team shot her. The raid team, however, was so unprepared for even this meager opposition that three officers were wounded by gunfire from other officers.
Given the economic incentives for police militarization, I’m skeptical about sociocultural explanations, but Radley makes a case for several cultural factors. For one thing, those economic incentives start to feed back into police attitudes: Once police start conducting heavily armed raids and patrols in certain neighborhoods, they begin to think of the residents as the kinds of people who deserve heavily armed raids and patrols. And it extends up and down the chain of command.
The commission reviewed radio transmissions of LAPD officers referring to a drug roundup in a black neighborhood as “monkey slapping time” or fantasizing about driving down one particular street with a flamethrower—“ We would have a barbecue.”
The comments themselves would have been bad enough. Even worse was the fact that a culture existed within the department in which officers felt free to make them over police radio. The LAPD’s focus on reacting to crime instead of preventing it, the commission found, had isolated officers from the communities they patrolled. Cops were rewarded for putting up impressive arrest statistics and for being “hard-nosed.” The report found that drug and gang sweeps of the late 1980s had alienated LAPD cops from the community, creating reciprocal hostility and resentment.
In addition, police departments need to justify all those fancy weapons and vehicles they like to buy, and claiming that they’re outgunned by the bad guys is a common ploy. However, studies of gun violence have been finding that only a small fraction of the murders in this country (including murders of police officers) are committed with assault weapons.
But playing up the risks and dangers of the job, even in spite of overwhelming evidence that things are getting better, almost certainly has an impact on the mindset of the average cop. If you approach the job as if every day could be your last, you’re going to approach every citizen encounter as if it could be your last. That makes everyone a potential enemy. The job becomes about survival, not public service. Hence, the unofficial motto of the job you often hear from cops, or see posted on police discussion boards: “Whatever I need to do to get home safe at the end of the day.”
Another cultural factor that Radley identifies is simply that dynamic entry raids are an exciting way to do police work:
The officers with SWAT and dynamic-entry experience interviewed for this book say raids are orders of magnitude more intoxicating than anything else in police work. Ironically, many cops describe them with language usually used to describe the drugs the raids are conducted to confiscate. “Oh, it’s a huge rush,” Franklin says. “Those times when you do have to kick down a door, it’s just a big shot of adrenaline.” Downing agrees. “It’s a rush. And you have to be careful, because the raids themselves can be habit-forming.”
The adrenaline high of doing dynamic entry raids probably discourages police from trying alternatives, such as traffic stops or surrounding the place and calling people out.
These sorts of police activities make for exciting popular entertainment, and police officers are as susceptible as anyone to the influences of pop culture. For example, in the 1970’s television programs were a lot less gritty than they are today, and almost everyone looked good, meaning male actors wore suits all the time, including those playing plainclothes police detectives on shows like Kojak, Hawii Five-O, Cannon, and McMillan & Wife. I remember hearing that some real-world detectives had adopted this behavior, and could be seen trudging around muddy outdoor crime scenes in expensive suits and shoes, much to the amusement of the patrol cops.
In his chronicle of the 1970s How We Got Here, conservative pundit David Frum argues that the decade’s parade of renegade cops who skirt the law but still abide by a familiar moral code (think Dirty Harry ) reflected the prevailing opinion at the time that bad court decisions and criminal-coddling procedures were preventing well-meaning cops from getting the bad guys. Ed Burns, the former narcotics cop and co-creator of HBO’s The Wire, thinks the influence might have been the other way around. In a 2008 interview, Burns said that the Gene Hackman movie The French Connection had a big influence on the culture of drug cops. “In The French Connection, [detective] Popeye Doyle had this very cynical, harsh, rough, law-breaking type of drug style that sort of set the tone in how street narcotics guys work. Very flippant. What the movie didn’t pick up, and what you didn’t see, is all the intense surveillance and hard work that would go into a drug bust back then. But they put out the idea of this guy who cracks heads, especially in that scene they went and they shook the bar down. That became iconic. And that is the way the cops were afterward. I mean, you’d see white cops in black neighborhoods looking like Serpico, and they’re not undercover. It was just this mind-set that took over of how you’re supposed to dress and act and the way you’re supposed to be.”
Modern-day reality shows spread the same message:
A&E broke in first with Dallas SWAT, which sent a camera crew with the city’s elite paramilitary police unit to document drug raids and standoffs. The show’s success spawned Detroit SWAT and Kansas City SWAT. Court TV then jumped in with Texas SWAT and SWAT U.S.A. Testosterone-infused Spike TV joined the mix in 2008 with DEA.
When police are depicted in popular culture as badass warriors against the savage streets, police forces begin to attract applicants who want that kind of high-power adventure: People who enjoy kicking ass and taking names. And the process feeds back on itself as police recruiting materials are targeted at those kinds of people.
Browse the dozens of police recruitment videos on YouTube, for example, and you’ll find that many of them feature images of cops tackling suspects, rappelling out of helicopters, shooting guns, kicking down doors, and siccing dogs on people. The images are often set to blaring guitars or heavy metal music. These are the videos that police departments send to high schools and colleges to attract new recruits. At the very first step in the process of staffing their departments, then, these agencies are deliberately appealing to people who are likely to be lured by the thrill-seeking, adrenaline-producing, butt-kicking aspects of law enforcement. Build an entire police force of people who fit that description and you have a force of cops who seek confrontation instead of avoiding it and who look to escalate volatile situations instead of resolving them peacefully.
Radley makes a sensible and surprising point about the way dynamic entry teams use flash-bang grenades to stun the occupants of a room before entering.
Clay Conrad, a criminal defense attorney in Houston, has argued that flash-bang grenades are unconstitutional because, by design, they’re intended to inflict injury on people who have yet to even be charged with a crime, much less convicted of one . “It’s just an assault,” Conrad told me in a 2010 interview. “These things are designed to blind and deafen. They produce a shock wave of 136 decibels or more. You’re intentionally injuring people.”
A cop throwing a flash-bang grenade might as well be whacking everyone over the head with his nightstick. Actually, that might be preferable, since the cop could still use some judgement about who might resist, whereas cops who “bang the room” before entering know nothing about the people they are assaulting. Flash-bang grenades are indiscriminate assault and battery against people who are not known to present any threat.
What surprises me most is that I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I thought only of what could go wrong — grenades starting fires, grenades shattering glass objects into shrapnel, grenades lobbed through windows into baby’s cribs — without realizing that even if everything worked perfectly, the police were still hurting American citizens.
What Warrior Cop makes clear, over and over, is that police are increasingly using violence on the American people without cause. Drug raids routinely involve breaking down doors, pointing guns at people who aren’t presenting a threat, shoving people to the ground, and restraining them while the place is searched. Any one of us would be arrested if we committed such violence, yet many of these raids are evidence-gathering missions, meaning that the people being assaulted are not known to have committed any crimes, even as the police come barging in with grenades and guns.
Shouldn’t that be shocking? Shouldn’t we object to the widespread violence against the American people? Yet we seem to have become numb to it, and we treat it as normal. Armed invasions of people’s homes by police don’t make the news. Even when police kill someone, it doesn’t stay in the news for very long.
Although the U.S. military has historically been used to put down riots and rebellions (as mentioned in Part 1), it hasn’t done so very much in recent times, but now that our police forces are armed with military weapons, trained with military tactics, and often think of their mission as military in nature, they have begun using a militaristic approach to put down protests.
It all started with the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle, when riot police attacked protesters with tear gas after they refused to disperse. The scene erupted into chaos, and confrontations between rioters and cops continued throughout the meeting. Although there was considerable property damage, the Seattle WTO protests had no major violence and only a few minor injuries. Nevertheless, it changed the way police departments all over the country responded to protests, including the recent Occupy-whatever protests.
This is how the country that gave the world the First Amendment now handles protest. There’s a disquieting ease now with which authorities are willing to crush dissent— and at the very sorts of events where the right to dissent is the entire purpose of protecting free speech— that is, events where influential policymakers meet to make high-level decisions with far-reaching consequences. In fact, the more important the policymakers and the more consequential the decisions they’ll be making, the more likely it is that police will use more force to keep protesters as far away as possible.
So what are we to do? I’ll discuss that in Part 5.