In response to an article I wrote last month about Police Shootings that Make You Go Hmmmm…, a Chicago SWAT team member named Erick left an interesting comment. I responded to part of it yesterday in Too Much SWAT, Part 1.
Here’s the rest of Erick’s comment:
In response to raids including non-violent crimes let me shed light onto the fact that it’s not unusual for a pot smokers and gamblers to have weapons in their homes. Never underestimate anyone’s potential. Timothy McVeigh was in the Army with a relatively minor criminal background.
That’s a good point about never underestimating anyone’s potential. It probably keeps a lot of cops safe. But I have a question: Don’t they still teach Chicago cops how to arrest a suspect safely? They never used to need a SWAT team to arrest a bad guy.
I’m pretty sure that in most cases they still don’t. There’s an underlying assumption here that is at the core of the problem as I see it, and this is where I suspect Erick and I have a serious difference of values. I don’t really have a problem with SWAT tactics. My objection in these kinds of situations is to SWAT’s mission.
But first, a story. A few years ago, some bozo told the cops that a friend of mine had pointed a gun at him while both of them were driving down the street. The next day, the Chicago police arrested my friend outside his home as he was going to his car. He’s a little shaky on the details, but I think a pair of plain-clothes officers did the arrest, with a couple of patrol cars backing them up in case he fled. Call it six officers in total. It wasn’t SWAT.
(Before I go on, I should say that my friend never owned a gun and the police didn’t find one. The case against him fell apart when the complaining witness’s girlfriend, who was also supposedly a witness, refused to back his story. All the charges were dropped.)
So here’s the mystery: How come it takes a SWAT team to arrest pot smokers and gamblers, but when the police arrested my friend who a witness claimed was armed with a handgun and likely to use it the local precinct cops just took him down themselves?
The answer, I think, is that you can’t flush a handgun down the toilet.
Most of these troublesome SWAT-style raids are not part of the traditional SWAT lifesaving mission. Instead, they’re one of the routine evidence-gathering techniques in the war on drugs and, to a lesser extent, the war on illegal gambling. That’s because, unlike my friend’s alleged crimes, both of these criminal activities involve evidence that is easy to destroy.
When the police come knocking, an alert drug crew can flush the drugs before the police can find them. For a gambling operation, the police need to find book-making records. In the past, bookies used to keep records on chalkboards or on quick-burning flash paper. Nowadays, I imagine a sophisticated operation just needs to erase a few computer files.
This means that police serving a search warrant need to make a dynamic entry, moving very quickly to secure the site and restrain the occupants. That takes a SWAT team, or something that looks very much like one.
According to NYPD officer Edward Conlon, detectives making narcotics arrests don’t actually like to use ESU (New York’s version of SWAT) because they are so careful and methodical that the bad guys have plenty of time to destroy all the evidence. Thus, NYPD has special SWAT-like teams that do the kind of dynamic entry it takes to get the evidence.
Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of entry that frightens the crap out of the people inside the building. If they’re innocent, that’s bad enough. But sometimes in the panic and confusion innocent people do something that gets them shot. Even when the people being raided are guilty of a crime, they usually aren’t doing anything they deserve to die for.
When the raid starts, however, people may do something crazy like trying to shoot a cop. On an individual basis, they earn a bullet for that. It’s a totally justified shooting. But as a matter of policy, I don’t think it’s a good idea to create an endless series of armed confrontations with people who don’t like cops and have poor impulse control.
I don’t object to SWAT teams or SWAT tactics…unless they’re unnecessary. Supporters of these raids say that if police can’t storm the building in a close-quarters infantry assault, they’ll be in danger. I say that if police can’t storm the building in a close-quarters infantry assault, they’ll just have to find a safer, less violent way to arrest suspects and conduct searches. If that means that a few drug dealers get away with flushing the evidence, I can live with that.