In recent years American police forces have called
out SWAT teams 40,000 or more times annually. Last year did you read in your
newspaper or hear on TV news of 110 hostage or terrorist events each day? No.
What then were the SWAT teams doing? They were serving routine warrants to people
who posed no danger to the police or to the public.
Occasionally Washington think tanks produce reports that are not special pleading
for donors. One such report is Radley Balko's "Overkill:
The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America" (Cato Institute,
This 100-page report is extremely important and should have been published
as a book. SWAT teams ("special weapons and tactics") were once rare
and used only for very dangerous situations, often involving hostages held by
armed criminals. Today SWAT teams are deployed for routine police duties. In
the U.S. today, 75-80 percent of SWAT deployments are for warrant service.
In a high percentage of the cases, the SWAT teams forcefully enter
the wrong address, resulting in death, injury, and trauma to
perfectly innocent people. Occasionally, highly keyed-up police kill
one another in the confusion caused by their stun grenades.
Mr. Balko reports that the use of paramilitary police units began in Los Angeles
in the 1960s. The militarization of local police forces got a big boost from
Attorney General Ed Meese's "war on drugs" during the Reagan administration.
A National Security Decision Directive was issued that declared drugs to be
a threat to U.S. national security. In 1988 Congress ordered the National Guard
into the domestic drug war. In 1994 the Department of Defense issued a memorandum
authorizing the transfer of military equipment and technology to state and local
police, and Congress created a program "to facilitate handing military
gear over to civilian police agencies."
Today 17,000 local police forces are equipped with such military equipment
as Blackhawk helicopters, machine guns, grenade launchers, battering rams, explosives,
chemical sprays, body armor, night vision, rappelling gear, and armored vehicles.
Some have tanks. In 1999, the New York Times reported that a retired
police chief in New Haven, Conn., told the newspaper, "I was offered tanks,
bazookas, anything I wanted." Balko reports that in 1997, for example,
police departments received 1.2 million pieces of military equipment.
With local police forces now armed beyond the standard of U.S. heavy infantry,
police forces have been retrained "to vaporize, not Mirandize," to
use a phrase from Reagan administration Defense official Lawrence Korb. This
leaves the public at the mercy of brutal actions based on bad police information
from paid informers.
SWAT team deployments received a huge boost from the Byrne Justice
Assistance Grant program, which gave states federal money for drug
enforcement. Balko explains that "the states then disbursed the money
to local police departments on the basis of each department's number
of drug arrests."
With financial incentives to maximize drug arrests and with idle SWAT
teams due to a paucity of hostage or other dangerous situations,
local police chiefs threw their SWAT teams into drug enforcement. In
practice, this has meant using SWAT teams to serve warrants on drug
SWAT teams serve warrants by breaking into homes and apartments at
night while people are sleeping, often using stun grenades and other
devices to disorient the occupants. As much of the police's drug
information comes from professional informers known as "snitches"
tip off police for cash rewards, dropped charges, and reduced
sentences, names and addresses are often pulled out of a hat. Balko
provides details for 135 tragic cases of mistaken addresses.
SWAT teams are not held accountable for their tragic mistakes and gratuitous
brutality. Police killings got so bad in Albuquerque, N.M., for example, that
the city hired criminologist Sam Walker to conduct an investigation of police
tactics. Killings by police were "off the charts," Walker found, because
the SWAT team "had an organizational culture that led them to escalate
situations upward rather then de-escalating."
The mindset of militarized SWAT teams is geared to "taking out" or
killing the suspect Ė thus, the many deaths from SWAT team utilization.
Many innocent people are killed in nighttime SWAT team entries, because they
don't realize that it is the police who have broken into their homes. They believe
they are confronted by dangerous criminals, and when they try to defend themselves
they are shot down by the police.
As Lawrence Stratton and I have reported, one of many corrupting influences
on the criminal justice (sic) system is the practice of paying "snitches"
to generate suspects. In 1995 the Boston Globe profiled people who lived
entirely off the fees that they were paid as police informants. Snitches create
suspects by selling a small amount of marijuana to a person whom they then report
to the police as being in possession of drugs. Balko reports that "an overwhelming
number of mistaken raids take place because police relied on information from
confidential informants." In Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, 87 percent
of drug raids originated in tips from snitches.
Many police informers are themselves drug dealers who avoid arrest
and knock off competitors by serving as police snitches.
Surveying the deplorable situation, the National Law Journal concluded:
"Criminals have been turned into instruments of law enforcement, while
law enforcement officers have become criminal co-conspirators."
Balko believes the problem could be reduced if judges scrutinized
unreliable information before issuing warrants. If judges would
actually do their jobs, there would be fewer innocent victims of SWAT
brutality. However, as long as the war on drugs persists and as long
as it produces financial rewards to police departments, local police
forces, saturated with military weapons and war imagery, will
continue to terrorize American citizens.