Police Militarization: It’s Gone Too Far

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I have been noticing a disturbing trend lately.  More and more news reports have been about similar incidents.
  • A Florida nurse is terrorized by U.S. Marshals in a warrantless raid, looking for someone she had never heard of.  Based on their appearance she thought she was being the victim of a home invasion, got a gun and almost shot at them.  If she had, no doubt they would have killed her.
  • A man asleep in his bed in a basement apartment he was renting was shot 16 times by a sheriff’s deputy and a  Department of Corrections officer while they were at the house to arrest a parole violator.  The man they were after was already in custody when they decided to search the house, at which time they entered the basement and shot the sleeping man.  No charges were filed against them.
  • A 61 year old man is shot to death by police when they conduct a drug raid on the wrong house.  When police pounded on the door his wife thought it was a home invasion and yelled for her husband to get his shotgun.  He fired first and the police killed him.  The incident is ‘under investigation’ and no charges have been filed.
  • Buffalo police conduct a drug raid on the wrong apartment and kill the owner’s dog.  The owner had to pay for repairs to the door himself.  No action taken against the officers.
  • Police in St. Paul raided the wrong house, killed the family dog and handcuffed all nine occupants for over an hour, searching the house even after they realized they were at the wrong address.  Three of the handcuffed were children, who sat next to their dead dog the whole time.
  • Colorado BATF agents entered a woman’s home without a warrant and terrorized her 8 year old son by pointing laser guided machine guns at him.  They were looking for someone the resident had repeatedly told them for a year did not live there and she had even provided a current address for them.
  • Drug enforcement officers in New York smashed in the front door of a 76 year old man’s home, handcuffed him and briefly searched the home before realizing they were at the wrong address.  The local news media had to get involved before police would admit their mistake and pay for repairs to the door they had destroyed.
  • Oklahoma City officers and U.S. Marshals went to the wrong house on a gang sweep, finding a 12 year old boy home alone.  They tell him they are looking for Jason without specifying a last name and he says he might know where he is.  They put him in a car to show them where to go.  During the ride they find out they are talking about two different Jasons and take the boy back home.
  • In Ohio a 26 year old mother was killed by police during a drug raid at the home of her former boyfriend.  She was kneeling on the ground, holding her 1 year old son and complying with police orders. An officer heard another officer shooting two dogs, mistook the shots for hostile gunfire and fired blindly into the room where the mother and son were.  She was killed and the 1 year old lost his left hand.  The officer was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.
  • New Jersey police raid the wrong home during a multi-residence raid and kept a woman and her two children on the floor in the kitchen for two hours while ransacking their home.
  • Six agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wearing SWAT gear and carrying weapons, raided the home of a 60 year old grandmother, spent half a day ransacking her home, emptied file cabinets, pulled books off shelves, rifled through drawers and closets and threw the contents on the floor.  When she asked why they were there she was told, “You don’t need to know.”  The agents had spent six months conducting a covert investigation on her 66 year old retired husband because he had failed to file the proper paperwork when he imported some orchids for his home-based business.  Orchids.

These are but a few of many, many examples available of botched police raids in the last few years.  Property damage, family pets killed, wrongful deaths and injuries and just sheer terror are the byproducts of these raids.  Of all the reports and news articles I have read about these raids I found only one where an officer was held accountable for killing someone and his trial ended with an acquittal.  In many instances the homeowners had to pay for property damages themselves.

Imagine being a law-abiding citizen, as I’m sure everyone who reads my blog is, sitting in your home with your family one evening when your front door is smashed in.  Flash bangs start exploding in your home, men in black paramilitary uniforms rush in, all wearing masks, helmets and carrying machine guns.  Your dog barks so it is shot to death.  You and your family are all screamed at by all these men to GET ON THE FLOOR.  You comply, you and your family are handcuffed and while you are all kept on the floor these men start ransacking your home.  After an hour or two they realize, oops, we are at the wrong address.  You and your family have the handcuffs removed, the men say they are sorry about the trouble and leave. 

I’m sure no one wants this to happen to them, but it has happened to many families and it will continue to happen.  In 2005, the last year for which I could find data, there were more than 50,000 raids conducted by SWAT-like police units.  With this many raids being conducted every year there are most certainly going to be some that are botched. 

To be crystal clear, I am not anti-police.  I have no axe to grind.  The few interactions I’ve had with law enforcement personnel have always been pleasant and professional.  The police in my hometown of Midwest City, Oklahoma are consummate professionals and I am grateful they are there.  Midwest City, by the way, has had a SWAT team since 1976.  All large cities in the United States have one or more SWAT teams and as of 2005, 80% of towns with a population of at least 25,000 have a SWAT team. 

I have come to believe this trend toward militarizing the police has gone too far.  Especially when it appears they are allowed to operate with no accountability for errors.  I’m sure most law enforcement personnel would say “whatever gets me home” to justify the tactics but when SWAT teams are used for things like raiding poker games at a VFW they have gone too far.  A first person account of a SWAT raid at a Dallas poker game is an interesting tale of wasted time and resources that apparently produced nothing in the end.  Is a poker game really a place the police think they will need flash bangs and automatic weapons?

Radley Balko, a former policy analyst for the Cato Institute, has written a paper called Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids In America.  Just reading a few pages of police misconduct on raids incensed me.  While the vast majority of police are good and decent public servants, the ones who are not seem to find their way onto these SWAT teams, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Balko has put together a map (see below) of botched raids over the last few years. 

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The botched raids and innocent citizens getting hurt will continue until people decide something needs to be done about it.  Perhaps it might take a raid at a politician’s house or someone important getting killed before something is done.  But until that happens, be careful.  The men breaking into your home just might be the police at the wrong address. 
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