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June 20, 2006 - New York Times (NY)

Column: The SWAT Syndrome

By John Tierney

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Of all the excuses for weakening the Fourth Amendment, the weirdest was the one offered by Justice Antonin Scalia last week in a Michigan drug case.

He wrote the majority opinion allowing police officers to use evidence found in a home even if they entered without following the venerable rule to knock first and announce themselves. To reassure traditionalists, Scalia declared that unreasonable searches are less of a problem today because of "the increasing professionalism of police forces."

Well, it's true that when police show up at your home in the middle of the night, they're better armed and trained than ever. They now routinely arrive with assault rifles, flash grenades and battering rams.

So if your definition of a professional is a soldier in a war zone, then Scalia is right. The number of paramilitary raids has soared in the past two decades as cities, suburbs and small towns have rushed to assemble their very own SWAT teams.

Some police veterans complain about "militarizing Mayberry," and can't figure out why towns averaging one homicide a decade need paramilitary units. But younger cops like the glamour -- our very own SWAT team, just like on TV! Who wants to patrol a beat when you could be playing commando?

And who can resist free gear from Washington? Congress encouraged the SWAT syndrome by directing the Pentagon to give local police departments old machine guns, armed personnel carriers and helicopters. The federal government has also helped subsidize drug raids and encouraged locals to be aggressive by letting them keep a cut of the drug dealers' assets.

The SWAT teams were originally supposed to deal with extraordinary threats, like hostage situations, snipers and heavily armed drug gangs. Since 9/11, of course, they've been justified for combating terrorists. But such situations are so rare that the teams have had to invent new missions to keep busy -- and to pay for their operations by finding assets to seize.

Most of the time they're used simply to carry out searches for drugs, often on the basis of dubious tips from informants, often against small-time dealers and other people with no history of violence. The commandos have a proclivity for going to the wrong address, and they tend to be impatient with anything that gets in their way. In articles about SWAT raids, a motif is the shooting of family pets in front of children.

It's hard to know how many botched and unnecessary raids there have been, because police don't systematically track their errors, and the victims often have little recourse. But in a forthcoming report for the Cato Institute, Radley Balko concludes that mistakes have been made in more than 200 raids over the past decade.

He finds that overzealous raiders caused the deaths of a dozen nonviolent offenders, like recreational marijuana smokers and gamblers. In a Virginia suburb of Washington earlier this year, an optometrist being investigated for betting on sports was standing unarmed outside his town house, offering no resistance, when a SWAT officer's rifle discharged and killed him.

Balko also finds that two dozen people died in raids who were not guilty of any crime, like a Mexican immigrant killed by Denver police raiding the wrong home. Some died because they understandably assumed the masked invaders were criminals and picked up weapons to defend themselves.

Some were innocent bystanders, like an 11-year-old boy shot in Modesto, Calif., and a 57-year-old woman in Harlem who had a heart attack when police set off a flash grenade during a raid based on a faulty tip.

"Prosecutors typically let police officers off the hook when they mistakenly shoot a civilian," Balko says, "on the theory that mistakes are understandable during the confusion of a raid. Fair enough. But civilians don't get the same deference. My research shows that when someone on the other end of a botched raid mistakes a police officer for an intruder and shoots in self-defense, his odds of facing jail time are about one in two."

The best way to avoid these mistakes would be to save SWAT teams for real crises and let police execute search warrants the old-fashioned way. They could find out, for instance, if they're at the wrong address before anyone pulls the trigger.

But thanks to the Supreme Court, they now have less reason to knock first and shoot later. They can be more professional than ever.

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