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September 26, 2006 The Ranger (TX Edu)

OpEd: Texas' No-Knock Swat Cops Invade People's Privacy

By Ronald Fraser

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

You and your law-abiding neighbors in Texas might be just one street address away from a life-threatening, midnight raid by the local paramilitary police unit.

As these so-called SWAT squads increasingly become America's favorite search warrant delivery service, bungled raids -- including many to the wrong address -- have skyrocketed.

In these assaults on private property, scores of innocent citizens, police officers and nonviolent offenders have died.

In a recent Cato Institute report titled Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, Radley Balko describes how "over the last 25 years, America has seen a disturbing militarization of its civilian law enforcement, along with dramatic and unsettling rise in the use of paramilitary police units (most commonly called Special, Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT ) for routine police work.

"The most common use of SWAT teams today is to serve narcotics warrants, usually with forced, unannounced entry into the home."

These raids -- as many as 40,000 per year -- terrorize nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders and wrongly targeted civilians who are awakened in the dead of night as teams of heavily armed paramilitary units, dressed not as police but as soldiers, invade their homes.

Earlier this year, Balko reports, on a tip from an informant, a Fort Worth SWAT team fired several rounds of tear gas into the home of Steve Blackman -- he was not home at the time -- and then forcibly and violently entered the home.

To add to the destruction, the police also slashed the tires on Blackman's truck.

Later, the police realize they trashed the wrong house.

Back in 2002, a San Antonio SWAT unit fired tear gas canisters, shattered a glass door with bullets and then stormed an apartment occupied by three Hispanic men.

One man, Vincent Huerta, said, "the way they entered, I never thought it could be the police."

All thought the raid was a robbery.

Again, police raided the wrong address, even though they had conducted surveillance on the suspected residence for two days.

Police blamed the error on the darkness and that the apartments were in a cluster of look-alike buildings.

How did the once trusted neighborhood cop become a serious threat to life and privacy on the home front?

Originally, Los Angeles officials formed the nation's first SWAT units in response to civil riots and hostage taking and bomb-toting radical groups in the 1960s.

But by 1995, one study found, 89 percent of the nation's police departments, including 65 percent of smaller towns in the 25,000-50,000 population range, had a paramilitary unit.

As the violence-prone '60s faded away, SWAT squads found a new lease on life in the emerging tough-on-drugs culture of the 1970s.

By 1995, serving search warrants, especially in no-knocks "drug raids," accounted for 75 percent of the actions of the nation's SWAT squads.

These SWAT squads have become more and more of a threat to our civil liberties.

First, they depend on notoriously unreliable informants when picking raid targets.

Self-serving and ill-informed sources often send raids to wrong addresses.

Second, SWAT teams trained by the U.S. Army Ranger and Navy Seal units blur the line between war and law enforcement.

Citizens are then treated as if they are, in fact, combatants.

Third, the use of military assault weapons and tactics - nighttime raids, crashing through front doors and setting off stun grenades inside homes - actually turn otherwise nonviolent situations into violent confrontations when startled occupants try to arm and defend themselves.

Finally, by 1990 (the last year for which information has been made public ) 38 percent of all police departments, 51 percent of all sheriff departments and 94 percent of all state police departments in the U.S. received money from the sale of boats, cars and other assets seized during drug raids.

This money is then used to outfit more SWAT teams for more asset-seizing raids - a practice that serves as a license for SWAT teams to confiscate private property for their own use.

To rein in out of control SWAT units, Texas state and local governments should limit the use of these squads to their original purposes; end corrupting asset forfeiture policies; and pass laws that safeguard families' rights to the privacy and sanctity of their homes.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.

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