A year ago this week, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston was gunned down by Atlanta narcotics officers when she opened fire on them as they kicked down her door in a "no-knock" drug raid. The killing has had immense reverberations in the Atlanta area, especially since it opened a window on corrupt and questionable police practices in the drug squad.
While the Johnston killing rocked the Atlanta area, it also brought the issue of aggressive drug war police tactics to the forefront. Each year, SWAT teams across the country conduct some 40,000 raids, according to estimates, many of them directed at drug offenders. The tactic, where heavily armed police in military-style attire break down doors, toss flash-bang grenades, and generally behave as if they are searching for insurgents in Baghdad, has become routine, and is the stuff of various TV reality shows.
But if the raids are popular with the viewers of the likes of DALLAS SWAT, they are not necessarily as popular with the American public. According to a poll of 1,028 likely voters commissioned by StoptheDrugWar.org (DRCNet) and conducted by Zogby International in October, a solid majority of respondents said such tactics were not justified for routine drug raids.
Here is the exact question asked: "Last year 92-year old Kathryn Johnston was killed by Atlanta police serving a drug search warrant at an incorrect address supplied by an informant. Reports show that police use SWAT teams to conduct raids as often as 40,000 times per year, often for low-level drug enforcement. Do you agree or disagree that police doing routine drug investigations in non-emergency situations should make use of aggressive entry tactics such as battering down doors, setting off flash-bang grenades, or conducting searches in the middle of the night?"
Nearly two-thirds -- 65.8% -- said police should not routinely use such tactics. With minor variations, that sentiment held across geographic, demographic, religious, ideological, and partisan lines.
Opposition to the routine use of SWAT tactics for drug law enforcement ranged from 70.7% in the West to 60.5% in the East. Residents of large cities (60.7%), small cities (71.2%), the suburbs (66.7%), and rural areas (65.0%), all opposed the routine use of SWAT tactics.
Among Democrats, 75.1% opposed the raids; among independents the figure was 65.5%. Even in the Republican ranks, a majority -- 56% -- opposed the raids. Across ideological lines, 85.3% of self-identified progressives opposed the raids, as did 80.8% of liberals, 62.9% of moderates, and 68.9% of libertarians. Even people describing themselves as conservative or very conservative narrowly opposed the routine use of SWAT tactics, with 51.5% of the former and 52.5% of the latter saying no. Among African Americans, 83% oppose the practice.
"These findings don't surprise me," said University of Nebraska-Omaha criminologist Samuel Walker, a leading policing expert. "When you ask global questions about crime, people say one thing, but when the question is framed so as to clarify the practice, as this one was, people have a sense of what sort of emergency situations might call for special methods and what sort of situations are routine and could be handled without SWAT-style tactics. I find it hopeful that people seem to have such a clear sense of what is and is not appropriate," he said.
"We're please but also not surprised to get such a good response on this," said DRCNet executive director David Borden, who authored the question. "It's just not a hard sell to say that people shouldn't get shot, burned or traumatized in their homes when there's any other viable way of handling a situation." The organization is planning to do more, he says, and has posted an information page on the issue at http://stopthedrugwar.org/policeraids.
"If you believe that the criminal justice system is 100% perfect, you tend to support the system, but with these drug raids, there have been just too many mistakes made, too many wrong doors kicked in, too many innocent people killed," said Peter Christ, a former New York police captain who spent 20 years in policing before retiring and becoming a founding member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "People understand that, and they realize that grandma down in Atlanta could have been them."
The real question, Walker said, was how to translate public opinion into policy changes. "I only wish this could be translated into the political realm," he said.
For Christ, changing police practices and drug policies is a slow, even generational process of education. The movement to reform the drug laws, he said, is akin to the movement for women's rights. "None of the people who started that movement in the 1830s lived to cast a vote," he said, "but in the end, they triumphed."
In Atlanta, the outrageous conduct of the narcotics officers involved in the Johnston case has led to changes, at least for now. They told a judge they had an informant who had bought crack cocaine at Johnston's home. That was a lie. They shot at the elderly woman protecting her home 39 times after she managed to squeeze off one shot from an old pistol. They handcuffed her as she lay dying. They planted marijuana in her basement after the fact. They tried, also after the fact, to get one of their informants to say he had supplied the information, but that informant instead went to the FBI.
Two of the officers involved in the killing were ordered to prison this week pending sentencing on involuntary manslaughter and civil rights violations. A third has an April trial date.
The Johnston killing has also rocked the Atlanta Police Department. The police chief disbanded the entire drug squad for months, tightened up the rules for seeking search warrants, especially "no-knock" warrants, and instituted new policies forcing narcotics officers to rotate out on a regular basis. A year-long FBI investigation into the department continues.
But across the country, the Johnston case was little more than a blip on the radar, and the SWAT-style raids continue. "I haven't noticed any real change anywhere outside of Atlanta," said Radley Balko, an editor at Reason Magazine and a policy analyst specializing in civil liberties issues who authored the definitive report on the rise of the contemporary SWAT phenomenon, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America. "The pace of these raids has been about the same this year as last."
And, as Balko noted in a FoxNews.com commentary this week, not only the raids, but the mistakes, some of them fatal, continue:
In February of this year, 16-year-old Daniel Castillo, Jr. was killed in a police raid on his family's home in Texas. Castillo had no criminal record. A SWAT officer broke open the door to the bedroom as Castillo, his sister, and her infant son were sleeping. When Castillo rose from the bed after being awoken to his sister's screams, the SWAT officer shot him in the face.
In March, police in Spring Lake, Minn., acting on an informant's tip, raided the home of Brad and Nicole Thompson. The couple was forced on the ground at gun point and warned by an officer, "If you move, I'll shoot you in the f***ing head." Police had the wrong house.
In June, a 72-year-old woman on oxygen was thrown to the ground at gunpoint in a mistaken drug raid near Durango, Colo.
Balko also pointed to errant drug raids on innocent people in Temecula, CA.; Annapolis, MD.; several incidents in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City; Galliano, LA.; Hendersonville, NC.; Ponderay, ID; Stockton, CA.; Pullman, WA.; Baltimore; Wilmington, DE.; Jacksonville, FL; Alton, KS; Merced County, CA; and Atlanta, GA. And that's just this year.
Turning the juggernaut around is a daunting task. It would require changes to the policies and practices of hundreds of separate law enforcement agencies around the country, and that is going to require work at the state and local level.
But there are some limited prospects for change at the federal level. In June, the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security held hearings on police militarization, and, thanks in part to Balko's testimony, this year's crime bill currently contains some language reflecting reforms recommended in Overkill that would limit the circumstances in which high levels of force can be used. Still, Balko said, it is unclear if that language will make it into the final bill.
At the least, Balko was able to inform committee Chair Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that some of the money allocated for Bill Clinton's community policing COPS program had gone to establish SWAT teams. When a woman in the gallery asked for renewed funding for COPS, Balko pointed out that fact.
"Are you telling me that the COPs grants we handed out in the 90s were actually used to start SWAT teams?" Scott asked in surprise.
Balko confirmed that was indeed the case.
"Well that's certainly not what we had in mind," Scott replied.
According to Balko, at least 40 innocent people have been killed in forced entry drug raids in recent years. No one knows how many more innocents have been injured by testosterone-crazed police or had their property wantonly destroyed in such raids. And no one is even counting how many people -- innocent, guilty, family members -- have been needlessly traumatized by the jackboot kicking the door in at 4:00am and all that follows. And most of the "guilty" parties are mere low-level offenders, and by law presumed innocent until proven guilty.
If the politicians and law enforcement listen to the public, such tactics will become a thing of the past.
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