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"Three Stoplights, Seven M-16s"
That was the headline in a Florida newspaper after the seven police officers of Jasper, Florida (population, 2000, and not a single murder in 14 years) were each given a military-grade M-16.

That's just one of many stories in a fantastic Radley Balko/Cato study (pdf) of the misuse of SWAT teams, OVERKILL, The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.

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A summary of Balko's paper is below (a Cato press release about it is here):

Americans have long maintained that a man’s home is his castle and that he has the right to defend it from unlawful intruders. Unfortunately, that right may be disappearing. Over the last 25 years, America has seen a disturbing militarization of its civilian law enforcement, along with a 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 increasingly frequent raids, 40,000 per year by one estimate, are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers. These raids bring unnecessary violence and provocation to nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom were guilty of only misdemeanors. The raids terrorize innocents when police mistakenly target the wrong residence. And they have resulted in dozens of needless deaths and injuries, not only of drug offenders, but also of police officers, children, bystanders, and innocent suspects.

This paper presents a history and overview of the issue of paramilitary drug raids, provides an extensive catalogue of abuses and mistaken raids, and offers recommendations for reform.

Balko writes:

This study will not recommend the abolition of SWAT teams or unannounced police raids. Rather, it will critique the increasingly pervasive use of both, particularly when it comes to executing routine drug warrants, as well as the effect of an increasing presence of military equipment, training, and tactics on America’s police departments.

Later in the piece, he quotes Justice Brennan in the 1963 case, Ker v. California:

Similarly, rigid restrictions upon unannounced entries are essential if the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against invasion of the security and privacy of the home is to have any meaning. ...First, cases of mistaken identity are surely not novel in the investigation of crime. The possibility is very real that the police may be misinformed as to the name or address of a suspect, or as to other material information. That possibility is itself a good reason for holding a tight rein against judicial approval of unannounced police entries into private homes. Innocent citizens should not suffer the shock, fright or embarrassment attendant upon an unannounced police intrusion. Second...(w)e expressly recognized in Miller v. United States that compliance with the federal notice statute "is also a safeguard for the police themselves who might be mistaken for prowlers and be shot down by a fearful householder." Indeed, one of the principal objectives of the English requirement of announcement of authority and purpose was to protect the arresting officers from being shot as trespassers, ". . . for if no previous demand is made, how is it possible for a party to know what the object of the person breaking open the door may be? He has a right to consider it as an aggression on his private property, which he will be justified in resisting to the utmost."

Balko continues:

As previously explained, police typically serve these warrants just before dawn, or in the hours just before sunrise. They enter the residence unannounced or with very little notice. The subjects of these raids, then, are awoken from deep sleep, and their waking thoughts are confronted with the prospect that their homes are being invaded. Their first reaction is almost certainly alarm, fear, and a feeling of peril. Disorienting devices like flashbang grenades only compound the confusion.

It isn’t difficult to see why a gun owner’s first instinct upon waking to a raid would be to disregard whatever the intruders may be screaming at him and reach for a weapon to defend himself. This is particularly true of someone with a history of violence or engaged in a criminal enterprise like drug dealing. But it’s also true of a law-abiding homeowner who legally owns guns for the purpose of defending his home and family.

The “apprehension of peril” exception fails, then, because no-knock raids make violent confrontation and, consequently, peril, more likely than apprehending suspects with less aggressive tactics. No-knock and short- notice raids invite violence and confrontation, they don’t mitigate them. And the tactics used in their deployment are by their very nature designed to catch victims at their most vulnerable, disoriented, and in a state of mind least capable of sound judgment.

Balko's piece lists dozens and dozens of innocent people -- even elderly grannies or people with small amounts of pot for medical use or their personal possession -- who were hurt or killed after SWAT raids; many times, after officers went to the wrong address through sloppy police work or on the word of a snitch.

Posted by aalkon at July 18, 2006 11:36 AM

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i personally don't have a problem with these tactics . They never really know what they may be walking into however; they really should make sure that they have the right house. i'm sure the cops are really embarassed by kicking in the door of some 88 year old grandma.

i feel that there are consequences for your actions. If you dable in illegal drugs, then you must accept the risk that you may indeed have an early morning door kick in coming, even if it's just a recreational amount. And spare me the "medical marijuana" speeches. i'm open minded but for f**ks sake people!

What i'd really like to see is a pot smoker sue a drug dealer for making him fat. "he smoked pot and was overcome with the munchies." That would be funny.

Posted by: Rob at July 18, 2006 6:27 AM

Why should the government have an iota of say about where you go in your own head -- providing you aren't going there while behind the wheel?

There are consequences for smoking pot, and the legal ones are idiotic and wrong...and I can't see how they're constitutional. I'm not a pot smoker (it makes me feel like somebody conked me over the head with a frying pan), but I support your right to do with your body whatever you want, as long as you don't expect me to pay for it (ie, you can't rightfully haul of and sue your dealer, the grocery store, or McDonald's).

Even while pot remains illegal, it's excessive exercise of force to break down the door of a recreational pot smoker. Read Balko's piece - he gets into why this is wrong. I'm on deadline, so I can't look up the passage for you, but I read it all, down to all the cases of SWAT overkill at the end, where I read a number of them, then stopped.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 18, 2006 6:46 AM

Oops, much of the reasoning is there in Brennan, just above.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 18, 2006 6:47 AM

i agree that a person has the right to go anywhere they want in thier head too, just be prepared for the consequences. i don't do it because i don't like the after effect ( doing stupid things like leaving my car in drive and getting out of it) i'm daft enough as it is. If i did, then i would accept the risk that i might end up in the back of a police van.

Posted by: Rob at July 18, 2006 7:25 AM

Ok....i see your point about excessive and innocent people being hurt and killed....

Posted by: Rob at July 18, 2006 7:38 AM

Accepting the risks of smoking pot (like behaving stupidly in your own home or eating an entire bag of cheetos) is one thing. Being arrested and/or thrown in jail (wait, who's paying for that? Oh yeah, US.) is another.

Posted by: Christina at July 18, 2006 11:37 AM

Runaway machismo.

Posted by: Crid at July 18, 2006 8:04 PM

Where's the motivation for this overkill originating ? Many nations seem to be losing all sense of police restraint - not just the U.S.
Concurrently, many night workers seem especially leery of crackheads running amok. Violence seems to have escalated from both criminals and enforcement.

Posted by: opit at July 18, 2006 8:30 PM

You're forgetting the government's list of likely terror targets we saw last week. Jasper, Florida is probably on it. So of course they need M-16's. Don't you know anything about counterterrorism?

Posted by: Gary S. at July 18, 2006 8:53 PM

Speaking of police friend Ralph was a victim over the weekend.


Guitarist Ralph Santolla of the Florida-based death metallers DEICIDE has issued a statement regarding the events of last Friday (July 14) when the band's show at Hustlers in Laredo, Texas was shut down by the police after four songs and Santolla was arrested during the ensuing chaos (allegedly for throwing a beer bottle at one of the officers) (see previous BLABBERMOUTH.NET stories: Story#1, Story#2). Ralph's statement reads as follows:

"Here's what happened: We pulled up at the hotel in Laredo around 4 in the afternoon. One of the local promoters, Liz, tells us to be downstairs at 6:30 to go to the venue. After we sit outside waiting for 45 minutes in the heat, we decided to go on our own. The first thing I see when we get there is this Liz chick sitting on her ass in ther venue. I said, 'Hey, thanks for leaving us sitting around waiting for you to pick us up.'

"Not a great start.

"Things were bad from the beginning. There was no stage. There were about 50 high school-looking kids standing around with tons of gear everywhere. The promoter said, 'We'll set you guys up after all the other bands, right before you play.' We were like, 'That's not how it works. Tell these kids to get their gear out of the way so we can set up, then they can set up in front of us.' That's pretty normal.

"It took these people an hour to figure out how to move 1/2 a drum set out of our way. A bad start.

"We asked for two hours for our rider, so we could get some water, but this Liz girl wasn't capable of giving straight answers to anything, and was a lot more concerned with her local band buddies concerns than putting on a show. We should never have been booked there in the first place.

"Right before we go onstage, they tell us their not paying us what they agreed to in the contract. A lot of promoters who aren't experienced don't seem to understand a guarantee means just that — a guarantee. If they risk their cash to put on a show, and then they don't promote or whatever, no matter whose fault it is, they take the hit, not the bands. They never complain when they make a lot of extra cash, but they squeal like a stuck pig when they don't.

"So anyway, we go onstage, and the power starts cutting out instantly. So they didn't provide a venue, enough power, a stage, the money, or a working P.A. We had to stop every 30 seconds. Finally, somebody says they're making us stop, so we go offstage. I went upstairs on the balcony to find my cigarettes. I'm standing there talking to the guys from RINGWORM, and I turned around and some fucking Nazi in a police uniform pepper sprays me and throws me on the ground. They didn't say, 'Stop, get on the ground,' nothing. Just ran up to me and sprayed me. They threw me down and I said, 'Why am I being arrested?' and one of them says, 'You threw a beer bottle at me.' I said, 'ME????' and one of the other cops starts yelling, 'SHUT THE FUCK UP, SHUT THE FUCK UP, I SAW YOU, I SAW YOU.' Then one of them puts his knee into my neck and puts all of his weight on it and starts grinding my face into the ground. Now, the thing is, this whole time, I'm just laying there being still. I can't see, I can't breathe, nothing. So it's not like I was struggling or resisting.

"If you've never been pepper sprayed, it fucking hurts. So now my hand is all fucked up, I've got a loose tooth, a bunch of stuff. Jack Owen [DEICIDE guitarist] told me the next day that he saw somebody in the crowd throw a beer up in the air. It bounced off something and hit the ground near the cop, and then all the cops went running up the stairs.

"That's it. I've done a lot of stupid things, but throwing bottles at cops isn't one of them."

Posted by: Rob at July 19, 2006 7:22 AM

One of the damnedest mistakes I have ever seen the public make is the assumption that a police officer has more "rights" than the everyday citizen. They have powers, not rights. Unfortunately, when you're a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

By the way - the IRS bought a few million bucks' worth of guns for its agents a few years ago - apparently to improve service, hm?

There's this idea that overwhelming force is needed by every police department. I sure wish overwhelming brains were seen as necessary. When the Waco thing started and Vernon Howell holed up, two buddies who were SEALs were incredulous that anybody let things get that far. And in fact, it was taken that far in order to show force. That's what militarized police are for.

See what you get when you insist that police do all the "protecting"?

The thug has to come out of the house sometime. Home invasion isn't something to cheer.

Posted by: Radwaste at July 19, 2006 6:35 PM

Rad is absolutely right. These people are too often using uzis to cure hangnails.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 20, 2006 6:25 AM

My only problem with cops having lots of M-16s, is that I can't get one at their same low, low prices.

And then there's the MP-5s...

Posted by: Sigivald at July 21, 2006 3:34 PM

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