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Demilitarize The Police
SWAT Targets Family for Drinking Tea

In 21st-century America, the most innocent of activities could have a SWAT team busting down your door. Reason profiles the Harte family, who were the victims of a SWAT home invasion after police raided their garbage cans (h/t Ben Domench). An unreliable field test falsely identified Addie Harte’s trashed teabags as marijuana, and SWAT leapt into action. The Hartes didn’t just suffer the trauma of the raid—they had to spend $25,000 just to find out why they were targeted.

America has seen an alarming, and under-reported, increase in SWAT teams doing routine police work, as Radley Balko pointed out in a piece for The American Interest:

In the early 1970s, there were just a few hundred SWAT operations per year in America. By the early 1980s, there were about 3,000. By the year 2000, there were 45,000. And by 2005, it was 50,000. Kraska’s last survey was in 2005, but he estimates that the number could be as high as 80,000 today. The vast majority of these raids, [criminologist Peter] Kraska found, are to serve warrants on people suspected of drug crimes. SWAT teams once used violence to defuse already violent situations and to save lives at immediate risk. Today they are primarily used in a way that creates violence and confrontation where neither needs to exist. They were once used to confront a suspect or suspects in the process of committing a violent crime. Today, they’re used as an investigative tool to search the homes of people only suspected of crimes, and not particularly serious or violent crimes at that.

Balko is quoted in a comprehensive feature on the subject in the current issue of the Economist, which explains how SWAT units rose to such forbidding prevalence. The article recounts a particularly disturbing 2006 case in which a SWAT team, having falsified information they used to obtain a “no-knock” warrant, killed a 92-year-old-woman who thought the people breaking into her house were robbers and shot at them accordingly. They later planted marijuana in her house to justify the incursion. We’re glad to see this issue pushed to the forefront of our national discourse. Perhaps a bipartisan effort to demilitarize our police will emerge, perhaps stemming from the bipartisan enthusiasm for prison reform.

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  • Pete

    “Perhaps a bipartisan effort to demilitarize our police will emerge, perhaps stemming from the bipartisan enthusiasm for prison reform.”

    I hope so.

    • Andrew Allison

      Don’t hold your breath. What’s needed is public outrage at the abuses of civil liberties being perpetrated by our Federal, State and Local governments. Wake up America, your liberty is at risk!

  • LivingRock

    Not to over simplify, but when you declare “war” on things it’s no surprise there’s militarization that follows.

    • Corlyss

      We didn’t see it so widespread before 9/11. SWAT was around long before 9/11 and was not so troubling.

      • LivingRock

        I think it’s also attributed to the “War on Drugs”. Notice the stat above “By the early 1980s, there were about 3,000 [SWAT operations]. By the year 2000, there were 45,000.”

        • Corlyss

          I hear ya. But really, can you remember the mistakes occurring, or at least being reported on as much as they are today? Keep in mind the “press effect” which is “if it ain’t in the news, it didn’t happen” and conversely, “what’s in the news is the only things one has to worry about.” I tend to think it’s another knock on the media which really hate the police until one of their reporters or cameramen gets the crap beat out of them.

      • Bruce

        Testosterone heavy law enforcement officials will use excuses to grow their power, just as most human beings will. 9-11 was a perfect excuse and we’ve seen what happened since. Nobody is talking about disarming law enforcement. We are talking about a reasonable amount of force when required and no force when none is needed and required.

        • Corlyss

          I thought we were talking about mistakes where they went to the wrong address, etc., and shot up innocents. They could have done that with service pistols. It’s not the armament that makes the news. It’s the mistakes. THAT’s what’s produced the recent uproar, and that’s the impetus for the book that’s touted as the authority on the subject.

          • Bruce

            That’s part of it. But it’s the mindset that allows for these kinds of things to happen and it’s a mindset that needs changing. As you turn up the armaments, you turn up the machismo and bad things happen.

          • Corlyss

            You know, I heard that about racism in the police 60 years ago, esp. police in the south. The situation is 180 today, with the aging out of racists and the increase in minority membership in the police and the general sensitizing of the society.
            You can change a mindset with training. Tightening up the communications will help.

          • DiogenesDespairs

            Agree that it is the mistakes. That, and the wish to break in and seize drug-violation evidence before it can be flushed down the toilet.

            Establishing a pattern of awarding really big judgments to traumatized immocents (or their survivors) and abruptly ending the careers of the people who make the mistakes ought to go a long way toward correcting that.

      • Dan

        because now the police departments have all the surplus military toys to play with

    • Jim__L

      I seem to recall John Cleese, “not one to court popularity”, talking in a Monty Python skit about his ideas for the War on Poverty.

      That had as much relevance to reality as the above comment.

  • Corlyss

    I’ve supported the militarizing of police since the tragic North Hollywood shootout in 1997. The image of outgunned police having to beg higher powered guns than their service pistols from a gun store owner is an image I don’t ever want to see again. The urban gangs and drug cartels have no pesky budgetary process or ankle-biting citizens review boards to second guess police conclusions reached in the heat of battles the review board members wilL NEVER see in their lifetimes and which can provide fodder for merciless prosecutions designed to hold governmental entities harmless for fallout.

    I believe the solution to the spate of isolated unfortunate mistakes is better error control in communications that have caused raids on the wrong sites. Crap happens in law enforcement. The answer is NOT to disarm the police, but better quality control.

    • Jim__L

      If the police can’t demonstrate that they’re outgunned, they shouldn’t be loaded for bear.

    • circleglider

      We have met the enemy, and he is us.

      Well, he’s certainly Corlyss.

      • Corlyss

        That’s she, Rhed.

    • rheddles

      The question is how isolated they are. And I’m coming to the conclusion they are far too prevalent. We aren’t talking about the infrequent and isolated major gun battles, we are talking about the routine, daily, no-knock raids that too often end with innocents killed. Too many of the police appear to think we are all the enemy in their war. And after a while that makes the police everybody’s enemy.

    • qet

      There is more here at work than just relative armaments. First, notice all of the raids on soft targets. We almost never hear of raids on meth labs, for instance. Because meth cookers will shoot back. It is just human nature to want to play dress up and play with your toys without incurring risk, and that is the profile of all of these recent SWAT raids. Second, armed law enforcement personnel have increased dramatically of late, at all levels of government. It is wilfull ignorance not to understand that, like the Air Cavalry squadron in Apocalypse Now, these people are going to go “tear-assing around looking for the sh*t.” Third, the police have an attitude. My grandfather was a law enforcement officer, and I have always been nothing but polite and respectful to police officers, but I have noticed in my own case, and have heard the same from many others, that the police today will brook no questioning, no challenge; they are almost uniformly hostile and rude to “civilians” no matter what the encounter. The “us versus them” mindset seems to have risen to new heights. It is for these reasons that disarmament is necessary. Good luck, though. It is very difficult to disarm anyone. (All that said, my last encounter with my local police went quite well, so like anything else what is true generally is not true in each individual case).

      • Corlyss

        “We almost never hear of raids on meth labs, for instance. Because meth cookers will shoot back.”

        We have them all the time here in Utah. The nightly news is the police blotter, followed by the sob-story of the day, followed by some feel-good nonsense, and then the weather and sports.

        “It is wilfull ignorance . . ”

        No it isn’t. It’s what we call “a disagreement.” You have facts. I have other facts. It’s not willful ignorance on either if I don’t think your facts trump my facts or if you don’t think my facts trump your facts. It’s just a difference of opinion. Unless you’re one of those privacy activists that think any encounter with the police is a violation of your rights.

        “Third, the police have an attitude.”

        They have an attitude about the scum and low-lifes they’ve been hired to protect the rest of us from. The have a more respectful attitude toward people that are not their usual daily fare. Ordinary middle class people don’t usually have a problem when stopped or visited by the police. My encounters have never been anything but cordial. But then, I’m not a drug-dealer with a record living in a slum where calls for domestic violence and robberies are routine. I don’t blame them for having attitude about the people they ordinarily have to deal with.

        “It is for these reasons that disarmament is necessary.”
        Let’s wait for the results of the experiment that NYC has just decided to launch. De Blasio is going to have the police is such a state of innervation that it should be a nice test of your theory.

    • AD_Rtr_OS

      And, IIRC, the Feds and State, put that dealer out of business for “paperwork” errors, and the City may or may not have ever paid the bill for the arms and ammo that were supplied to them during the North Hollywood Shootout.

      One thing that could go a long way to bringing these “use of force” incidents under control would be for judges to actually demand to see (and read) the background data used by the police to demonstrate their “probably cause”, instead of just casually scanning the stack and rubber-stamping the warrant.

  • Blaton Hardey

    People should stop drinking tea

    • AD_Rtr_OS

      Perhaps we should institute a tax on tea?

      • Blaton Hardey

        Oh, it’s time for another party!

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    This is insane, the police are suppose to be the ones solving crimes with logical thinking, but here they think drug dealers are throwing away pot in tea bags in the trash. I hope they get sued, and the idiots in charge get fired.

  • Blaton Hardey

    Why does this kind of stuff happen? It doesn’t have anything to do with the kind of weapons cops are issued. It happens because cops CAN kick in your door and search your house based on NO EVIDENCE at all WITHOUT having to fear consequences. If we want this waste of human potential to end, 1st we need to decriminalize the use and possession of drugs, 2nd we need to have different units dealing with different kinds of stuff (traffic violations are not the same thing as domestic violence) and 3rd police departments across America need to get their goddamn act together and clean up their own ranks. I think there’s a lot of cops out there who just want to help fellow citizens, bring (true) criminals to justice and serve their community. They do not want to be seen as a proto-fascist, arbitrarily violent gang of jerks.

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