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.