Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Danger of a Paramilitary Police Force


SWAT = Overkill in most real-world situations

SWAT Assault

Soldiers and Police are supposed to be different.

Soldiers are aimed at enemies from outside the country. They are trained to kill those enemies and their supporters. In fact, “killing people and breaking things” are their main reasons for existence.

Police look inward. They’re supposed to protect their fellow citizens from criminals, and to maintain order with a minimum of force.

It’s the difference between Audie Murphy and Andy Griffith. But nowadays, police are looking, and acting, more like soldiers than cops, with bad consequences. And those who suffer the consequences are usually innocent civilians. The trend toward militarizing police began in the ’60s and ’70s when standoffs with the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the University of Texas bell tower gunman Charles Whitman convinced many police departments that they needed more than .38 specials to deal with unusual, high-intensity threats. In 1965 Los Angeles inspector Daryl Gates, who later became police chief, signed off on the formation of a specially trained and equipped unit that he wanted to call the Special Weapons Attack Team. (The name was changed to the more palatable Special Weapons and Tactics). SWAT programs soon expanded beyond big cities with gang problems.

This approach, though, has led to problems both obvious and subtle. The obvious problem should be especially apparent to readers of this magazine: Once you’ve got a cool tool, you kind of want to use it. That’s true whether it’s a pneumatic drill, a laser level or an armored fighting vehicle. SWAT teams, designed to deal with rare events, wound up doing routine police work, like serving drug warrants.

The subtle effect is also real: Dress like a soldier and you think you’re at war. And, in wartime, civil liberties—or possible innocence—of the people on “the other side” don’t come up much. But the police aren’t at war with the citizens they serve, or at least they’re not supposed to be.

The combination of these two factors has led to some tragic mistakes: “no knock” drug raids, involving “dynamic entry,” where the wrong house has been targeted or where the raid was based on informants’ tips that turned out to be just plain wrong.

On Sept. 23, 2006, a SWAT team descended on the home of a farmer and his schoolteacher wife in Bedford County, Va. “I was held at gunpoint, searched, taunted and led into the house,” A.J. Nuckols wrote to his local paper. “I was scared beyond description. I feared there had been a murder and I was a suspect.” When the couple’s three children came home, the police grilled them, too. The family was held under guard for five hours as the SWAT team ransacked the place, seizing computers, a digital camera, DVDs and VHS tapes. Ten days later, the cops returned the belongings. It turned out that a special anti-child-porn police unit had made a mistake while tracing an computer address and sent the SWAT team to the wrong home.

Sometimes, homeowners are killed in these actions; other times, it’s the officers. When a narcotics task force raided a duplex apartment in Jefferson Davis County, Miss., in 2001, they arrested one tenant, then burst into the adjacent apartment of Cory Maye. Thinking a burglar had broken into the bedroom he shared with his toddler, Maye shot the officer fatally. Maye was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, although irregularities in the trial eventually led to his conviction being overturned and a new trial ordered.

And, in a case that is now drawing national attention, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, who lived in a high-crime neighborhood of Atlanta, recently opened fire on police when they broke down her door while executing a drug warrant. They returned fire, killing her. It’s hard to believe any of this would have happened had the police taken a less aggressive approach in the first place.

It used to be that police came to the door, announced themselves and, once a homeowner responded, entered the premises. Most policemen still work this way. But an alarming number now break down doors first and ask questions later. Don’t get me wrong: Police often do dangerous work and they need equipment that’s going to protect them. And dynamic entry is valid when dealing with desperate criminals, but these tactics put ordinary citizens—and the police—at risk. And when they do, it’s often hard to get redress. Lawsuits against police and supervisors face strict legal limits in the form of “qualified immunity,” and prosecutors, who work with the police on a regular basis, are unlikely to bring criminal charges against officers who negligently kill people. But homeowners confronted with tactics like flash-bang grenades and shouting that are intended to disorient targets, tend to be held to a much higher standard. The result, as in the Cory Maye case, is that people who do the laudable thing and defend their homes against unknown, armed intruders sometimes wind up being prosecuted for murder.

Check out the article at Popular Mechanics.

Here are a couple more recent police shooting articles: NYC Police Investigating Shooting Death by Police of Groom on His Wedding Day and Police Kill North Carolina College Student Accused of Stealing PlayStation 3 Consoles

I guess I can recognize the need for SWAT teams in a major gang takedown or terrorist situation, but I must agree that it seems law enforcement groups want to use the "big guns" whenever the opportunity arises... even if it's a little old lady in her house with a freaking wheelchair ramp outside the front door.

I think the SWAT teams should give more warning and be more recognizable as law enforcement officers. Many a robber will impersonate a police officer in order to have his way with a victim.

I have no reason for the police to raid my home, so I'm automatically assuming that anyone kicking down my door is intent on harming me or my family members... I'm taking him down. So, what if he turns out to be a cop acting on a false tip? I'm justified in protecting my home, but he's justified in defending himself from me... my death would be a justifiable police shooting, but his death would be a murder and I would go down for it.

Police have to know that this is not a Police State! This is a free country, with law abiding citizens who will defend their homes with deadly force. Police must effectively announce their presence and distinguish themselves from the average thug with a uniform. This isn't rocket science, it's just common sense. I refuse to give up my rights to accommodate an oppressive police force!

It's Better to Die on Your Feet than to Live on Your Knees!

Check out my previous post regarding Non-Lethal Weapons.

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