Just before dawn one August morning last year, a Sunrise, Florida, SWAT team moved into position outside its target. At a commander's signal, the team kicked down the front door and began its assault with paramilitary precision. Within seconds shots rang out, and within moments it was clear that the team had secured its objective and killed its target.
The Sunrise SWAT team left with the evidence: A couple ounces of pot, and a set of scales. And while Anthony Diotaiuto was dead as a result of the SWAT team's actions, not one of its members faced criminal charges or even departmental discipline. They had gone by the book, even if the result was a life snuffed out over a couple ounces of marijuana.
While the Sunrise incident was unusual in that it ended up with a young man dead, fatal outcomes are bound to happen when the aggressive tactics of SWAT are employed. There are numerous examples: Eleven-year-old Alberto Sepulveda killed by a SWAT team shotgun blast as he lay on the floor during a 2001 Modesto, California, drug raid. Alberta Spruille, a 57-year-old New York City woman who died of a heart attack after a SWAT team with the wrong address threw flash bang grenades into her apartment. John Adams, a 64-year-old Lebanon, Tennessee, man killed by a SWAT team when he picked up a shotgun to defend himself and his wife from masked invaders who kicked down his door in the middle of the night -- another case of the wrong address. And on and on.
All of the incidents above are examples of paramilitary policing run amok. Whether they are called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams, Special Operations teams, Emergency Response Teams, or something else, paramilitary police units are now common throughout the country -- and are the stuff of fawning reality TV programming. The heavily-armed, often black uniformed, helmeted, masked police squads look and behave as if they are chasing insurgents in the back alleys of Baghdad, and that is little surprise given their antecedents in military special forces units.
SWAT teams are designed for use and are arguably appropriate in limited, extremely dangerous circumstances, such as capturing armed, barricaded hostage-takers. But they are now widely used for run of the mill drug raids and other routine law enforcement work. In the last month, SWAT teams have been used to arrest seven Tibetan Buddhist monks on immigration charges (Carter Lake, Iowa), raid an apartment above a busy restaurant owned by the mayor only to find less than an ounce of marijuana (Denver), search for a missing woman in a well-publicized case (Orlando), and to conduct a routine drug raid on a house they managed to set on fire with flash bang grenades (Pompano Beach, Florida). A few weeks earlier, in late January, a Fairfax, Virginia, SWAT team shot and killed an unarmed optometrist under investigation for gambling when he walked out his front door. Those are just the examples that make the news.
Across the country, seven days a week, SWAT teams are kicking down doors on drug raids that don't make the news -- it's just business as usual. In a scene undoubtedly repeated across the country, in Huron, SD, last month, a multi-agency SWAT-style team investigating an apartment house where a multi-pound package of marijuana being surveilled by police had previously been refused, burst into one apartment with guns drawn, knocked the female inhabitant to the ground, handcuffed the male inhabitant for three hours while they searched the premises, and came up with a couple of marijuana pipes. It being South Dakota, police were also able to order the inhabitants to submit to drug tests and were able to charge them with "internal possession" of drugs based on those tests, so they didn't come up completely empty-handed.
"This is an under the radar, but truly massive phenomenon," said Dr. Peter Kraska, professor of criminal justice and police studies at Eastern Kentucky University and author of "Militarizing The American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and Police."
"Very few people understand the magnitude of what it means to have police go from enforcing the drug laws through traditional undercover operations to a paramilitary approach where they gather together in heavily-armed squads and conduct crude investigations using search warrants to get inside people's homes," Kraska told DRCNet. "This has not happened before in American history, except way back when the military was looking for contraband."
According to statistics uncovered by Kraska, there were some 3,000 SWAT team deployments a year in the mid-1980s. By the late 1990s, that number had increased ten-fold, to some 30,000 a year, and is probably near 40,000 a year now. The resort to SWAT teams has also spread from large urban police departments to such violent crime hot spots as Grand Island, Nebraska, Bullhead City, Arizona, and Eufala, Alabama.
"We now have a situation where even in small departments, more than 70% have a fully functioning SWAT team," said Kraska. "The question is what are they going to do with them? It's highly unlikely these small-town departments are going to run into a legitimate hostage or barricade situation, so the departments have to figure out a way to use the SWAT teams, something to use them for."
"I think this is an example of build it and then you have to find a use for it," said retired Detective Lieutenant Jack Cole, a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police who is now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "SWAT tactics are appropriate when you have a life and death situation, but they are being used when they simply are not necessary. When I was a drug detective, one partner and I would go and arrest people when now they're calling in the whole SWAT team. Back then we did it better and did it quietly without people getting hurt. I worked narcotics for 14 years, and we never needed a SWAT team," he told DRCNet.
"This has all happened in a decade or so," said Kraska, "and it represents a fundamental shift in how police approach the drug war. In fact, it is the single most important indicator of them handling it as though it were a war as opposed to a drug problem. They are using teams modeled on military special operations squads, and even though they have different rules of engagement from the military, they are still using highly aggressive tactics for generally low-level drug use and dealing. SWAT teams place themselves and citizens in an extremely dangerous situation and not for justifiable reasons like a dangerous felon with a hostage, but for a few people smoking pot."
"Using SWAT teams to enforce the drugs laws is, in most instances, like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer," said Cole. "It's not necessary and it's very expensive. That's part of the problem. Departments equip these people at great expense and train them and train them, and then the departments figure they should use them for something, but they are really only appropriate in very limited circumstances."
SWAT teams come dangerously close to crossing the bright line separating law enforcement from military operations, Cole said. "There is something about training a police officer to go to war that I don't like," he said. "We're police, not soldiers, but we've got these guys dressed in black from head to toe, wearing body armor and riot helmets, carrying superweapons -- and we're using them for drug raids and walking the beat. This is a real warlike mentality that we don't need as far as I'm concerned."
Many departments allow SWAT team members to hide their identities. "Why on earth do these departments allow their SWAT teams to wear ski masks?" Cole asked. "That's just horrible. It intimidates and terrorizes people, and it hides your identity so you can do anything you damn well want. What do you think happens to kids traumatized by a dozen masked, uniformed strangers charging into their homes with machine guns and laser search lights running across their chests? Why do the good guys feel they have to wear masks? They're treating American citizens as if they were enemy combatants."