SWAT/Paramilitarization

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It Could Happen to You (Action Alert)

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Protect your community!Tell Congress to stop supporting
militarized police drug raids.

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Email Your Members of Congress

Dear friends,

How would you react if a large group of men in camouflage and combat boots came bursting through your front door with machine guns pointed at you? Helen Pruett, a 76-year-old woman who lives alone in Polk County, GA, suffered a heart attack when her house was mistakenly stormed by about a dozen local and federal agents looking for suspected drug dealers. Militarized police units are used every day to conduct drug raids and it is getting out of control.

Tell Congress to put a stop to these dangerous home invasions.

The Polk County raid is not an isolated incident, and it’s not a result of rogue police officers overstepping their orders. There are more than 100 SWAT raids in America every day, most commonly to serve drug warrants. When police invade homes in riot gear with machine guns and flash bang grenades, they’re following standard procedure.

What’s even more disturbing is that these raids can happen anywhere, to anyone, no matter how minor the offense. Sometimes a crime hasn’t even occurred. Police raid the wrong house or act on information from untrustworthy informants, and completely innocent people wake up in the middle of the night to armed men breaking down their front door.

Congress’s funding of the war on drugs has allowed police excess to escalate out of control.Federal drug war grants for SWAT team equipment and drug task forces create incentives for local police to militarize. Local squads even have access to weapons from the Pentagon’s surplus arms stock.Demand an end to federal funding for this misuse of police resources.

The war on drugs isn’t just an ideological battle.  It’s a real war, with real weapons and real casualties, waged against American civilians. These dangerous raid tactics show just how far it’s escalated -- they're the end result of the drug war’s militarization of local law enforcement. 

Paramilitary raids should not be happening daily in our neighborhoods.  They should not be happening when no threat to public safety exists. Police should be keeping the peace instead of treating our communities like war zones.

It's time to push back on politicians who let these raids continue.  Urge your members of Congress to stop supporting SWAT raids for nonviolent drug law violations.

Sincerely,

Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance

Location: 
GA
United States

Grandmother's Death in Botched Drug Raid Leads to $4.9 Million Settlement

The 2006 killing of Kathryn Johnston gave the American public a window into the rampant incompetence and needless violence that so often characterizes modern drug enforcement. A massive settlement announced today will hopefully serve as a vivid reminder to police that dirty tactics can carry a heavy price.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- The city of Atlanta will pay $4.9 million to the family of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman killed in a botched November 2006 drug raid, Mayor Kasim Reed's office announced Monday.

Johnston was shot to death by narcotics officers conducting a "no-knock" warrant. Investigators later determined the raid was based on falsified paperwork stating that illegal drugs were present in the home.

In the four years since Johnston's death, we've seen equally dramatic national controversies emerge from Berwyn Heights, MD and Columbia, MO, as well as countless other disturbing events that for whatever reason failed to generate national outrage. I can only imagine that the next great drug raid fiasco is just around the corner. Until the drug war is brought to an end, the loss of innocent lives will continue and the cost of cleaning up the mess will fall on every one of us.

California Endures Another Summer of Outdoor Marijuana Raids [FEATURE]

It's August in California, and that means the state's multi-billion outdoor marijuana crop is ripening in the fields. It also means that the nearly 30-year-old effort to uproot those plants, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), is once taking up its Sisyphean task of wiping out the crop. The choppers are flying, the SWAT teams are deploying, and the federal funds that largely feed CAMP are being burned through.

marijuana eradication helicopter
The raids are nearly a daily event in the Golden State at this time of year. CAMP spokesperson Michelle Gregory told the Chronicle Wednesday that the campaign had uprooted 2.27 million pot plants as of this week, slightly behind the 2.4 million uprooted by this time last year. Last year was a CAMP record, with 4.4 million plants seized by year's end.

"It's about the same this year," said Gregory.

In just the past couple of weeks, CAMP and associated law enforcement agencies pulled up 91,000 plants in Santa Barbara County, 48,000 plants in Sonoma County, and 21,000 plants in Calaveras County. So far this year, in Mendocino County alone, more than 470,000 plants have been destroyed.

The enforcement effort has also led to the deaths of at least three growers this year. A worker at a grow in Napa County was killed early last month when he pointed a gun at police. Another worker at a grow in Santa Clara County was killed two weeks ago. And last week, police in Mendocino County killed a third grower they encountered holding a rifle during an early morning raid.

While the number of deaths this year is high -- one grower was killed in Lassen County last year, one was killed in Humboldt County in 2007, and two were killed in Shasta County in 2003 -- there have also been other violent incidents. Last month, somebody shot out the rear window of a Mendocino County Sheriff's vehicle as it left a grow raid in the western part of the county, and police in Lake County encountered an armed grower there, but he fled.

CAMP and other law enforcement efforts may destroy as much as 25% of the state's outdoor harvest, but it is unclear what real impact the program is having. Prices for outdoor marijuana have been dropping in California for the past year, the availability of pot remains high, and use levels appear unchanged.

Bureau of Land Management agents recording a
marijuana field's location using GPS
"To point out the obvious, in almost 30 years, CAMP has been unable to reduce marijuana use or availability," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "All it does is pay for law enforcement officers to go out in the woods and pull weeds. Every year, they find more and more, and that just motivates illegal growers to plant more."

"CAMP is an enormous waste of money -- I've even heard law enforcement refer to this as helicopter rides," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Drug Policy Alliance in Los Angeles. "It's fun for them, but spending this money on that doesn't do any good, and that's a shame when we're in such dire budgetary shape on all levels."

"I think we are making a difference," said CAMP spokesperson Gregory. "There are still plants out there, but at the same time, the way we look at it, they are willing to defend their grow sites, so we're obviously impacting them monetarily."

Gregory blamed Mexico drug trafficking organizations for much of the illicit production, but was unable to cite specific prosecutions linked to them. She also cited environmental damage done to national parks and forests by illicit grows.

"Nobody wants our national parks and forests to be turned into illegal marijuana grows," said Dooley-Sammuli, "but the question is what is the best approach. The more we spend on CAMP, the more helicopter rides and gardening projects we get, but marijuana prices don't go up, and there is no measurable impact on availability. What we do get is increased violence in the national parks. The government should be looking at how best to reduce illegal grows," said Dooley-Sammuli. "One way would be to allow lawful cultivation as part of a regulated market."

Deputies prepare to repel out of helicopter into a marijuana grow (Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office via SB Independent Weekly)
The US Justice Department is spending nearly $3.6 billion this year to augment budgets of state and local law-enforcement agencies. In addition, the federal government last year set aside close to $4 billion of the economic-stimulus package for law-enforcement grants for state and local agencies. The White House also is spending about $239 million this year to fund local drug-trafficking task forces. In California, many of those task forces work with CAMP.

One approach to defanging CAMP is to work to cut off the federal funding spigot. Since it is largely dependent on federal dollars, attacking federal funding could effectively starve the program, especially given the perpetual budget crisis at the state and local level in California. But that runs into the politics of supporting law enforcement.

"There are many federal funding streams that go to state and local law enforcement, and there is a lot of politics around that," said Dooley-Sammuli. "CAMP really has little to do with marijuana and a lot to do with funding law enforcement."

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko is a case in point. He told the Wall Street Journal last month that although he is having to lay off employees, reduce patrols, and even release inmates early because of the budget crunch, he's spending more money on pot busts because "it's where the money is."

He has spent about $340,000 since last year on eradication in order to ensure that his department gets $492,000 in federal anti-drug funds. That is "$340,000 I could use somewhere else in my organization," he said. "That could fund three officers' salaries and benefits, and we could have them out on our streets doing patrol."

Sheriff's Deputies transporting larger marijuana plants
from site (SBSO via SB Independent Weekly)
"We're giving law enforcement resources, but not allowing them to put them to the best use," said Dooley-Sammuli. "With all the cuts we're having, I don't know any Californians who would rather spend federal law enforcement on helicopter rides and pulling plants out of the ground. Why are we forcing our law enforcement to prioritize something that for most of the public is at the bottom of the list?"

It's the law of unintended consequences that provoked the boom in growing on public lands in the first place, said Meno. "Around 2002, law enforcement said they started seeing a dramatic shift toward outdoor grows on public lands, but that's because they were raiding people growing indoors and on private property. Prohibition and law enforcement tactics drove those people out into those federal lands. Now, some of our most treasured resources are overflowing with marijuana because they were pushed there by law enforcement."

For CAMP, the endless war continues. "The laws are what they are," said Gregory. "Whether it's marijuana or meth or heroin, we're going to enforce the law. If the law changes, that's different," she said, responding to a query about the looming marijuana legalization vote. "But we're always going to have something to enforce."

CA
United States

StoptheDrugWar.org on Huffington Post

I have started blogging on Huffington Post. Check out my first post there, SWAT Raids: No One Is Safe. This is a basic statement laying out the case for why SWAT deployments are now out-of-control and need to be dramatically reined in. Sadly, even more outrageous and infuriating evidence of the need for SWAT to be reined in has already come out, as Scott's latest post here last night demonstrates. If you'd like to follow me on Huffington Post on a regular basis, visit my page there to make use one of the subscription options -- make sure to "like" the page on Facebook too. I will also be writing more editorials over the coming months in our own Drug War Chronicle newsletter; check out the latest one if you haven't already, here.

Police Kill Grandmother's Dog in Botched Drug Raid

I don't know what else to say about this, except that it's just like all the other inexcusably brutal, incompetent and entirely unnecessary drug raid killings we've covered here:


As usual, the officers involved had every opportunity on earth not to shoot this woman's dog. She asked to put the dog in the bathroom and they said to go ahead and do that. Then, at some point, an officer went into the bathroom and killed the dog.

The guy they were looking for hadn’t even lived there in 12 years.

Law Enforcement: Dog-Killing SWAT Raid Continues to Reverberate in Missouri College Town

The February SWAT team raid on Columbia, Missouri, resident Jonathan Whitworth and his family didn't start causing political tremors until video of the raid, in which one of the family's dogs was killed and another wounded, went viral on YouTube last month. But now, even after the Columbia Police Department has reined in SWAT with new policies, outrage and concern over the raid and the way the SWAT team has been used continues to reverberate.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/columbiaraid.jpg
That was evident at a city council meeting Monday night, where a citizens' group whose formation was inspired by the SWAT raid, CoMoCitizens, urged the council to go a step further and act to make permanent the reforms announced by Police Chief Ken Burton. According to its web site, the group opposes the use of SWAT and the use of search warrants in nonviolent cases, including drug possession and distribution.

"It goes without saying that it is policy that needs to be changed," Warren said in remarks reported by the University of Missouri newspaper The Maneater and the Columbia Missourian. "Chief Burton has made significant policy changes and I've come here to ask you to make these policy changes permanent. I would also like to request that you consider enacting a policy that prohibits execution of search warrants which are inherently violent for nonviolent offenses," said Warren. "This would ensure the public that there is at least less of a risk of an incident such as the February 11 SWAT raid occurring in our community."

Making the restrictions on SWAT and the execution of search warrants binding would reassure the public and keep law enforcement officers safer, Warren said. "The raid itself is what escalates the situation to out-of-control mode," he told the council before reading from Radley Balko's Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America. "These raids bring unnecessary violence and provocation to nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom were guilty of only misdemeanors," Warren quoted Balko.

The council did not act on CoMoCitizens' requests, but the emergence of the group is yet another indicator that the February SWAT raid has roused Columbia's citizenry. And that is precisely what it will take to make police law enforcement rein in its aggressive tactics against the citizenry. Maybe something good is coming out of that misbegotten raid after all.

Feature: Reining in SWAT -- Towards Effective Oversight of Paramilitary Police Units

As is periodically the case, law enforcement SWAT teams have once again come under the harsh gaze of a public outraged and puzzled by their excesses. First, it was the February SWAT raid on a Columbia, Missouri, home where police shot two dogs, killing one, as the suspect, his wife, and young son cowered. Police said they were looking for a dealer-sized stash of marijuana, but found only a pipe with residues. When police video of that raid hit the Internet and went viral this month, the public anger was palpable, especially in Columbia.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/contracostaswat.jpg
SWAT team, Contra Costa County, California
Then came a botched SWAT raid in Georgia -- not a forced entry, but otherwise highly aggressive, and directed at the wrong building -- that left a 76-year-old woman hospitalized with a heart attack.

And then came the tragedy in Detroit two weeks ago, where a member of a Detroit Police SWAT team killed seven-year-old Aiyana Jones as she slept on a living room couch. Allegedly, the officer had a tussle with the girl's grandmother as he charged through the door after a flash-bang grenade was thrown through the window, and the gun discharged accidentally, though the account has been disputed by the family's attorney. In this instance, police were not looking for drugs but for a murder suspect. He was later found in another apartment in the same house. Again, the public dismay and anger was palpable.

Botched (wrong address or wrong person) raids or raids where it appears excessive force has been used are certainly not a new phenomenon, as journalist Radley Balko documented in his 2006 study, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America." But most raids gone bad do not get such wide public or media attention.

The victims often are poor, or non-white, or both. Or -- worse yet -- they are criminal suspects, who generally generate little sympathy, even when they are abused.

And while they were originally created to handle very special problems -- terrorist incidents, hostage situations, and the like -- there just aren't that many of those. As a result the use of SWAT has seen "mission creep," where SWAT teams are now routinely called out to serve search warrants, particularly in drug cases. In 1980, 2,884 SWAT deployments were recorded nationwide; the number today is estimated by experts at 50,000 annually or more.

The sheer normality of SWAT teams doing drug raids now, as well the status of their victims, has resulted in effective immunity and impunity for SWAT teams that commit errors or engage in unnecessary force. Most of the time when a raid goes bad, nothing happens.

It seems to take an especially outrageous incident, like Columbia or Detroit, to inspire public concern, and even then, it is the citizenry and perhaps part of elected officialdom against the powerful law enforcement establishment. Creating effective oversight over SWAT teams and their paramilitary raids is not easy -- but it can be done, or at least started.

The now infamous 2008 raid on the home of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, Mayor Cheye Calvo by a Prince Georges County Police SWAT team is a case in point. In that raid, police were tracking a package they knew contained marijuana, and once it was delivered to Calvo's house and taken inside, the SWAT team rushed in, manhandled Calvo and his mother-in-law and shot and killed Calvo's two dogs.

But further investigation showed the Calvos were doubly victimized, not criminals. They were victims of drug dealers who would send packages to unknowing addresses, then pick them up after they were left by the delivery man. And they were the victims of a SWAT team run amok.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/pasadenaswat.jpg
SWAT team, Pasadena, Texas
But Prince Georges SWAT hit the wrong guy when it Calvo's house, and not just because Calvo and his mother-in-law and his dogs were innocent victims. Calvo was not just an upstanding member of the community -- he was the mayor of his town. And beyond that, his former day job with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) gave him both personal connections to legislators and the knowledge to work the system.

Prodded by Calvo and others, the Maryland legislature last year passed a bill making it the first state to make any attempt to rein in SWAT. That bill requires each agency with a SWAT team to file annual reports detailing their activities and the results of their raids. The effort was opposed by law enforcement, of course, but legislators were swayed by hours of gut-wrenching testimony from raid victims.

"It was the telling of the stories of a number of people who had suffered either botched or ill-advised raids," Calvo explained to Drug War Chronicle. "It happens so often, and the stories don't get told in a meaningful way, but my incident made such wide headlines that people called me reaching out, and once those circles developed, we were able to get some political momentum," he recalled.

"I happened to be in a unique position," he said. "Through my experience at NCSL, I knew a lot of legislators and worked with the Judiciary Committee in Maryland to get a bill drafted. When we had hearings, it wasn't just one or two stories, probably more like a dozen, including people we didn't know about, but who just showed up to tell their stories. There was a wrong house raid with a dog killed, there was a warrant served at a bad address, a mother whose house was raided after her son was caught with a gram of marijuana, there was a triple no-knock raid at three homes with the same name on all three, there was a former member of the judiciary committee whose mother's home was raided because police were looking for a relative. They kicked in her door and knocked her to the ground," Calvo recalled.

"Each story helped connect the dots," he explained. "Those stories made a powerful case. We were not saying the Assembly should micromanage the police, but we wanted to shine a light on what was happening. The first step was making people aware, and getting the SWAT data makes tangible and comprehensive what is otherwise anecdotal."

Although the first formal report on Maryland SWAT raids is not due until this fall, preliminary numbers from the first six months of reporting have already generated more stories in the press and kept the issue alive. And they provide grist for the reform mill.

"It's not just the number of raids, it's that 92% of them are for search warrants, not hostage situations or bank robberies or the like," said Calvo. "It's that two times out of three, they kick in the door. It's that in some jurisdictions -- Prince Georges, Anne Arundel, Annapolis -- the majority of deployments are for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. Prince Georges had 105 raids against nonviolent offenders in six months, and that speaks to deeper policy problems. Baltimore County deployed only once for a nonviolent offense. That's more a model of professionalism."

Calvo said he plans to use the full year's worth of SWAT raid reporting due this fall to return to Annapolis to push for further reforms. "The legislature could impose training standards or other statewide protocols," he said. "It could impose more transparency. A full year of data will be helpful with that. Hopefully, the reporting requirement passed last year will end up being just the first step in a multi-step process to insert some better judgment into the process for when these paramilitary units are deployed."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/swatcartoon2.jpg
PolitickerMD cartoon about the Calvo raid
The dog-killing SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri, has also resulted in activism aimed at reining in SWAT, and it has already had an impact. Under withering public criticism, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton quickly instituted changes in the SWAT team's command and control structure and when and how it could be used. He also came out for marijuana legalization, saying he believed many police would be happy to not have to enforce pot prohibition.

The activism is continuing, however. "There is a lot going on in response to that raid," said Columbia attorney Dan Viets, a member of the board of national NORML. "The ACLU and NORML are involved, but so are groups of citizens who have not been activists before. And our police chief has been pretty responsive -- he doesn't have that bunker mentality that so many cops do," Viets said.

"For us, it's not so much SWAT as the use of search warrants for nonviolent crimes. Whether they have SWAT on the back of their jackets or not, they still do the same brutal stuff," the defense attorney continued. "The execution of a search warrant is almost always a violent act, it's a home invasion. It isn't that they're SWAT that matters, it's the fact that they engage in violence in the execution of those search warrants," he said.

"We are trying to suggest that police not use search warrants for nonviolent crime," said Viets. "They can rely on the tried and true: Send in an informer to do a controlled buy, then get an arrest warrant. Even the chief has said that they would try to arrest people outside their homes."

Similar outrage and activism is occurring in Detroit, where anti-police sentiments were loudly voiced in the days after the killing of Aiyana Jones. Police brutality activists usually isolated in their complaining are being joined by everyday citizens. The Detroit City Council is investigating. The Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at Jones' funeral. But whether the uproar results in a reformed SWAT policy remains to be seen.

"The death of that girl in Detroit was an inevitable result of the broad use of these things," said Calvo. "When you're doing 50,000 or 75,000 SWAT raids a year, it will eventually happen."

"Whatever one thinks about using SWAT tactics when looking for a murder suspect, the results in Detroit show how dangerously volatile these tactics really are," said Dave Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who is also the moving force behind the Americans for SWAT Reform web site and campaign. "There is every reason to believe that conducting a late night raid and detonating flash bang grenades led to the physical contact between the woman and the officer in which the gun discharged, killing the girl. That's all the more reason to avoid those tactics wherever possible, certainly in routine drug search warrants."

"In Detroit, they were going after a murder suspect, but there are a whole lot of questions about their tactical intelligence," said criminologist David Klinger, a former LAPD and Redmond, Washington, police officer and author of "Into the Kill Zone: a Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force," who now works for the Police Executive Research Forum. "Did they know there were children present? Why didn't they just do a contain and call?" where police secure the perimeter and tell the suspect to come outside, he asked.

While sending in the SWAT team in Detroit may be justified, said Klinger, the use of SWAT for small-time drug raids is not. "If you're sending in a SWAT team for a small amount of marijuana, that doesn't make sense," said Klinger. "There are some domestic agencies that don't understand that they should be utilizing some sort of threat assessment. That's one of the big issues regardless of who has oversight. A lot of it is a training issue about when SWAT should be utilized."

There are different pressure points where reformers can attempt to get some control over SWAT deployments. They range from the departmental level, to city hall or the county government, to the state house, and to Congress.

"The first level of oversight should be within the agency, whether it's the chief or some other officer with oversight over SWAT," said Klinger. "You need to make sure they have appropriate command and control and supervision, appropriate surveillance, tactical intelligence, and evidence of something out of the usual as opposed to just 'there's drugs there.' There needs to be a threat matrix done -- are there unusual fortifications, is there a history of violence, are weapons present other than for self protection?"

Neill Franklin is a former Maryland police officer with SWAT experience. He is also the incoming head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). For Franklin, SWAT has limited legitimate uses, but aggressive, paramilitarized policing has gone too far. He blames the war on drugs.

"Back in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn't use SWAT teams to conduct search warrants unless it was a truly documented violent organization," he said. "As the drug war escalated, we started using SWAT to execute drug-related warrants. When I first started as an undercover officer, the narcotics team executed the warrant, along with two or three uniformed officers, but not with the high-powered weapons and force we use today. The drug war is the reason for using these teams and the driving force behind them," said the former narc.

"Because police have become accustomed to serving so many warrants, they've also become accustomed to using SWAT for every warrant," said Franklin. "In the past, they were more selective. You had to provide the proper intel and articulate why a SWAT team was needed, what was the history of violence, what was the prospect of violence. Some departments now are very strict -- you have to ID the house and the people you're after, you have to photograph the house and the door you're going to go through, you have to know who should be in that house, what special circumstances may be involved, and whether there are children or animals in the house -- but now, I think a lot of departments aren't doing the proper intel."

"You need a threat matrix that talks about unusual weapons," said Klinger. "Does some guy have an automatic shotgun? Is he a major dealer? That's when you might want to send in SWAT, but it's not a good idea to routinely use SWAT."

In addition to doing surveillance and gathering intelligence, police need to ensure they are using the right personnel for SWAT teams, said Franklin, alluding to the fact that such teams are often accused of having a "cowboy" mentality. "These guys are self-selected and handpicked," he said. "You need people in good physical shape, but you have to have a process for selecting the right people with the right personalities."

Franklin also pointed a finger at judges. "I think a lot of the time, judges give warrants out too easily," he said. "A lot of them are just boilerplate, already typed up; you just fill in the blanks and a little detail. They are too easy to draft and get approved by a judge. The judges need to be a bit more strict and ask some questions to ensure a no-knock warrant is justified."

But departmental policies are where to begin, Franklin said. "Policy is the critical point," said Franklin, "policy is the key. And maybe judges need to be involved in asking those policy questions. Are there kids in the home? Dogs? Special circumstances? Do you have photos? I don't think judges are asking enough questions, and there is too much rubber-stamping of warrants. The judges are too loose on this; they need to tighten up."

The next levels of oversight -- and opportunities for intervention -- are the local and state governments, said Klinger. "It generally stops with the mayor and city council, but now Maryland has a law where they have to report, and I don't have a problem with that. We are a representative republic, and the power of the police is very strong. The government operates by the consent of the governed, and the governed need to have information about what their police are doing. Why not?"

There is plenty of work that could be done at the state level, said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF). "You could amend a state criminal procedure statute to require that a specialized kind of warrant would be needed to use a SWAT team. You could spell out particular things that had to be established, you might require additional verification of informant information beyond an ordinary search warrant, or specific evidence about possession of weapons and evidence about their connection to criminal activity, you could require higher degrees of confirmation about the address, you could require specific findings regarding the presence of children or the elderly, that a buy be done not by an informant but by a member of the law enforcement agency, that there be continuous surveillance of the property for some period before the raid takes place to verify who is present," Sterling said, ticking off a list of possibilities.

As Missouri attorney Viets noted above, it's not just SWAT, it is aggressive tactics like dynamic entry and no-knock raids that are also under scrutiny, whether done by SWAT or by other police units. It is those situations that are most dangerous for police and citizens, with the breaking down of doors, the yelling of commands, the flash-bangs, the confusion. And even the cops are talking about it.

"There is a big debate going on in the SWAT community," said Klinger. "Do you do a dynamic entry, or do you do something less? Some agencies will do a breach and hold, where they get through the front door, but stop there until they make contact with people inside. Another version is the 'contain and call-out', where they announce their presence and ask the people to come outside. Then, officers can carefully, slowly go through the place, and you know that if someone has a gun, he's after you. Sometimes we need to be aggressive, and there's nothing wrong with a dynamic entry, but you want to make sure you're using SWAT in the appropriate circumstances. We want to be minimally aggressive."

"It's those no-knock warrants, whether it's SWAT or not, where people tend to get hurt, where their animals are slaughtered," said Franklin. "That seems to be the norm now. You hear SWAT personnel joking about this all the time. If you know there's an animal in the house, why don't you just have Animal Control along? Unless that dog is so aggressive he's actually ripping people apart, he could be secured. Mostly they are just doing what they are supposed to do: barking and holding their ground."

[Ed: In many cases including the raid in Columbia, a warrant has nominally been served as a knock-and-announce, but the waiting is so short that it effectively equivalent to a no-knock. The term "dynamic entry" roughly applies to both kinds of situations, and "no-knock" is often used to refer to both kinds.]

"I don't know why they're shooting dogs," Klinger said with a hint of exasperation. "Unless they were being aggressive and attacking, you need to rethink what you're doing if you're shooting dogs. Just take a fire extinguisher with you and zap the dog with it. Shooting dogs unnecessarily suggests a lack of training about how to discern what is and is not a threat."

As long as the war on drugs continues, so will the issues around SWAT, no-knock raids, and search warrants. "The vast majority of these warrants are drug related," said Franklin. "The ultimate solution is ending prohibition. That would resolve so many issues."

Somewhat surprisingly, Klinger agreed. "We should just legalize drugs and call off the hounds, but if we're going to have drug prohibition, we have to be able to enforce it," he said. "If the rest of the polity says no to legalization, we can't have a regime where dopers just sit in their homes and do what they want. But if we are going to have the prohibition model, we need appropriate oversight over policing it."

Sterling pointed out some other pressure points for SWAT reform until we get to that day when drug prohibition is just a bad memory. "A private way of thinking about this is to use the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. to include in accrediting criterion better control or management of the way in which SWAT teams are used," said Sterling.

There are also reform possibilities at the federal level, Sterling said. "If you want to set national standards, Congress arguably has the power under the 14th Amendment in terms of equal protection to enforce the Fourth Amendment," he said. "You could provide that SWAT activity carried out outside the limits of such a special warrant could result in civil liability, denial of federal funds to the agency, or potential criminal penalties. There are examples of this in the wiretap law. It's very, very strict in its requirements about what law enforcement agencies have to do and it has very strict reporting requirements. There is certainly precedent in national law for how we regulate highly invasive, specialized law enforcement activities."

Sterling, a Maryland resident himself, said the Maryland SWAT reporting law passed after the Calvo raid shows political space can be created to support reform, but that it isn't easy. "It took raiding the mayor and killing his dogs and their being completely innocent white people to get relatively minor legislative action," he said. "The record keeping requirement is clearly a baby step toward challenging SWAT, and there was very decided knee-jerk law enforcement opposition to it."

It's going to take some organizing, he said. "You have to have a collection of groups deciding to make this an issue the way they made addressing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity an issue. I'm not aware that this has developed yet, and perhaps this is something the drug reform community should be doing. We could take the lead in trying to raise this with more powerful political actors."

Law Enforcement: More Raids Gone Bad, Making May a Bad Month for SWAT

Two more SWAT raids gone bad in the past couple of weeks have kept the spotlight on the aggressive police units and the tactics they employ. In Polk County, Georgia, an elderly Cedartown woman was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack as a local police SWAT team and DEA agents swarmed the wrong house. In Detroit, in an incident that drew national attention, a 7-year-old girl was killed by police gunfire in a SWAT raid at the wrong apartment in a house. The SWAT team was attempting to arrest a murder suspect, so there was arguably more of a case for SWAT than in the routine drug cases we normally track in Drug War Chronicle. But the incident tragically demonstrates the potential dangers arising from such aggressive police tactics.

The two raids come before the national outrage generated by the now infamous dog-killing SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri, has had a chance to die down. In that raid, a videotape of which went viral on YouTube, a SWAT team executing a marijuana search warrant burst into a family home and shot two dogs, killing one, before ushering the suspect's terrified wife and young daughter out of the home. All police came up with was a tiny amount of pot and a pipe.

In the Georgia raid, Helen Pruett, 76, was home alone when nearly a dozen agents entered her property with guns drawn in search of drug dealers. They were actually looking for another residence on the same property, but mistakenly -- after two years of surveillance -- hit hers.

"She was at home and a bang came on the back door and she went to the door and by the time she got to the back door, someone was banging on the front door and then they were banging on her kitchen window saying police, police," said Pruett's daughter, Machelle Holl, adding that her mother was scared to open the door until the Polk County Police Chief convinced her she was safe. "They never served her with a warrant. At that point, she said the phones were ringing with the other men that were in the yard and they realized that it was the wrong address," said Holl.

Police Chief Kenny Dodd said police realized the subject they were looking for was not there. "She made us aware that she was having chest pains and we got her medical attention. I stayed with her and kept her calm and talked with her, monitored her vital signs until the ambulance arrived," said Dodd.

Bizarrely for a wrong address raid, police said the property had been under surveillance for two years. The DEA said it is investigating how the wrong address raid address raid occurred. That didn't mollify Holl.

"They have totally made a really bad mistake. You would think that with the officers and the SWAT team and the DEA they would make sure that all of their I's are dotted, all of their T's are crossed before they go bursting into someone's home like that," said Holl. "My mother was traumatized. Even the doctor said this is what happens when something traumatic happens. He said it's usually like a death in the family or something like that just absolutely scares them half to death, and that is what has happened," said Holl.

In the Detroit raid, the SWAT team was attempting to arrest a murder suspect, making the decision about whether to use SWAT potentially more complicated than in the routine drug cases we normally track in Drug War Chronicle. But the incident tragically demonstrates the potential dangers arising from such aggressive police tactics, and it resulted in the death of a seven-year-old Aiyana Jones.

According to a statement Sunday by Assistant Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee, police had tracked the killer of a 17-year-old man the day before to the house. "Because of the ruthless and violent nature of the suspect in this case, it was determined that it would be in the best interest of public safety to execute the search warrant as soon as possible and detain the suspect if while we sought a murder warrant," Godbee said. "Our intelligence was accurate in this case. The suspect in Mr. Blake's death was found inside the home and arrested... But to locate him, we first had to make entry into the home. At approximately 12:40 this morning, members of the Detroit Police Special Response Team, or SRT, executed this high-risk search warrant," the assistant chief explained.

"According to our officers, and at least one independent witness, officers approached the house, and announced themselves as police. As is common in these types of situations, the officers deployed a distractionary device commonly known as a Flash Bang. The purpose of the device is to temporarily disorient occupants of the house to make it easier for officers to safely gain control of anyone inside and secure the premise," Godfree continued. "As the lead officer entered the home he encountered a 46-year-old female immediately inside the front room of the house. Exactly what happened next is a matter still under investigation, but it appears the officer and the woman had some level of physical contact. At about this time the officer's weapon discharged one round which, tragically, struck seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones in the neck/head area. Officers immediately conveyed Aiyana to St. John's Hospital while others apprehended the suspect and cleared the rest of the residence."

The SWAT team was accompanied by film crews for A&E's "The First 48," a reality TV show that follows police homicide investigators in the crucial first 48 hours after a murder has been committed. The network was taping the raid for a documentary. The videotape could play a crucial role in how this case plays out, and copies of the tapes were reportedly turned over to the state police later in the week. The state police are investigating the incident.

Prominent Michigan attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who is representing the family in a civil suit filed this week, has questioned the police version of events. Saying he had obtained video footage shot by the TV show camera crew, Fieger said it showed officers rushing the house and throwing a flash grenade through a window before an officer fired into the home from the front porch.

The police account was "entirely false," Fieger said. "Of course, I have seen the videotape and the videotape vividly portrays the fact that a percussion grenade device was thrown through the front window and a shot was fired immediately from the outside from the porch," he said.

"No murder suspect was found in Aiyana's house," Fieger added. "In fact, there's an upstairs apartment next door which the police did not have a search warrant for and that is where he surrendered, they went into that house too. But he was not in Aiyana's house."

This isn't the first time the behavior of Detroit area SWAT teams has generated lawsuits. According to the Detroit Free Press's archive of stories on the Aiyana Jones killing, a civil suit is pending against Detroit SWAT for a 2007 raid at a home where children were present and a dog was killed, and another lawsuit is pending against the suburban Southfield police for a 2004 raid in which a 69-year-man was brutalized. Police in that raid found a small amount of marijuana in an adult son's dresser drawer.

Such raids have consequences. The anger is palpable in Detroit. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has called for a federal investigation, the Rev. Al Sharpton will address Aniya's funeral, and the city council is preparing its own review. The anger is also still palpable in Columbia, Missouri, where the dog-killing pot raid continues to reverberate. On Sunday, demonstrators picketed the police station, and city council meetings for the past two weeks have been packed with citizens complaining about the raid and demanding that heads roll. The mood wasn't helped by the police department's announcement Thursday that it had investigated itself and found its actions "appropriate."

Neil Franklin is a former Maryland police officer with SWAT experience. He is also the incoming head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). For Franklin, SWAT has limited legitimate uses, but aggressive, paramilitarized policing has gone too far. He blames the war on drugs.

"Back in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn't use SWAT teams to conduct search warrants unless it was a truly documented violent organization," he said. "As the drug war escalated, we started using SWAT to execute drug-related warrants. When I first started as an undercover officer, the narcotics team executed the warrant, along with two or three uniformed officers, but not with the high-powered weapons and force we use today. The drug war is the reason for using these teams and the driving force behind them."

"Whatever one thinks about using SWAT tactics when looking for a murder suspect, the results in Detroit show how dangerously volatile the tactics really are," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who is also the moving force behind the Americans for SWAT Reform web site. "There is every reason to believe that conducting a late night raid and detonating flash bang grenades led to the physical contact between the woman and the officer in which the gun discharged, killing the girl. All the more reason to avoid those tactics wherever possible, certainly for routine drug search warrants."

As the Chronicle and others, most notably, Radley Balko at Reason and The Agitator blog have reported, these aggressive drug raids gone bad are not flukes, but occur on a regular, if unpredictable, basis. As they become increasingly routine, so do the risks associated with them -- for police and citizens alike. Next week, the Chronicle will be taking a look at what can be done to begin to rein them in.

Feature: Police Officer Deaths in US Drug War a Rare Occurrence, Despite Popular Belief

Tomorrow is National Law Enforcement Memorial Day, a day to mark the service of those law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty. Fortunately for drug law enforcers, last year did not leave a lot of fallen officers to memorialize. And while it may cut against the grain of countless pop culture depictions about dangerous drug dealers, last year was not unusual.

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lioness statue, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial (courtesy wikipedia.org)
Doing drug law enforcement is just not that dangerous. According to statistics on police line of duty deaths compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page, only three law enforcement officers were killed enforcing drug laws last year, and those three were not undercover narcs doing drug buys or SWAT team raiders busting down doors, but DEA agents who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. (One officer, Michael Crawshaw of the Penn Hills Police Department in Pennsylvania, was killed responding to a drug-trade murder in which one drug trafficker killed another over a drug debt. This officer death was certainly related to the drug war; we rightly or wrongly did not include him in the count because he was responding to a murder, not a drug crime.)

By contrast, according to FBI preliminary figures, 48 law enforcement officers were "feloniously killed in the line of duty"-- none of them doing drug law enforcement. But that was less than half of the 126 line of duty officer deaths last year. Auto accidents killed 34, drunk drivers killed nine, heart attacks killed nine more, seven died after being struck by vehicles, and four died in aircraft accidents (including the three DEA officers). Duty-related illness, 9/11-related illness, and motorcycle accidents accounted for three each, two died after being shot accidentally, and one was beaten to death.

According to historical data provided to the Chronicle by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which also compiles statistics on police line of duty deaths, last year's low death toll among officers enforcing the drug laws is not a fluke. In the decade between 1978 and 1988, an average of 6.5 officers were killed each year; in the following decade, the number was 6.2; and in the last 10 years, an average of 4.3 officers were killed each year enforcing the drug laws. The single bloodiest year for drug law enforcement was 1988, when 12 officers died.

In 2008, the number of police who died maintaining drug prohibition was seven; in 2007, it was four; it 2006, it was five; in 2005, it was four. When placed in the context of the more than 1.5 million drug arrests made in each of those years, it is clear that only one in every several hundred thousand drug arrests leads to an officer's death. During the past 10 years, the odds were less than 1 in 350,000.

But while drug law enforcement is not in itself that dangerous for police, certain police tactics raise the risk -- for both law officers and the recipients of their attention. Of the 20 officers killed enforcing the drug laws since 2005, nine were killed in drug raids and five were killed doing undercover work.

Two of the 2008 officer deaths demonstrate the risks involved in aggressive forced-entry raids. In Virginia, Chesapeake Police Detective Jarrod Brent Shivers, who also doubled as the door-rammer for the SWAT team, was killed by Ryan Frederick, who shot through a door in fear for his life in reaction to the home invasion. Frederick, who had recently been burgled, was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison. The cops were looking for a marijuana grow, but found only Japanese maple trees which the informant apparently mistook for pot.

FBI Agent Samuel Steele Hicks died in another raid gone bad. While serving a forced entry narcotics search warrant in Indiana Township, Pennsylvania, Hicks was shot and killed by the suspect's wife, Christina Korbe, who fired blindly from a bedroom at what she later said she thought were intruders. Although Korbe was not a target in the investigation of an 18-year drug conspiracy, she has since been charged with a string of drug offenses in addition to facing a murder charge.

Aggressive law enforcement tactics, such as dynamic entries (kicking in the door) and SWAT-style assaults have also left dozens of homeowners dead. (See Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko's now famous report, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America and the police militarization archive at his blog, The Agitator for page after page of stomach-turning reports.)

In November 2006, undercover Atlanta narcotics officers doing a forced entry raid shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston after the woman fired at the people breaking down her door in a high-crime neighborhood. In this case, at least, the police were held accountable, in part because their conspiracy to cover up their fabrication of evidence for a search warrant quickly unraveled. Three of them went to prison.

  • On January 6, 2008, police in Lima, Ohio, shot and killed a 26-year-old mother of six, Tarika Wilson, during a raid aimed at her boyfriend. The police shooter was eventually found not guilty for killing her.
  • The following day in North Little Rock, Arkansas, a police SWAT team raided the home of Tracy Ingle. Awakened by a ram battering his door and thinking he was under attack by armed robbers, Ingle grabbed a broken pistol to scare them off. Officers fired multiple shots, wounding him five times. He spent a more than a week in intensive care before police removed him, took him to the police station, and questioned him for five hours. He was charged with running a drug enterprise even though no drugs were found.
  • In May, Connecticut police raiding an apartment after being informed that people were smoking crack there, shot and killed Gonzalo Guizan, who was unarmed. Police said he charged at them. All they found was a crack pipe.
  • This year, at least two people, Florida grandmother Brenda Van Zweiten and Memphis resident Malcolm Shaw were killed in separate SWAT-style raids on their homes the same week in March. In both cases, police claimed the victim was armed. Whether Van Zweiten, who was raided over small-scale drug dealing out of her house, or Shaw, who was raided over simple drug possession (!) intended to attack police or were merely trying to defend themselves from intruders breaking into their homes, will never be known because they are dead.

It's not just people. Dogs also seem to be a favorite target of drug-raiding police. That has certainly become an issue in the February SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri (see related story here), which has resulted in widespread outrage after a video of the raid found its way to YouTube last week. In that incident, police executing a search warrant over alleged marijuana sales killed one dog and wounded another, and terrified the suspect's wife and child, but found only a tiny amount of weed and a pipe.

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DEA memorial for agents killed in Afghanistan
Another infamous dog-killing SWAT raid occurred in 2008 in Maryland. Cheye Calvo, the mayor of the Washington, DC, suburb of Berwyn Heights, saw his two dogs shot and killed by a Prince George's County SWAT team that burst into his home after his mother-in-law accepted delivery of a package containing marijuana. Calvo and his family were twice victimized, once by the pot traders who used his address to have their dope sent to, and again by the gung-ho, itchy trigger finger police.

It is unclear how many people were killed by police enforcing the drug laws in general or conducting drug raids in particular. Although in 1999 Congress authorized legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to submit such data, it neglected to fund the program. The incidents mentioned above are only some of the most egregious and well-publicized, but they suggest that even if doing drug raids isn't particularly dangerous for police, it is for their victims.

There is a better way, said a pair of former drug enforcement officers consulted by the Chronicle. It might be succinctly expressed as: "Chill out."

"There is no question that in the bulk of those raids, these are not folks with any history of violence, said former SWAT team member US Special Forces sergeant James Hanson, now communications director for the veterans' group Warrior Legacy Foundation. "That should be the first hurdle: Does he have a propensity for violence? Drug warrants almost never have that level of threat. The fears police claim to have are overstated."

But, he suggested, those fears can come to fruition precisely because of aggressive policing tactics. "If you dig deeper on the two or three that happened in 2008, it was the dynamic entry that triggered the violent incident," said Hanson. "Dynamic entry into a house is the most dangerous thing about it. Just wait for the guy to go to the 7-11, for goodness' sake," he exclaimed. "That way, you're not busting down doors, endangering kids, and escalating the situation."

Cops didn't used to need paramilitary squads to do drug busts, said retired LAPD detective Dave Doddridge, who had long experience enforcing prohibition. "We weren't scared, we'd go knock on doors," he recalled. We didn't need the overkill. When I first joined the department back in 1973, at roll call, they would read off the houses, and we would drive up in a patrol car and knock on the door. We managed," he said.

"I spent several years down in South Central kicking in doors and raiding homes, and probably served 50 search warrants," the former narc added. "We weren't SWAT, just a couple of narcotics detectives with our vests on, and none of us got seriously injured. There was seldom any resistance."

SWAT was originally envisioned as elite squads designed for rare but dangerous situations, such as hostage situations, barricaded suspects, or terrorist attacks. But in a case of mission creep gone mad, they are now used routinely for drug raids -- as noted above, to the tune of 50,000 or so a year.

"In a lot of these cases, because, thanks to funds from Homeland Security, they have a SWAT capability, they have to have a reason for having it," said Hanson. "Using SWAT to serve drug warrants allows them to say it's worthwhile, and overstating the potential for violence is part of that."

"SWAT definitely takes control of the situation, but that's not necessary for a family home," said Doddridge. "Maybe if there's a gang with a big drug house and they're manufacturing you should send in SWAT, but if it's a house, just send in an informant, buy the drugs, and get an arrest warrant. You don't need SWAT for that."

But the SWAT philosophy is well-entrenched in American policing. Changing that mentality, or at least reining in SWAT's overuse and abuses will be a difficult challenge. But it can be done.

In the Columbia SWAT raid case, public outrage led quickly to new restrictions on SWAT team deployments and new rules for their use executing search warrants. Similarly, public outrage in the case of Cheye Calvo, the Maryland mayor, led to the passage of the first state law in the country aimed at reining in SWAT. That law requires every department that has a SWAT team to report regularly on its activities.

"The Maryland law is a perfect example of what needs to be done," said Hanson. "There was no auditing of how many times these teams were used in dynamic entries -- nobody from the civilian side was looking at it. If we're going to ask police to serve drug warrants, we get to decide how they do it. We don't want to put police at risk, but neither do we want to put citizens at risk. There are too many instances of bad warrants, wrong addresses, or lying informants."

Doddridge, who has become a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) since he retired from the force has another idea. "We need a crack team of attorneys who are good at lawsuits to just go around and start suing like crazy," he suggested. "When they have to start worrying about paying money, that'll make them start looking over their shoulders."

Law Enforcement: Missouri SWAT Team Gets Restrictions After Outrage Over Dog-Killing Pot Raid Video

Faced with widespread public outrage and even death threats after the release of a video of a February marijuana raid in which two dogs were shot, one killed and one wounded, by SWAT team members in a family home with a young child present, the Columbia, Missouri, Police Department Monday moved to dampen the uproar. At a press conference, Chief Ken Burton announced he was immediately imposing new restrictions on the way the department serves search warrants.

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CPD web site with SWAT team section's links and pages removed
The press conference failed to assuage public anger over the raid. At a Wednesday night Police Review Board meeting frustration with the department that extended beyond the raid was evident. (Read a local press account of the meeting here.

Although the raid occurred in February, the video did not appear until last week, after homeowner Jonathan Whitworth pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia. Since then, the video has gone virulently viral and has now exceeded the one million views mark on YouTube. It shows the SWAT team pushing through the front door, aggressively entering while yelling commands and obscenities, and includes the sounds of barking and gunfire, following by the yelping of the dying and wounded dogs. The video also shows Whitworth's wife and seven-year-old son being hustled away by police, while Wentworth himself is forced to the ground with guns pointed at him.

According to the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant, Whitworth was a marijuana dealer selling high-grade pot. The affidavit cites two "truthful and reliable" snitches as saying so. It also includes the results of a search of Whitworth's trash in which police found THC residues. Despite the information in the affidavit, police found only a pipe and a small quantity of pot.

Chief Burton acknowledged that his officers had committed errors and announced six policy changes for the way the SWAT team handles search warrants. He said they were among the most restrictive SWAT policies in the country.

"The public can be assured that a similar incident is not going to happen again without somebody's head rolling because it is now the policy," Burton said. "We know what we are going to do. We're telling you how we are going to handle these things."

Here are the policy changes:

IMMEDIATE CHANGES TO COLUMBIA POLICE NARCOTIC SEARCH WARRANT SERVICE PROTOCOL

  • The Narcotics Sergeant and SWAT Commander are being removed from the decision making process on whether or not, and how, a narcotic search warrant will be served.
  • Once probable cause has been established to obtain a search warrant for narcotics, the target location will be kept under surveillance. If the surveillance is interrupted or compromised for any reason, service of a search warrant may not be authorized, or the manner in which it is served may be changed.
  • Warrant services for narcotic-related search warrants will be served within a reasonable time after the warrant is obtained, generally within 8 hours of receipt.
  • Prior to serving the search warrant, the Bureau Commander (Captain) over the area will be briefed about the warrant, and he or she will review all available intelligence related to the request, and will decide how the warrant will be served. Assessing the potential danger to officers, innocent bystanders, and suspects, along with what law enforcement purpose will be served by serving the search warrant, will be weighed in their decision.
  • All available intelligence will be used to attempt to mitigate unnecessary risk to any person. Issues such as children being present will be strong evidence that dynamic entry should not be considered except under the most extreme circumstances. SWAT Officers always have and will continue to be bound by the Columbia Police Department policy regarding any use of force.

They will, however, still shoot your dog, at least as far as this policy is concerned.

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