On Wednesday, September 13th, a Modesto, California SWAT team officer executing a federal search warrant in a methamphetamine investigation shot and killed 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda. The youngster died in a pool of blood on his bedroom floor after being hit in the back with a shotgun blast from veteran officer David Hawn. The California Attorney General's office is investigating, but if past police shootings are any indication, the police shooter will walk free.
In the wake of a rash of widely publicized police killings in the 1990s, public anger and apprehension has mounted. But while the overall number of police killings is recorded annually, there are no national figures on police killings in the drug war. DRCNet has, however, found disturbing patterns in reports of those killings it has been able to survey.
Young Sepulveda, sadly, is not the only or even the latest unarguably innocent person to be killed by police enforcing the drug laws. (Let us be clear here: The victims of these police killings are dead regardless of whether or not they were involved in drug law violations, and even someone who may have committed a drug crime deserves a day in court, not summary execution by trigger-happy police.) Here are a few recent examples of both innocents and suspects killed at the hands of police:
"That is the minimum. These are by no means comprehensive statistics," O'Connell explained. "These are only the cases that have been posted to our news archives. We do not catch everything, for a couple of reasons. First, we rely on our 'newshawks' to bring articles to our attention, so articles that may get only local or regional play might be missed. And don't forget that as we grow stronger, we have more 'newshawks' than in earlier years, so those early years are probably underreported there as well."
"Second," continued O'Connell, "it has not been our policy at the Media Awareness Project to post every drug bust or incident. We would be overwhelmed. We have concentrated on policy-related stories, so again this has caused us to miss some."
Even with the limited data available, some disturbing but predictable patterns emerge. In cases where race of the victim could be determined, blacks were most often the victims, followed by Hispanics, with only a small minority of white victims. (Interestingly, the only two cases where the victims shot at police were two white pot-farmers in separate incidents in Oregon. One was shot and killed; the other was shot and paralyzed and later committed suicide in jail.)
"We also looked at whether the person was armed," said O'Connell, "and in many cases, the only 'weapon' the victims had was the vehicle in which they were trying to escape."
MAP is not alone in sounding the alarm about drug-related police shootings.
Joseph McNamara, former police chief in Kansas City and San Jose and currently a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute, told DRCNet, "These shootings are a major cost of the drug war."
"This is a real ethical issue," said McNamara, "and evidence of the kind of callousness abroad in the land. It results from the emotionalism surrounding drugs and the whole war mentality that goes along with it. Things happen in war that we would not excuse in a civilized society."
McNamara, whose book on policing in the drug war, "Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs," will be published soon, predicts more fatalities. "These shootings are inevitable," he explained. "Police are doing military operations in drug raids, not because dealers are anxious to shoot it out, but because dealers are armed to avoid being robbed."
Timothy Lynch directs the criminal justice project at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank that opposes the war on drugs. For Lynch, paramilitarized policing is a key factor in the high number of police shootings.
"We should arrest the trend of militarizing police tactics," Lynch told DRCNet. "Congress has encouraged cops to create paramilitary units -- all those SWAT teams -- by giving away surplus military hardware and encouraging the bad trend of cops emulating military special forces."
"Once these paramilitary units are created," Lynch continued, "they apply military tactics to executing search warrants. This leads to unnecessary shootings and killings."
"And there is the problem of mission creep," he told DRCNet. "When these SWAT teams are first created, they have specific missions -- hostage situations, for example -- but over time, after they've invested all this money and training, these units start to get involved in non-emergency situations, such as executing arrest and search warrants. Constitutional rights get trampled, people get killed."
"The police are caught up in drug war rhetoric," said Lynch. "When police adopt the mindset of going after the enemy, there's an insensitivity to respecting constitutional rights. This increases the likelihood that unnecessary violence will occur."
McNamara also pointed to police hoping to profit from the drug war via asset forfeitures as a contributing factor. "Many of these shootings occur during the execution of arrest or search warrants," he told DRCNet, "and sometimes police search warrant decisions are influenced by the desire to get the loot."
"If there is enough evidence to obtain the warrant, why don't they arrest the guy when he leaves the house so innocent people are not endangered?," asked the former chief. "It's because they want the cash, the dope, the goods. Law enforcement is addicted to seizure money."
Despite the data collection problems cited by O'Connell, the Media Awareness Project's numbers are actually some of the best available on drug enforcement-related police shootings. The responsibility for the paucity of data lies squarely with the political class. As a sop to liberals concerned about police abuse of force, one section of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 ordered the Department of Justice to acquire data and issue annual reports on the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.
Congress, however, only funded a preliminary project for two years. That effort, carried out by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP -- http://www.theiacp.org), resulted in a National Use of Force Database. But since 1998, Congress has refused to appropriate funds for the project. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is in charge of the effort, has not issued a report since June, 1998. In its final word on the subject, the Bureau wrote, "because funding was specifically requested to fulfill the... mandate for annual data collection on the police use of excessive force, but was not provided, it is unclear whether the pilot efforts can be continued."
Because of lack of funding and because law enforcement agencies participate only if they choose to -- the IACP says only 319 agencies out of at least 2500 participate -- the database has extremely limited utility at this point. The database lists, for example, a total of six police killing for the years 1997-98, far fewer than even MAP was able to uncover.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics also produced one preliminary study, a report on the prevalence of police use of force. While it does not provide a breakdown for drug-related incidents, it does provide a startling estimate of the extent of police violence. The Census Bureau in 1996 surveyed a sample of some 6,000 citizens on their interactions with police, and extrapolating from those interviews, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that some "500,000 persons (0.2% of the population age 12 or older) were hit, held, pushed, choked, threatened with a flashlight, restrained by a police dog, threatened or actually sprayed with chemical or pepper spray, threatened with a gun, or experienced some other form of force. Of the 500,000, about 400,000 were also handcuffed." (The report is online at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/puof.htm.)
For obvious reasons, the survey contained no interviews with victims of fatal police shootings.
While the study's authors noted that the sample was to small for reliable estimates, they did find racial differences in line with other recent studies of racial disparities in the administration of criminal justice in general and in drug law enforcement in particular. Less than 1% of whites who reported contact with police reported police threat or use of force; for blacks that figure was 2.1% and for Hispanics 5.4%.
The standard measure for police shootings, the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports, shows what it calls justified homicides by law enforcement, but does not break down the aggregate numbers by type of offense. The 1999 report shows total law enforcement killings hovering at more than 300 annually throughout the decade, before dropping to 294 last year. (The UCR is available online at http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/99cius.htm.)
Lynch said that regardless of the lack of hard numbers on drug-related police shootings, he knows where the problem lies. "The war on drugs is the leading cause of police shootings," he said flatly. "When you look at the percentage of search warrants being executed, most of them are for drug activity. When there is either a mistaken shooting or violence between homeowners and police, it is usually drug enforcement. If you're looking at innocent people being killed, it is usually in a drug raid context.
McNamara gives credit where credit is due. "Police are doing an excellent job of reducing shootings," he said, "except for drug shootings."
For McNamara, the bottom line is protecting human life. "Police officers are not soldiers but peace officers, whose duty is to protect human life. We've lost sight of the basic mission of police, which is to protect human life, not make drug arrests. When we set priorities and they conflict, protection of human life should take precedent, not the desire to seize drugs."
MAP's Mark Greer is frustrated. "This is a story crying out to be written," he told DRCNet. "We hope a good investigative reporter could pull all this together for a nationwide expose of not only the number of innocents murdered, but also the racial breakdown, and how consistently people are being killed in drug enforcement because they 'attacked the officer with his car.'"
Is there a reporter in the house?
(Check out a nice sampling of McNamara's writings and work at http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/debate/mcn/mcntoc.htm and http://www.drcnet.org/cops/ on our web sites.)