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Editorial: Raid vs. Raid

Submitted by David Borden on (Issue #467)

Images from the war in Iraq have become a daily sight on the cable news networks. One of the bits of footage that recurred this week was a tape of US soldiers forcibly entering a home, presumably looking for insurgents or other perpetrators of terrorist violence.

David Borden
Though the image ran only as background to the discussion by news reporters about the US political situation, it jumped out at me. What I found striking was how carefully the soldiers did their job. With carefully measured force they pushed the door open, stood to the side, cautiously looked in, and only then entered -- with guns drawn, of course, but slowly and carefully.

It struck me because of how strong a contrast it seemed to the way paramilitarized "SWAT" teams here in the US do business. Originally SWAT teams were created as select units to be used in high-intensity emergency situations -- hostages, snipers, that sort of thing. They were deployed a few thousand times a year back then, but now the annual number is about 40,000. According to "Overkill," a report issued last year by the Cato Institute, the great majority of SWAT deployments are for routine serving of search warrants in minor drug cases.

Typically, or at least commonly, the SWAT teams don't show the kind of care and restraint that our soldiers in Iraq did when entering that building. Instead, we often see the black-clad SWAT officers rapidly battering down the door, running in and shouting, setting off flashbang grenades, and pointing guns at the heads of the confused and disoriented adults, children and pets who were unfortunate enough to be at home when it happened. The raids tend to be done very early in the morning or in the middle of the night, to increase the disorientation and confusion. Of course, this also increases the trauma, even when no one winds up getting physically hurt.

Not surprisingly, criticism of these tactics can get intense. Many police defenders will defend them just as intensely. Among the main arguments is that police need to use these tactics, because some of the people inside are dangerous criminals, who will have more of a chance to pull their own guns and shoot if they don't. One of the counterarguments is that such tactics tend to escalate the situations -- most of which are in fact do start out as routine and non-dangerous -- into something more tense, more shocking, more likely to end in needless tragedies.

Tragedies like the killing last year by Atlanta police of 88-year old Kathryn Johnston. When the police stormed her apartment, Johnston, not able in the scarce seconds available to her to thoughtfully reason that the armed, loud, sudden invaders of her home were in fact just police who meant her no harm, took out a gun given to her by her niece for her protection in the tough neighborhood she lived in, and opened fire. She wounded three of the invaders (er, peace officers), before they were able to shoot and kill her. Obviously the SWAT tactics did not produce a favorable outcome in this case, neither for Johnston nor for the officers themselves. Of course, it turned out to be a wrong address, no drugs were found there, and it was all based on the uncorroborated word of an anonymous, paid informant. Various indicators of police misconduct have come out in the media since that time, one by one contradicting statements made by department spokespersons under pressure to hide the severe blame that the department deserves.

And so we come back to our soldiers in Baghdad, the ones in that video, despite the great peril of their situation showing such care when entering the suspected insurgent house, despite the very real possibility that someone inside would try to shoot them or blow them up. I'm sure that things have gone wrong with the conduct of US troops on plenty of occasions, because that is built into the nature of war. But I also get the sense that the way these particular soldiers handled this raid is in fact what was expected of them, and that that is what our soldiers usually do.

And so I have trouble accepting the police argument that they have to use paramilitary tactics in routine drug raids for the sake of police safety. What about safety for the rest of us? I respect the risk our police officers take every day, just by being police officers. But the purpose of the job is to protect the public safety, not to put members of the public in danger. There are extremely few law enforcement situations in which police in the US are under as much potential threat as our troops are every day in Iraq. If our soldiers can show as much care and restraint as they demonstrated while hunting insurgents in Baghdad in that news video, our police can do so too while serving routine search warrants on suspected, low-level, nonviolent drug offenders here.

Also, many police clearly don't know how to properly handle these kinds of tactics -- the dozens of needless killings in recent decades under circumstances similar to Kathryn Johnston's demonstrate that pretty clearly. It's time to re-separate our police and military and turn our police officers back in peace officers as they were intended to be. It's too late to save Kathryn Johnston from the horrible fate Atlanta police inflicted on her. But it's not too late to save the next Kathryn Johnston.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

The only these sensless murders will stop, is to start holding each and every law enforcement official involved in the murder accountable for their actions. No other person or group in America can kill someone with no reason, and then only say, "Oops". These killers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible. The knowledge that criminal charges could result from any "mistake" resulting in death or injury would install a bit of caution in the actions of these domestic terrorists.

Tue, 01/09/2007 - 8:30am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

That is the only way to stop them, lock them up for first degree murder. That badge doesn't give them a license to kill anyone they please. I know for a fact that according to police codes of conduct they aren't even supposed to pull out a weapon, let alone use it, unless the situation is a dire emergency. Serving warrants for drug charges is hardly an emergency.

Though police misconduct is out of hand anyways, just watch the show Cops and you will get a clear picture of this fact. They slam people to the ground, and use mace, and many other unecessary acts of violence.

Then wonder why there job is getting more dangerous, and wonder why people dislike them. Gee, I bet it has something to do with the fact that your an asshole..

So I couldn't agree more with both sentiments, they need to be converted back into officers of the peace, who protect, and serve, and they need to be held accountable for any misconduct.

Thu, 01/11/2007 - 4:03am Permalink

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