As We Mark the Anniversary of the Killing of Kathryn Johnston, Poll Commissioned by DRCNet ( Finds Little Support for SWAT-Style Drug Raids in Most Cases

(Visit for further information on our poll and positions on this issue as well as links to further information.) A year ago this week, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston was gunned down by Atlanta narcotics officers when she opened fire on them as they kicked down her door in a "no-knock" drug raid. The killing has had immense reverberations in the Atlanta area, especially since it opened a window on corrupt and questionable police practices in the drug squad. The officers involved told a judge they had an informant who had bought crack cocaine at Johnston's home. That was a lie. They shot at the elderly woman protecting her home 39 times after she managed to squeeze off one shot from an old pistol. They handcuffed her as she lay dying. They planted marijuana in her basement after the fact. They tried, also after the fact, to get one of their informants to say he had supplied the information, but that informant instead went to the FBI. Two of the officers involved in the killing were ordered to prison this week on involuntary manslaughter and civil rights violations. A third has an April trial date. The Johnston killing has also rocked the Atlanta Police Department. The police chief disbanded the entire drug squad for months, tightened up the rules for seeking search warrants, especially "no-knock" warrants, and instituted new policies forcing narcotics officers to rotate out on a regular basis. A year-long FBI investigation into the department continues. While the Johnston killing rocked the Atlanta area, it also brought the issue of aggressive drug war police tactics to the forefront. Each year, SWAT teams across the country conduct some 40,000 raids, many of them directed at drug offenders. The tactic, where heavily armed police in military-style attire break down doors, toss flash-bang grenades, and generally behave as if they are searching for insurgents in Baghdad, has become routine, and is the stuff of various TV reality shows. But, somewhat surprisingly, it isn't popular. According to a poll question of 1,028 likely voters commissioned by (DRCNet), and conducted by Zogby International in October, a solid majority of respondents said such tactics were not justified for routine drug raids. Here is the exact question asked: "Last year 92-year old Kathryn Johnston was killed by Atlanta police serving a drug search warrant at an incorrect address supplied by an informant. Reports show that police use SWAT teams to conduct raids as often as 40,000 times per year, often for low-level drug enforcement. Do you agree or disagree that police doing routine drug investigations in non-emergency situations should make use of aggressive entry tactics such as battering down doors, setting off flash-bang grenades, or conducting searches in the middle of the night?" Nearly two-thirds -- 65.8% -- said police should not routinely use such tactics. With minor variations, that sentiment held across all geographic, demographic, religious, ideological, and partisan lines. Opposition to the routine use of SWAT tactics for drug law enforcement ranged from 70.7% in the West to 60.5% in the East. Residents of large cities (60.7%), small cities (71.2%), the suburbs (66.7%), and rural areas (65.0%), all opposed the routine use of SWAT tactics. Among Democrats, 75.1% opposed the raids; among independents the figure was 65.5%. Even in the Republican ranks, a majority -- 56% -- opposed the raids. Across ideological lines, 85.3% of self-identified progressives opposed the raids, as did 80.8% of liberals, 62.9% of moderates, and 68.9% of libertarians. Even people describing themselves as conservative or very conservative narrowly opposed the routine use of SWAT tactics, with 51.5% of the former and 52.5% of the latter saying no. This polling data will be the basis for a Drug War Chronicle article on Friday. We will dig a little deeper into the data, as well as the larger issue of SWAT raids for the Chronicle article. In the meantime, we have some very interesting numbers to chew on, and some public policy consequences to ponder. Our poll also received coverage on this morning.
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Only 68.9% of libertarians?

Only 68.9% of libertarians?

How can they call themselves libertarians if they support this kind of stuff?


borden's picture

good question

I was wondering about that myself, actually. Same about the small fraction of progressives, too.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

good question

I think that most people really don't understand either true the nature of drug use or the true level of police violence. I also think they don't WANT to understand, because understanding might require them to do something about it. Even the ACLU, with all their bluster about supporting the Constitution, wuss out when it comes to drug raids.

I've lost a friend to drug raid violence -- the officer didn't even get put on leave after the shooting -- and experienced first-hand "dynamic entries" by the local gestapo, and I want to thank you for carrying on this important -- no, VITAL, campaign.


But what about all of those good TV shows that are produced (Dallas SWAT?, etc.) What will people do for their entertainment, if we stop these senseless raids?!

The saddest part of it all, is that the actions just take one dealer off of the street and make a job opportunity for another. Drugs are still cheaper and easier to get. Are they really doing their jobs? Or, is thinking their tactics are effective in fighting the drug war, a "pipe dream" as well? What are they smokin'?

poll numbers may be disappointing

Given the context of the poll question, reminding people of the murder of Kathryn Johnston immediately before asking the question, and speaking of 'routine' investigations and 'non-emergency' situations, it's pretty shocking the number of people who are still not troubled by such tactics. It would probably have to happen to some innocent person they can relate to for them to change.

borden's picture

a lot of people trust the government despite all the evidence...

I agree it is troubling to see 28% of respondents still say it is okay for police to act this way. At the risk of getting drawn into debate on an issue unrelated to work, I will comment that perhaps they are the same group who still believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks. My only point in bringing that up is that a lot of people simply trust the government to use good judgment, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps a better analogy is that a third of Americans still think the drug war is working, despite all the evidence. If one believes that the drug war is working, then maybe it's justified to put some lives at risk now in order to get rid of or reduce the whole problem for everybody later and save more lives that way.

Given the prevalence of "Cops"-type TV shows and the general pro-police bent of society these days, I feel that getting 66% for the idea that police should be restrained in any way, including a majority of conservatives, is fairly good overall (despite it being disappointing, I agree, to see anyone want to go with sending in the SWAT teams in these situations given what has happened). Also remember that this was a likely-voter poll, which tends to under-represent certain segments of society who happen to be the most frequent targets of police militarization.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC


I think we should kill all the pot smokers. I smoke Cannabis, haha. lets play with words...the Cops Do! I feel that Arnold
should kill all thoswe who test positive for THC ingestion. Problem Solved! Less sickness, no more Veteran pay outs
we could probably eliminate all the VA Hospitals...The Phatt would be cut from government from Bush on down.
Services would collapse and we could turn to Russia for help. Jails would be emptied and and and

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