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SWAT Raids, Stun Guns, And Pepper Spray: Why The Government Is Ramping Up The Use Of Force

Posted: 12/05/11 11:23 AM ET

In February of last year, video surfaced of a marijuana raid in Columbia, Mo. During the raid on Jonathan Whitworth and his family, police took down the door with a battering ram, then within seconds shot and killed one of Whitworth's dogs and wounded the other. They didn't find enough pot in the house to charge Whitworth with even a misdemeanor. (He was, however, charged with misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia when police found a pipe.) The disturbing video went viral in May 2010, triggering outrage around the world. On Fox News, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer and Bill O'Reilly cautioned not to judge the entire drug war by the video, which they characterized as an isolated incident.

In fact, very little about the raid that was isolated or unusual. For the most part, it was carried out the same way drug warrants are served some 150 times per day in the United States. The battering ram, the execution of Whitworth's dog, the fact that police weren't aware Whitworth's 7-year-old child was in the home before they riddled the place with bullets, the fact that they found only a small amount of pot, likely for personal use -- all are common in drug raids. The only thing unusual was that the raid was recorded by police, then released to the public after an open records request by the Columbia Daily Tribune. It was as if much of the country was seeing for the first time the violence with which the drug war is actually fought. And they didn't like what they saw.

That video came to mind with the outrage and public debate over the now-infamous pepper-spraying of Occupy protesters at the University of California-Davis protest earlier this month. The incident was just one of a number of high-profile uses of force amid crackdowns on Occupy protesters across the country, including one in Oakland in which the skull of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was fractured by a tear gas canister, and in New York, where NYPD Officer Anthony Bologna pepper-sprayed protesters who had been penned in by police fencing.

But America's police departments have been moving toward more aggressive, force-first, militaristic tactics and their accompanying mindset for 30 years. It's just that, with the exception of protests at the occasional free trade or World Bank summit, the tactics haven't generally been used on mostly white, mostly college-educated kids armed with cellphone cameras and a media platform.

Police militarization is now an ingrained part of American culture. SWAT teams are featured in countless cop reality shows, and wrong-door raids are the subject of "The Simpsons" bits and search engine commercials. Tough-on-crime sheriffs now sport tanks and hardware more equipped for battle in a war zone than policing city streets. Seemingly benign agencies such as state alcohol control boards and the federal Department of Education can now enforce laws and regulations not with fines and clipboards, but with volatile raids by paramilitary police teams.

Outraged by the Occupy crackdowns, some pundits and political commentators who paid little heed to these issues in the past are now calling for a national discussion on the use of force. That's a welcome development, but it's helpful to review how we got here in order to have an honest discussion.

Part of the trend can be attributed to the broader tough-on-crime and drug war policies pushed by politicians of both parties since at least the early 1980s, but part of the problem also lies with America's political culture. Public officials' decisions today to use force and the amount of force are as governed by political factors as by an honest assessment of the threat a suspect or group may pose. Over the years, both liberals and conservatives have periodically raised alarms over the government's increasing willingness to use disproportionately aggressive force. And over the years, both sides have tended to hush up when the force is applied by political allies, directed at political opponents, or is used to enforce the sorts of laws they favor.

How We Got Here

According to Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska, the number of SWAT raids carried out each year in America has jumped dramatically over the last generation or so, from just a few thousand in the 1980s to around 50,000 by the mid-2000s, when Kraska stopped his survey. He found that the vast majority of the increase is attributable to the drug war -- namely warrant service on low-to-mid-level drug offenders. A number of federal policies have driven the trend, including offering domestic police departments military training, allowing training with military organizations, using "troops-to-cops" programs and offering surplus military equipment and weaponry to domestic police police departments for free or at major discounts. There has also been a constant barrage of martial rhetoric from politicians and policymakers.

Dress cops up as soldiers, give them military equipment, train them in military tactics, tell them they're fighting a "war," and the consequences are predictable. These policies have taken a toll. Among the victims of increasingly aggressive and militaristic police tactics: Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md., whose dogs were killed when Prince George's County police mistakenly raided his home; 92-year-old Katherine Johnston, who was gunned down by narcotics cops in Atlanta in 2006; 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda, who was killed by Modesto, Calif., police during a drug raid in September 2000; 80-year-old Isaac Singletary, who was shot by undercover narcotics police in 2007 who were attempting to sell drugs from his yard; Jonathan Ayers, a Georgia pastor shot as he tried to flee a gang of narcotics cops who jumped him at a gas station in 2009; Clayton Helriggle, a 23-year-old college student killed during a marijuana raid in Ohio in 2002; and Alberta Spruill, who died of a heart attack after police deployed a flash grenade during a mistaken raid on her Harlem apartment in 2003. Most recently, voting rights activist Barbara Arnwine was raided by a SWAT team in Prince George's County, Md., on Nov. 21. Police were looking for Arnwine's nephew, a suspect in an armed robbery.*

The drug war has been the primary policy driving the trend but, since 2001, the federal government has also used the threat of terror attacks to further militarize domestic law enforcement. This includes not only finding new sources of funding for armor, weapons and gear, but also claiming new powers for the "War on Terror" that are then inevitably used in more routine law enforcement.

But paramilitary creep has also spread well beyond the drug war. In recent years, SWAT teams have been used to break up neighborhood poker games, including one at an American Legion Hall in Dallas. In 2006, Virginia optometrist Sal Culosi was killed when the Fairfax County Police Department sent a SWAT team to arrest him for gambling on football games. SWAT teams are also now used to arrest people suspected of downloading child pornography. Last year, an Austin, Texas, SWAT team broke down a man's door because he was suspected of stealing koi fish from a botanical garden.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article indicated that the police may have raided the wrong house. Arwine initially made that claim when the police didn't immediately produce a search warrant. The Prince George's County Police Department has since unsealed the search warrant, which shows that they were looking for Arwine's nephew. The police say they found evidence that the nephew was living or staying in Arwine's home, as well as evidence of the robbery.

 

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