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In March, a federal jury returned a verdict in favor of the police. The winning argument in the Noel case is a common one—but it's also paradoxical. Police argued both that these volatile, confrontational tactics are necessary to surprise drug suspects—to take them off guard before they have a chance to retaliate, or dispose of the contraband. At the same time, police argued that Cheryl Lynn Noel should have known the armed men storming her home at 5 a.m. were police; therefore she had no right to be holding a gun, and the police had every right to shoot her. Unfortunately, under the law the jury (and the police) was probably correct. The police didn't appear to violate any department policy.
It's the policy that's the problem. Drug war hysteria has so twisted our sense of right and wrong over the last 30 years that we've come to accept the idea that sending SWAT teams after minor potential drug offenders is an acceptable police tactic. The occasional wrong house, murdered pet, or police killing of a mother of two are regarded as regrettable but acceptable collateral damage—the price we pay to keep drugs illegal.
Maryland is hardly unusual. The last 30 years have seen a massive increase in the use of SWAT and paramilitary police tactics. High-profile botched raids like the Calvo incident occur all over the country. They inevitably get reporters digging and activists looking—and generally finding—other victims who were too frightened or embarrassed to come forward earlier. That's usually followed by promises for reform...then a return to business as usual once the attention dies down.
But something good may yet come out of Maryland. Mayor Calvo was able to get first-in-the-nation legislation passed in his state that will bring some transparency to how police agencies use their SWAT teams. Every department will be required to submit a quarterly report detailing each SWAT deployment.
That at least is a start. It will enable some honest assessment of just how often these tactics are used, and what they're actually turning up. Terrible as it sounds, it may well take more mistaken raids on high-status victims like Calvo to generate real debate over the wisdom of using violent, high-risk police tactics to serve warrants for nonviolent crimes.
Radley Balko is a senior editor of Reason magazine.