In May a Missouri police raid that was captured on video went viral. As of this writing, the video had been viewed more than 1.2 million times on YouTube. It lit up message boards, blogs, and discussion groups around the Web, unleashing anger, resentment, and, regrettably, calls for violence against the officers involved. I’ve been writing about these raids, including some that claimed the lives of innocent people, for five years. There’s never been a reaction like this one. (You can see the video at youtube.com/watch?v=RbwSwvUaRqc.)
Despite all the anger the raid has inspired, the only thing unusual about it was that it was captured on video. Everything else was routine. Raids just like this one happen 100 to 150 times every day in America. Those angered by the video probably should look to their own communities. Odds are pretty good that their local police department is doing the same thing.
On February 11, the Columbia, Missouri, police department’s SWAT team served a drug warrant at the home of Jonathan Whitworth and Brittany Montgomery. Police say that eight days earlier they had received a tip from a confidential informant that Whitworth had a large supply of marijuana in his home. They also say they found marijuana residue in the family’s garbage.
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During the raid, police shot seven rounds, killing the family’s pit bull. At least one bullet ricocheted, injuring a pet corgi. Whitworth, Montgomery, and their 7-year-old son were at home at the time. Police found a tiny amount of marijuana, enough only for a misdemeanor possession charge, which was later dropped. Whitworth pled guilty to one count of possession of drug paraphernalia, which earned him a $300 fine.
In an email message she sent me in April, before the video went viral, Montgomery said she was reading to her son in his bedroom when the cops came in. Police fired on the dog within seconds. “I’ve never felt so violated or more victimized in my life,” Montgomery wrote. “It’s absolutely the most helpless and hopeless feeling I could ever imagine. I can’t sleep right…and I am constantly paranoid. It’s a horrible feeling…to lose the safety and security I thought I was entitled to in my own home.”
According to Montgomery, when the couple’s neighbors inquired about the raid, they were told that the SWAT team had merely conducted a drill and that no shots were fired. When neighbors learned from the family this was a lie, they began writing to the department and to the local newspaper. When the couple first requested the video, they were given a copy with no audio and with the inflammatory portions deleted.
The full video was later requested and posted online by the Columbia Daily Tribune. The police department has since said it was unaware there were pets and a child in the home at the time of the raid. A city spokesman initially said police had to conduct the raid immediately, before the drug supply could be moved. Police later revealed the raid had been conducted eight days after the initial tip.
Yet this raid was far from the worst operation of its kind. No one was killed. The police got the correct address, and they found the man they were looking for. It isn’t unusual for an informant’s tip to be the main source for a raid, nor is it unusual for raids as violent as the one in Columbia turn up little in the way of drugs or weapons. (Although Whitworth had prior drug and DWI convictions, he had no history of violence, and there were no weapons in the home.) Shooting the dogs isn’t unusual either. To be fair, that’s partly because some drug dealers do in fact obtain vicious dogs to guard their supply. But there are other, safer ways to deal with these dogs besides bullets, such as tranquilizers or grasping poles. In the Columbia case, a bullet fired at one dog ricocheted and struck another dog. The bullet could just as easily have struck a person, as has happened in other raids.
The Columbia video wasn’t even a “no-knock” raid. The police clearly announced themselves before entering. The Supreme Court has ruled that police must knock and announce themselves before entering a home to serve a search warrant. If they want to enter without knocking, they have to show specific evidence that the suspect could be dangerous or is likely to dispose of contraband if police abide by the knock-and-announce rule. As is evident in the Columbia video, from the perspective of the people inside the home, that requirement is largely ceremonial. If you were in a back room or asleep, you would have no idea that the armed men breaking into your home were police officers. The first sound you would have heard during the Columbia raid would have been the battering ram, followed by gunfire.
According to the Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska, the frequency of SWAT raids, mostly to serve search warrants on suspected drug offenders, has increased by about 1,500 percent since the early 1980s. Several policies have militarized America’s police departments, not least of which is the ill-considered “war” rhetoric our politicians continue to use when referring to illicit drugs. Repeat the mantra that we’re at war often enough, and the cops on the “front lines” will soon begin to think of themselves as soldiers. That’s especially true when you outfit them with war-appropriate equipment, weaponry, and armor, as cities do with SWAT teams. The objectives of a cop and a soldier are supposed to be very different. One is charged with keeping the peace, the other with annihilating a foreign enemy.
Our police officers have begun to see drug suspects not as American citizens with constitutional rights but as enemy combatants. Pets, bystanders, and innocents caught in the crossfire can be dismissed as regrettable but inevitable collateral damage. This is how we get images like those shown in the video. This is how law enforcement officials can view the video and wonder what all the fuss is about.
It’s heartening that more than 1 million people have seen the Columbia SWAT video. But it needs some context. The officers in that video aren’t rogue cops. They are no different from other SWAT teams across the country. The raid itself is no different from the tens of thousands of drug raids carried out each year in the U.S. If the video is going to cause any change, the Internet anger directed at the Columbia Police Department needs to be redirected toward America’s drug policy. Calling for the heads of the Columbia SWAT team isn’t going to stop these raids. Calling for the heads of the politicians who defend these tactics and promote a “war on drugs” that has become all too literal—that just might.
Radley Balko (email@example.com) is a senior editor at reason.