Beware of Warrior Cops

With the Drug War winding down, they're finding new excuses to use their military-grade toys.

We need police to catch murderers, thieves and con men, and so we give them special power -- the power to use force on others. Sadly, today’s police use that power to invade people’s homes over accusations of trivial, nonviolent offenses -- and often do it with tanks, battering rams and armor you’d expect on battlefields.

In his book “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” Radley Balko recounts the rise of police SWAT teams (SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics) armed with heavy military equipment. SWAT raids began as rarely used methods of dealing with violent situations, like hostage-takings.

But government always grows.

In the 1970s, there were about 300 SWAT raids per year. “As of 2005,” says Balko, “100 to 150 per day.” 

What began as a few specialized groups of police trained to address genuine threats to safety has degenerated into small armies descending on organic farms where farmers sell unpasteurized milk and legal medical marijuana dispensaries getting raided as if they were heavily armed threats.

The increase began under Nixon-era politicians who wanted to look “tough on crime,” even if that meant exaggerating the threat posed by illegal drugs. As the futile war on drugs escalated, cops worried that drug users would destroy evidence if cops knocked and announced themselves. So they stopped doing that, changing a centuries-old rule that treated citizens’ homes as their castles -- castles whose owners must be presented with a warrant before police can enter.

Soon, every police department wanted a SWAT team -- and many were more interested in getting cool military gear than in considering the potential downside -- like terrorizing innocent people, raiding the wrong house and causing violence.

“I found over 50 cases where a completely innocent person was killed in one of these raids,” says Balko. Often this happens because the homeowner does not realize who is breaking down his door in the middle of the night. 

Iraq War veteran Jose Guerena just knew that armed men were bursting in. So he picked up his semi-automatic rifle. Before he could take the safety off, police fired 71 bullets, hitting him 22 times.  

Police raided his house because they suspected drugs were there. But after Guerena was killed, police found no drugs and no evidence of drug dealing. Today, the vast majority of SWAT raids are about drugs, not terrorism or hostage situations. Guerena’s brother was arrested on drug charges. Balko says, “It appears Guerena’s crime was being related to someone.”

Now that the public is finally starting to have doubts about the drug war, another type of war has arrived: the War on Terror. The idea that domestic enemies need to be raided and rooted out -- that law enforcement should be given a free hand or we could all be killed -- got a new lease on life.

And a new source of funding.

Despite laws clearly saying that soldiers may not be used for domestic policing except in very special circumstances, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security now offer armored vehicles -- tanks and troop transports, body armor and stun grenades -- to police departments, large or small. 

Local police jumped at the chance to have new toys -- so they expanded the circumstances under which those toys get used. 

The police chief in quiet Concord, N.H., cites people not so different from me as an excuse for getting DHS money to buy an armored vehicle. In an application for what is essentially a tank, he wrote that groups like the Free State Project -- libertarians who moved to New Hampshire seeking increased individual freedom -- pose “daily challenges” to the police of Concord.

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  • sarcasmic||

    This is so last week.

  • ||

    Stossel is not Balko, his mission in life is to spread the the word to the masses.

    And it's so five years ago, not last week.

  • ||

    You ignorant slut.

  • sarcasmic||

    If you watched his show then you'd know that this piece is about last weeks show.
    Hence "This is so last week," you ignorant slut.

  • ||

    I can't watch his show because I live in Europe where socialism has been perfected you ignorant slut.

  • sarcasmic||

    You got me there.

  • BakedPenguin||

    What, you can't get Hulu in Czechia? Or are you just an ignorant slut?

  • From the Tundra||

    Agreed. Balko wrote "Overkill" for CATO in 05 or 06.

    Wouldn't these articles be better over at USA Today or something? Posting them here seems like kind of a waste. Other than Buckaroo Banzai from Seattle, who's left here to convince?

  • Hyperion||

    If you can get USA today to post it, I agree. Good luck with that.

  • From the Tundra||

    That's true. Balko has braved HP for awhile now, trying to convert the heathen. Maybe Stossel should try a similar tact.

  • some guy||

    Too many people immediately associate Stossel with the "uber-conservative libertarian right". Balko probably had very little name recognition going in.

  • BakedPenguin||

    "...try a similar tack." From tacking a ship's sail.

    Tact would have been me not being pedantic and overlooking the mistake.

  • From the Tundra||

    Damn you, BP. I saw that and hoped midday malaise had set in.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Well, maybe not USA Today, but Stossel does get posted on some of the right wing sites. And he's quite often able to either change minds or at least encourage more libertarian-minded conservatives to speak up.

  • Anders||

    Post it on National Review And Mother Jones.

    Watch Left and Right-ish unite in defense of the militarized police raping the constitution.

  • ||

    Stossel is fighting the good fight. Sure his articles are pretty tame by HnR standards but I think his program reaches more people than Balko's column. Why not reprint Stossel's columns here, not hurting anything?

  • Cloudbuster||

    Stephen Chapman?

  • Idle Hands||

    Seriously, stossel should write an article asking the tough stuff, eg: is Paris Hilton to disease ridden to bone?

  • Anomalous||

    If you avoid her during her herpes flare-ups, it's probably okay, but I would still glove up.

  • Hyperion||

    Despite laws clearly saying that soldiers may not be used for domestic policing except in very special circumstances, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security now offer armored vehicles -- tanks and troop transports, body armor and stun grenades -- to police departments, large or small.

    Laws? We don't need no stinkin laws!

    /Obama administration

  • Anders||

    Whilst Balko is 98% correct, try watching Dallas SWAT sometime.

    Of course they only show the 'good' raids but there are some bad dudes also shown, living in heavily fortified drug houses with cages etc. and they do fire back at the poh-leese. These are the kind of people one does take seriously.

    But yeah, there's also rampant fucking abuse and some of the worst cases happen outside of the big cities. "All the gear, no idea' you could say. Sure they have armored vehicles etc. but they are NOT highly trained special forces troops - they've just played too much CoD.

  • ||

    Could I have his address, please? I have a phone call to make.

  • DarrenM||

    That's always been the problem with power. If you have it, you'll find an excuse to use it.

  • Robert||

    So what can be done? I'm afraid that among most people who are paying att'n, the appearance of the problem itself fuels the problem: "OMG, there are armored vehicles in the street, this place must be terribly dangerous! Get the police more armor!"

    Is there anything you can think of that isn't pie in the sky to break this vicious cycle?

  • Anders||

    Yes.

    1./ HUGE, outrageous lawsuits every time a SWAT team gets it wrong and smashes down a door shooting the dogs and everyone else. Make the municipalities look down the barrel of bankruptcy.

    Why this doesn't happen hundreds of times a year I do not know.

    2./ Mandatory Municipal Risk Assessments. I know a few people in a VERY rural county in flyover country. DHS generously 'gifted' them grants to build a war machine, including the highest end tech for dealing with WMDs.

    In the latter case a risk assessment would say well, in a county in the middle of literally nowhere the biggest threat we're going to face is a few pissed off meth heads in an F150 with a couple of Mini-14s.

    Ergo - no need for a SWAT team, WMD team, full scale Metro Hazmat team, etc.

    Bottom line: Sue them into submission. Maybe they'll have to sell their free shit.

  • Anders||

    Also, try doing a ride out with your local police. Some towns even have community-police outreach type programs.

    In my limited experience if you ask nicely they'll show your their toys.

    They are VERY proud of their toys.

    Take pictures, contact your local government and ask if all this is really necessary.

  • ||

    So long as they can seize private property to fund their war they'll never go bankrupt. When you can be completely innocent of a criminal charge and still have your car taken there is something very wrong.

  • Harvard||

    "Buckaroo Banzai from Seattle"

    I'm betting the sycophant read this and never associated it with himself.

  • darlajtyson||

    If you think Samuel`s story is terrific,, last munth mother in law basically brought home $4874 just sitting there eighteen hours a week an their house and there friend's step-aunt`s neighbour has been doing this for nine months and worked and got paid more than $4874 part-time at their computer. use the guidelines on this page... --------- w­w­w.w­o­r­k­2­5.c­o­m

  • ||

    If private citizens aren't supposed to own automatic weapons, armored vehicles and body armor because those things are military equipment, at what point does a police force cross the line from protecting and serving to being an occupying army?

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