Who's Swatching the SWAT Men?


Radley Balko, author of Cato's must-read study on paramilitary police raids, suggests some reforms to reverse the trend toward militarized law enforcement.

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  1. The last item listed is most important. Cops are not liable for what they do if they were “following their training” when they run roughshod over our rights and sometimes lives. This smacks of the Nuremburg defense of “just following orders” and that didn’t keep them from the gallows.

    Police are trained to stay alive, rather than to keep us alive. The difference is whether they shoot what moves, or whether they move to cover. The training should change, and I think I have a way to do just that: Don’t let cops carry guns! Imagine the following pre-dawn raid on your neighbor. The cops knock on your door, wake you up, and ask you to bring your gun and accompany them while they serve the warrant. I doubt the battering ram would be used, nor the flash-bang, nor the shoot first mentality. Also, you’d be able to tell them they have the wrong house before, avoiding the need to chalk out bodies.

  2. Great article, but regardless of whether the drug war ends (and it won’t) I would like to add a suggestion of my own: since technology has made it possible to do this cheaply and efficiently, all law enforcement officers on duty must have video cameras with them and running at all times. Not hand-held cameras, of course, but something built-in to their badge, belt buckle, or some such thing. This will protect honest cops from false accusations of police brutality, and (help) protect honest citizens from real cases of police brutality.

    Addendum: if ever the camera is turned off or the video goes missing, the citizen is to be presumed innocent, not held guilty on the cops’ say-so. “Gee, he really did try to attack me before I tasered him! He was quite dangerous! What an unfortunate coincidence that a camera malfunction means I have no evidence of this. Trust me. I’m a cop–would I lie?”

  3. I agree with the idea, Jennifer, but I do see one flaw in your plan. Bad guys will be buying the Cop Camera Jammer? to get that presumption.

  4. Disappointing. I really liked Balko’s earlier piece, and agree with him both on the militarization of civilian police and the futility of the drug war, but these are not realistic solutions.

    Balko’s “second-best” solutions are either back door attempts to achieve his stated goal of ending the drug war (and thus, equally unrealistic), or broad-based reductions in police power that have nothing to do with the SWAT problem.

    Tighter standards for warrants, for example, does absolutely nothing to address the problem of overly-aggressive police tactics.

    How’s this for an idea: no local SWAT teams. Local (meaning, city/town/county) police departments are to consist entirely of community-policing efforts. The heavy stuff, and the Rambo training, is to remain only with the state police, who are only allowed to come in when requested by the locals.

  5. PL, I have no problem with the cops’ keeping the locations of their cameras secret (Badge? Belt buckle? Shirt collar? Who knows?), and even less problem with multiple cameras. Hell, put cameras on the cops’ backs, too, in case some bona fide criminal tries to attack them from behind.

  6. I was thinking about something electronic. You know, something that broadcasts a signal that blocks the camera from functioning (? la the new cellphone blocking technology).

    Did you ever see Aliens? I’m picturing your cops running around with cameras like the Marines did in that film. Of course, they didn’t do so well, did they? And, in the little known sequel, Aliens: The Legal Wrath of Mom, the aliens successfully sued The Company for Fourth Amendment violations.

  7. all law enforcement officers on duty must have video cameras with them and running at all times.

    Absolutely fantastic idea.

  8. I was thinking about something electronic. You know, something that broadcasts a signal that blocks the camera from functioning

    Does such technology exist? I’m not talking about wireless cameras, here. The only thing I can think of that would remotely disable a small digital camera with its own power source is a portable EMP-producing device, and if someone figures out how to invent one, and make it cheap enough for street thugs to get their hands on it, I think we’ll all be in such deep trouble that renegade cops will be at the bottom of our problems-to-solve priority list.

  9. Joe,
    The problem I see with your “State Police” SWAT team is for states larger than, say Jersey. In California, let’s say you place your SWAT team in LA and a hostage situation occurs in Sacramento. You are talking a drive time of six hours @65mph. That is not an acceptible response time. Any more locations and they become “local” no? Besides, are State police any more accountible than the local yokels?

    As for tighter warrant standards, no, it does not directly address SWAT teams but does address overreaching by police powers, of which SWAT teams are a highly visible sign. Informant driven warrants smack of totalitarian “snitch on your neighbor” and rubber-stamping the warrants is tantamount to the courts being in league with the, now heavily armoured, “gestapo”.

  10. A small, tactical nuke would generate sufficient EMP to knock out the cameras 🙂

    I’m all in favor of your all camera, all the time concept. Although I think he’s overstating the case, Brin’s “transparent society” idea has some merit, which follows similar lines. Not to go off on yet another tangent, but the big flaw in his idea (as I recall it, to be fair) is that government will want cameras everywhere, but it won’t want to let us have access to them. Transparent to them and opaque to us is clearly not where we want to go.

  11. government will want cameras everywhere, but it won’t want to let us have access to them

    Which is why my plan has the caveat that without the video, the cops’ word is worthless and the citizen is presumed innocent and set free.

  12. How about we split the difference and make it an affirmative defense, shifting the burden of proving that the cops didn’t intentionally deactivate the cameras onto the cops? Nah, the cops would probably always somehow manage to prove their “innocence”.

    On the other hand, maybe what you’ve suggested could work, minus any wayward electronic defenses. If you’re limiting the exclusion to any assertions the cops might make as witnesses, that might be workable. I don’t see throwing out everything associated with the non-taped incident as a rule, though there could be situations where that would happen automatically.

    Clearly, more transparency in government and in law enforcement is a good thing. I like that we already have a large number of police cars with cameras on them. That’s a good start.

  13. On the subject of the cameras, what is to prevent police agencies from doctoring the video digitally to “prove” you did something you didn’t?

  14. I don’t see throwing out everything associated with the non-taped incident as a rule, though there could be situations where that would happen automatically.

    Right now, if a cop pulls you over, pulls a bag of marijuana out of his pocket and says “look what I found in your car,” what defense have you against this? If a cop walks up to you and Tasers you for no reason other than he doesn’t like the way you look, what defense have you against his assertion “Look out! He’s comin’ right for us!” Without video evidence, the law’s default assumption is that when a cop and a citizen disagree, the citizen is ALWAYS lying.

    Some months back Hit and Run had a post about a man who was literally tortured by the police, but luckily his wife turned on a tape recorder that caught the cops doing things like threaten to hook the man’s testicles to a car battery. Had she not done so, the couple would be in jail this minute, and the cops would have awards for getting that dangerously felonious couple off the street.

    I remember one night years ago when I, with my Virginia license plate, was driving through rural North Carolina with my boyfriend one rainy night. Cop pulls me over.

    Lie number one: cop says he thought I was driving drunk because I was swerving back and forth over the line. (I wasn’t.) Lie number two: cop says the inside of my car positively reeked of alcohol. I truthfully told him that was not possible because the last time I’d had a drink was six weeks previous, I’d never carried alcohol in that car, and my boyfriend hadn’t had any drinks that night either. Cop hauls me out of his car (in the rain) and makes me take that bullshit “drunk test,” though of course the sonofabitch refused my request for a Breathalyzer because the last thing he wanted was proof I was stone-sober.

    I only lost about ten minutes of my life to that asshole, but from time to time I still wonder: would things have been different if my then-boyfriend hadn’t been with me that night? And had the cop decided to put a baggie of something naughty in my car, I’d probably still be in the North Carolina women’s prison today.

  15. Clearly the government wants to increase the use of cameras to spy on pepole. I love this idea. We should first start by putting cameras to monitor all elected officials and police at all times. I mean after all they are technically the public’s employees. Right after get all the cameras in place we should require random drug tests. We don’t want any druggies working for the public do we?

  16. James Feldman,

    Good point. Back in law school (in the early 90s), we were discussing the impending end of photos as admissible evidence. That may not happen if uncovering photo/video doctoring remains feasible, of course. I imagine that doctoring video would be much harder to do on the sly than doctoring still images. And, I suppose, some sort of controls could be built into the cameras themselves to limit that possibility. Hmmm, maybe encryption of the video that can only be decoded by someone other than the cops?

  17. Jennifer, I have a prediction to make. The image of you in women’s prison will become the new discussion topic for our sex-crazed peanut gallery, supplanting entirely the shower issue. Because I like you, I’m just going to ignore the remark 🙂

    In case I didn’t say this, I don’t completely trust the police, either. Sure, there are lots of bad guys and cop work is tough, sometimes dangerous, and not very rewarding, but the police still operate virtually unchecked, and the profession seems to attract a disproportionately high number of goons who like to boss people around. And there’s plenty of reason to believe that corruption abounds in the police world. I do know some good guys who are cops, but that doesn’t change the problem, which is less one of the people involved and more one of systemic weaknesses.

  18. Assuming the video is being wirelessly transmitted to a recording device (as opposed to every officer carrying a recorded), disprupting the recording would require only a blocker.


  19. Jennifer, if the drug war never ends, it means we will never have cognitive liberty.
    if we never have cognitive liberty, we will never see the sweeping changes and evolutions that advanced bio technology and transhumanist philosophy can bring to humanity. we will not be able to upgrade our brains.
    i feel like the need to evolve our minds will end the drug war as we realize that we need free access to cognitive enhancement and modification in whatever form it comes in order to transcend the human condition.

  20. what is to prevent police agencies from doctoring the video digitally to “prove” you did something you didn’t?

    Immediately upon arrest, a copy is made and given to the defense attorney (or some other person of the arrestee’s choosing). Photoshopping a single picture can likely be done pretty quickly, but altering video with something like 24 stills per second of movement cannot.

  21. Whatever, bonk.

    Jennifer, as long as we’re wishing, we should push for HD cameras in the scenario you’re talking about. That way a jury can zoom in on a suspect’s hand without compromising quality. Something that might be important, for example, if we wanted to know if that was a wallet or a gun in his hand.

  22. “On the subject of the cameras, what is to prevent police agencies from doctoring the video digitally to “prove” you did something you didn’t?”

    The fact that most cops can barely check their hotmail account, let alone pull off spectacular feats of digital compositing that would typically require at least a squad of highly motivated video dorks and several cases of Mountain Dew.

  23. Mediageek, isn’t it also the case that when digital pictures have been altered, there’s ways of detecting that? I seem to recall reading about that. Something about coding, or the way the pixels are arranged, or something.

  24. Sage +P

    HD sounds good, but how will we know if that’s a banana in his pants.

    End the War on Drugs!

  25. After the Rodney King riots, laws sprang up over the country stating it to be a crime to film or audio tape somebody without their permission, and presumably the cops have used this to their advantage. 1 fellow is facing charges for filming an “undercover” cop who harassed him and wouldn’t allow him to shut his front door because the idiot’s foot was in the way.

    How about we instead create a law giving express permission to both video and audio tape not only LEO’s, but all agents of the government with or without their permission?

  26. It’s illegal to film someone without their permission?

  27. 76,

    Lucky for some of us, Washington state allows videotaping of anything in public. I found this out by videotaping a police action against some homeless guys, then asking the cop what the rules were.

    Perhaps an alternative is posting a sign on your property (like a “no trespassing” sign) that tells everyone that the property is video and audio taped 24/7, and that anything that transpires may be recorded.

    Anyone with a legal opinion on this?

  28. “whatever bonk” – says the larval human.

    the exo-terrestrials among us shall evolve and migrate but you and your genes shall perish on planet earth. goodbye and good riddance.

  29. I see. So bonk = Miss Cleo now?

    OMG. I must know what my future will be like. What about it?

    “Call me nooooooowwwwwww!”

  30. Kwix,
    To back up joe’s state SWAT, it’s not necessarily true that they’ll have one office. Just like there are multiple FBI offices, there could be multiple state SWAT offices. Somewhere as large and populous as CA could have an office in LA, SF, SJ, SD, SB and Sacto. I don’t think anytone thinks of the regional FBI offices as local or state police. Besides, the clash over jurisdiction between state SWAT and local police will likely prevent the most egregious of occurances.

  31. Most of these suggestions would be relatively inexpensive. Many are simply changes in procedure. If mistakes are indeed as rare as defenders of SWAT raids attest, there should be no problem with local governments and individual officers agreeing to more transparency and accountability when it comes to the citizens they serve nor to assuming full liability when their actions or the policies they’ve endorsed lead to unnecessary violence against innocents or nonviolent offenders.

    What’s that thing government keeps saying to us? You know, just before they vote for more “security.” Right on the tip of my mind. Any second now. Oh yeah.

    “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

  32. The nine principles by Sir Richard Mayne
    The Metropolitan Police’s founding principles and, de facto the founding principles of all other modern (post 1829) UK police forces, was summarised by Sir Richard Mayne (the first commissioner) in 1829 in the following terms:

    1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
    2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
    3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
    4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
    5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
    6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
    7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
    8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
    9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.


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