War on Drugs

SWAT Gone Wild in Maryland

A botched raid on a small-town Maryland mayor exposes widespread abuse by the state's SWAT teams.


Late last month, Berwyn Heights, Maryland Mayor Cheye Calvo took the unusual step of filing a civil rights lawsuit against the police department of his own county. The suit stems from a 2008 SWAT team raid on Calvo's house that resulted in the shooting deaths of his two black Labrador retrievers. In pushing back against the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Prince George's County police department, the mayor is helping expose a more widespread pattern of law enforcement carelessness and callousness throughout the state of Maryland.  

Prince George's police originally obtained a warrant to search Calvo's home after intercepting a package of marijuana sent to the mayor's address. Calvo and his family were innocent—the package was intended to be picked up by a drug dealer. But instead of first investigating who lived at the residence, or even notifying the Berwyn Heights police chief, the county police department immediately sent in the SWAT team. In addition to having his two dogs killed, Calvo and his mother-in-law were handcuffed for several hours, and questioned at gunpoint.

To his credit, the mayor concluded early on that if this could happen to him, it was probably happening to others. "In some ways, we were lucky," Calvo said at a University of Maryland event this April. "We had the support of our community, who knew we weren't drug dealers. It didn't take long for me to realize that many people this kind of thing happens to don't have that kind of support."

Calvo also learned just how obstinate and unapologetic police and government officials can be, even (or especially) when they're clearly in the wrong. Prince George's County Police Chief Melvin High actually praised his officers' conduct, insisting that if they had to do it again they'd conduct the Calvo raid the same way. "Our investigators went in and showed both restraint and compassion," he told a local TV station.

Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson told a local newspaper that Calvo would get no apology for the slaying of his dogs. Johnson's puzzling explanation: "Well, I think in America that is the apology, when we're cleared…. At the end of the day, the investigation showed he was not involved. And that's, you know, a pat on the back for everybody involved, I think."

It took nearly a year for the Prince George's police department to release its report on the incident. The conclusion: officers did nothing wrong.

Within a few weeks of the raid, other victims of botched search warrants in Maryland began contacting Calvo. One couple was raided after their teenage son was found with a small amount of marijuana during a traffic stop. Another elderly couple had their dog shot and killed by Prince George's officers in a mistaken raid. And in Howard County, police broke down a door in front of a 12-year-old girl, battered a man with a police shield, then shot and killed the man's Australian cattle dog. They were looking for someone suspected of stealing a rifle from a police car. The suspect didn't live at the residence.

There were more:

• Eleven days before the raid on Calvo's home, Prince George's police raided the home of a Secret Service agent after receiving a tip that he was distributing steroids. They found no drugs or incriminating evidence.

• In August 2007 police raided the home of a Prince George's County couple to serve an outstanding arrest warrant for their son. The parents were handcuffed at gunpoint. Police later learned that the couple's son had already been in police custody for 12 days.

In November 2007 Prince George's police raided the wrong home of a couple in Accokeek. Though the couple presented the police with evidence that they were at the wrong address, the police still detained them at gunpoint, refusing even to let them go to the bathroom. The couple asked the police if they could bring their pet boxer in from the backyard. The police refused. Moments later, the police shot and killed the dog.

In June 2007 police in Annapolis deployed a flash grenade, broke open an apartment door, and kicked a man in the groin during a mistaken drug raid. When they later served the warrant on the correct address, they found no drugs.

Most victims of these mistaken raids experienced the same callousness and indifference from public officials that Calvo did. When police in Montgomery County conducted a mistaken 4 a.m. raid on a Kenyan immigrant and her teenage daughters in 2005, the county offered free movie passes as compensation. When police in Baltimore mistakenly raided the home of 33-year-old Andrew Leonard last May, the city refused to pay for Leonard's door, which was destroyed during the break-in. When Leonard called the city's bulk trash pick-up to come get the door, no one came. Days later, city code inspectors fined Leonard $50 for storing the broken door in his backyard.

Just last month, Baltimore's ABC affiliate reported on another mistaken raid, and noted that city officials generally make no effort to compensate homeowners when police trash their houses in search of contraband that doesn't turn up. "If you're searching for drugs or unlawful firearms, these things are not left out in plain view on the living room table," City Solicitor George Nilson explained. "You often will have to do some damage to the premises and…the police department doesn't and we don't pay for those kinds of damages." Even if the police find nothing, Nilson said, the city has no obligation to pay, because, "it may have been the stuff that you're looking for was there three hours earlier, but somebody got it out of harm's way."

At least none of these raids ended with the loss of human life. In January 2005, police in Baltimore County conducted a 4:50 a.m. raid on the home of Cheryl Lynn and Charles Noel after finding marijuana seeds and cocaine residue in the family's trash. After taking down the front door and deploying a flash grenade, SWAT officers stormed up the steps and broke open the door to the Noels' bedroom. Because their daughter had been murdered several years earlier, the couple kept a gun near the bed. When the police entered the bedroom, 44-year-old Cheryl Lynn Noel stood with the gun, clad in her nightgown. She was shot and killed by an armor-wearing SWAT officer, who fired from behind a ballistics shield. Police found only a misdemeanor amount of illicit drugs in the home. Shortly after the family filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2006, Baltimore County gave the officer who shot Noel an award for "valor, courage, honor, and bravery."

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.