A Drug Raid Goes Viral
A violent drug raid posted to YouTube catches fire online. But the only thing unusual about the raid is that it was caught on video.
Last week, a Columbia, Missouri, drug raid captured on video went viral. As of this morning, the video had garnered 950,000 views on YouTube. It has lit up message boards, blogs, and discussion groups around the Web, unleashing anger, resentment and even, regrettably, calls for violence against the police officers who conducted the raid. I've been writing about and researching these raids for about five years, including raids that claimed the lives of innocent children, grandmothers, college students, and bystanders. Innocent families have been terrorized by cops who raided on bad information, or who raided the wrong home due to some careless mistake. There's never been a reaction like this one.
But despite all the anger the raid has inspired, the only thing unusual thing here is that the raid was captured on video, and that the video was subsequently released to the press. Everything else was routine. Save for the outrage coming from Columbia residents themselves, therefore, the mass anger directed at the Columbia Police Department over the last week is misdirected. Raids just like the one captured in the video happen 100-150 times every day in America. Those angered by that video should probably look to their own communities. Odds are pretty good that your local police department is doing the same thing.
First, some background on the raid depicted in the video: 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 say they first conducted a trash pull, and found marijuana residue in the family's garbage. During the raid, police shot and killed the family's pit bull. At least one bullet ricocheted, injuring the family's pet corgi. Whitworth, Montgomery, and their 7-year-old son were at home at the time. The incident was written up in the Columbia Daily Tribune, noted on a few blogs that cover drug policy (including a post I put up here at Reason), and then largely forgotten for several weeks.
On April 28, I received an email from Montgomery. She had seen my post at Reason and read an account of some of my reporting on SWAT teams published in Reader's Digest. She said she was reading to her son in his bedroom at the time of the raid. Her husband had just returned home from work. Police fired on their pets within seconds of entering the home.
"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. Nobody protected us that night, my son and I were locked in the back of a police car for nearly four hours on a school night while they destroyed my 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 no shots were fired. When neighbors learned from the family that this was a lie, they began writing to the department and the Daily Tribune to demand answers. When the couple discovered the police had videotaped the raid, they requested a copy of the video. Montgomery said in her email that the copy they were initially given had no audio, and the incriminating (to the police) portions of the video had been removed.
On February 23, the Daily Tribune published its first story on the raid. The paper made its own request for the SWAT video, which the police department initially denied. On April 20, Jonathan Whitworth pleaded guilty to a single charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. He wasn't even charged for the minor amount of marijuana in his home (marijuana for personal use has been decriminalized in Columbia). He was issued a $300 fine. On April 27, the Daily Tribune made a formal request for the video, which it received on April 30, with full audio and with no visuals removed. The paper posted the video with an accompanying article on May 3. On May 5, I posted it here at Reason, and the video went viral.
The police department has since conceded it was unaware that there were pets or a child in the home at the time of the raid. A spokesman for the Columbia Police Department initially said police had to conduct the raid immediately before the drug supply could be moved, a statement later shown to be false when police revealed the raid was conducted more than a week after the initial tip.
According to surveys of police departments conducted by University of Eastern Kentucky criminologist Peter Kraska, we've seen about a 1,500 percent increase in SWAT deployments in this country since the early 1980s. The vast majority of that increase has been to serve search warrants on people suspected of nonviolent drug crimes. SWAT teams are inherently violent. In some ways they're an infliction of punishment before conviction. This is why they should only be used in situations where the suspect presents an immediate threat to others. In that case, SWAT teams use violence to defuse an already violent situation. When they're used to serve drug warrants for consensual crimes, however, SWAT tactics create violence where no violence was present before. Even when everything goes right in such a raid, breaking into the home of someone merely suspected of a nonviolent, consensual crime is an inappropriate use of force in a free society.
The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the video is interesting. Clearly, a very large majority of the people who have seen it are disturbed by it. But this has been going on for 30 years. We've reached the point where police have no qualms about a using heavily armed police force trained in military tactics to serve a search warrant on a suspected nonviolent marijuana offender. And we didn't get here by accident. The war on drugs has been escalating and militarizing for a generation. What's most disturbing about that video isn't the violence depicted in it, but that such violence has become routine.
As horrifying as the video from Columbia, Missouri, is, no human beings were killed. The police got the correct address, and they found the man they were looking for. In many other cases, such raids transpire based on little more than a tip from an anonymous or confidential informant. Nor is it unusual for raids just as violent as the one depicted in the video to turn up little in the way of drugs or weapons. (Whitworth wasn't exactly an outstanding citizen—he had a prior drug and DWI conviction. But he had no history of violence, and there were no weapons in the home.) Surveys conducted by newspapers around the country after one of these raids goes bad have found that police only find weapons of any kind somewhere between 10-20 percent of the time. The percentage of raids that turn up a significant amount of drugs tends to vary, but a large percentage only result in misdemeanor charges at worst.
Shooting the family's dogs isn't unusual, either. To be fair, that's in part 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 than shooting them. 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. In the case of Tarika Wilson, a Lima, Ohio, SWAT officer mistook the sounds of a colleague shooting a drug dealer's dogs for hostile gunfire. He then opened fire into a bedroom, killing a 23-year-old mother and shooting the hand off of the one-year-old child in her arms.
The Columbia raid 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 backroom of that house, or asleep, it isn't at all difficult to see how you'd have no idea if the armed men in your home were police officers. The first sounds you heard would have been gunfire.
But because this was a knock-and-announce raid, the police didn't need to show that Whitworth had a violent background or may have had guns in the home to use the violent tactics in the video. They didn't need to show that Whitworth posed any sort of threat at all, other than the fact he was suspected of dealing marijuana. Though SWAT teams are frequently defended as necessary tools reserved for the most dangerous of drug offenders, the reality is that in many communities, all search warrants are served with forced entry and paramilitary tactics.
The militarization of America's police departments has taken place over a generation, due to a number of bad policy decisions from politicians and government officials, ranging from federal grants for drug fighting to a Pentagon giveaway program that makes military equipment available to local police departments for free or at steep discounts. Mostly, though, it's due to the ill-considered "war" imagery our politicians continue to invoke when they refer to drug prohibition. Repeat the mantra that we're at war with illicit drugs often enough, and the cops on the front lines of that war will naturally begin to think of themselves as soldiers. And that's particularly true when you outfit them in war equipment, weaponry, and armor. This is dangerous, because the objectives of cops and soldiers are very different. One is charged with annihilating a foreign enemy. The other is charged with keeping the peace.
Soon enough, our police officers begin 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, just as we do with collateral damage in actual wars. This is how we get images like those depicted in the video.
It's heartening that nearly a million people have now seen the Columbia video. But it needs some context. The officers in that video aren't rogue cops. They're no different than 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 effect any change, the Internet anger directed at the Columbia Police Department needs to be redirected to America's drug policy in general. 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's become all too literal—that just might.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.