In "A Drug Raid Goes Viral" (August/September), I described a video of a February drug raid in Columbia, Missouri, that sparked widespread outrage at the SWAT team's militaristic tactics. As I noted, those tactics, which included the use of a battering ram and the killing of a family dog, are quite common in SWAT raids, which occur 100 to 150 times a day across the country. By now the video of the raid, which yielded just under three grams of marijuana, has racked up more than 1.3 million views on YouTube and attracted extensive coverage in the media.
The Columbia Police Department is aware of this attention. In May, Police Chief Ken Burton announced changes in procedure for future SWAT raids. Most notably, raids will no longer be conducted at night, and they will require approval from senior department officials.
At a press conference two weeks later, Burton indicated he was also sympathetic to legalizing marijuana. Columbia voters had already approved a ballot measure in 2004 that made simple possession of up to an ounce and a quarter of marijuana a citation with a maximum penalty of $250. Asked if the drug should be fully legalized, Burton replied, "If we could get out of the business [of arresting marijuana offenders], I think there would be a lot of police officers that would be happy to do that."
Meanwhile, the civil liberties group Flex Your Rights reports that Burton now shows its video Busted: The Citizen's Guide to Surviving Police Encounters during appearances at Columbia high schools. And in June, after a member of the SWAT team revealed criminal charges from a protester's sealed juvenile record, Burton suspended the officer without pay.
The department's procedural changes and Burton's willingness to engage critics are a departure from the defensiveness and secrecy that usually characterize the official reaction when drug raids bring unwelcome attention. But Burton did not promise to stop using his SWAT team to serve warrants on suspected marijuana dealers. There is still a vast gulf in Columbia between a community that considers marijuana harmless enough that users should not be arrested and a police department that sends heavily armed cops into the homes of people suspected of distributing it. In that sense, Columbia is still like most of America.