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Austin Police Responded to the Burglary of an Empty Home With a Full-On SWAT Raid

(And they still didn't catch the culprit.)

When an out-of-town homeowner received a video alert from his home security system showing a burglar in his house, he contacted the Austin Police Department. In response, the Austin Police Department sent a SWAT team and nearly leveled the place. Right on Crime's Randy Petersen, a 21-year veteran of the Bloomington (Illinois) Police Department, learned of the case from a complaint filed by the burglarized homeowner's next-door neighbor, and writes about it in The Hill:

It began with an Austin Police helicopter circling the skies over his normally quiet neighborhood and ended with tear gas rounds shattering the windows and a small army of SWAT officers breaching the door and detonating flashbang grenades in his neighbor's home. Between these two events, SWAT officers and police dogs occupied his back yard, commandeered his backyard as a sniper post, and cut a large hole in his fence.

While I hate to play spoiler, the story actually ends with the out-of-town homeowner watching remotely as the burglar--who goes undetected while police "break almost every window, blow up the door, fill the home with teargas, and scorch the flooring with flashbangs"--escapes into the night.

Petersen, who taught at a police academy after serving as an officer, cites this incident as yet another example of excessive SWAT use. "The level of violence a SWAT team brings with it should be reserved for situations that call for it, and those situations are quite rare," he writes. And yet SWAT teams are used all the time.

When I hear stories like this one, I wonder what any one group--even a constellation of groups--can actually do to curtail it. As Petersen notes (and former Reasoner Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop illustrates in frightening detail), the threshold for SWAT use has plummeted since the LAPD introduced the strategy in the 1950s. If a police department wants to use a raid, they will. Increasingly, they want to use raids for lots and lots of things, so they do.

We can and do debate what the bar should be for deploying a military unit in a civilian setting, or for forcing entry on a residence; at what time of day (or more likely, pre-dawn); with how much notice. I'll concede that reasonable people can disagree on where to set those thresholds. But even if civil liberties advocates and law enforcement leaders could reach a consensus on when it's OK to break down a door, ransack the interior, and terrify/maim/murder every living creature therein, I'd love to know how you force police departments to comply.

Consider Utah, a mostly ethnically homogenous state of 2.9 million people. Balko has reported extensively on the state's efforts to reform its 124 police agencies (side note: that's a lot of outfits for a population the size of Chicago). One of the reforms passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor is a requirement that agencies track and make public incidents in which officers forced their way into a private residence. The first set of numbers came out in August 2015. Those numbers show the usual: Of 559 such incidents in 2014, Balko reports that only 3 percent involved active shooters, barricaded suspects, hostages, or the serving of a violent felony warrant, while 83 percent of the reported incidents involved a drug crime.

This is not surprising. Civil liberties advocates (and the people who get their windows blown out) know, and have known for decades, that police agencies bust down doors mostly for drug offenses, despite law enforcers claiming SWAT-style tactics are used mostly for situations that occur almost never.

Nor is it surprising that police discovered a firearm in only three of the 559 incidents, and were fired on but once. The idea that all drugs offenders, or even most of them, are armed and trigger-happy has never been supported by evidence. Even at the federal level, where offenders are sometimes charged with drug quantities equivalent in value to a home mortgage, only 17 percent of offenders received a gun enhancement last year. (And as we know from the cases of Weldon Angelos and Chris Williams, catching a gun charge doesn't mean an offender used or even brandished a firearm.)

What's genuinely shocking about the data from Utah is that 25 percent--a full quarter!--of police agencies failed to report incidents in which officers forced their way into a private residence.

This is what I'm getting at when I ask, What the hell do we do about events like the one in Austin? Utah's government essentially said, "Go ahead and bust down peoples' doors. Just make sure to tell us, and the public, how and why you did it." In response, a quarter of the state's law enforcement agencies said, "Nah." Now imagine the introduction of legislation--city, county, state, whatever--that constrained police use of raids and SWAT teams. Imagine it gets passed in the face of fear-mongering and big spending by police unions. Imagine it gets signed despite press conferences at which law enforcement leaders warn of dead cops and emboldened gang leaders.

What happens when the police, after all that, keep doing what they've always done?

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  • Citizen X - #6||

    So at what point should we just accept that you should never call the cops unless you want someone hurt or their property seized/destroyed?

  • Bubba Jones||

    Did you read the article?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Silly Bubba. DanO doesn't read.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    I sure hope Preet never gets burglarized.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    I'm used to the whole don't-call-the-cops thing, but this is a situation that I think *does* warrant a call- property crime, nobody's there, you don't necessarily want to call a neighbor because you don't know if the burglar is armed- I'd have called the cops.

    They could have waited to ambush him on his way out, but we all know that compliance NOW is more important than anything else in the entire universe. And I'll never understand why cops insist on initiating violence in a situation where they are starting at a tactical disadvantage. Idiotic.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Welcome to the Police State Riggsy. So called because the armed thugs are in control and there is nothing the courts or elected officials can do about it, nevermind the great unwashed. All we can do is hope we're paid up and we don't get in their sites.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    What's genuinely shocking about the data from Utah is that 25 percent--a full quarter!--of police agencies failed to report incidents in which officers forced their way into a private residence.

    Oh, Riggs, you aren't that shocked.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    You have your fun at work, cops have theirs.

    Why do you hate cops?

  • some guy||

    My fun involves surfing the web. Why can't cops just do that all day?

  • Hugh Akston||

    You can't cave in a skull with a wireless mouse dude.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    Oh yes you can.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    What happens when the police, after all that, keep doing what they've always done?

    I mean, what is anybody gonna do? Call the police?

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    The comments remind me that people like this:

    chillyone • a day ago

    I'd rather have a SWAT team show up for a dangerous situation than have a officer shot because a senior researcher at a foundation doesn't like SWAT teams.

    exist, so I don't think much is going to change.

  • some guy||

    Obviously all cops should be on the SWAT team and in full gear at all times.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Thanks for ruining my Friday, Crusty. Jesus.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    "I have the next envelope."

    [rustling sounds]

    Friday, Crusty. Jesus.

    [brief pause]

    "Uh, name three things to describe the progression of Rebecca Black's career."

  • Gene||

    Agreed!

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    What happens when a SWAT team IS the burglar?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    You're familiar with the end of Old Yeller?

  • some guy||

    The first rule of the public sector is that if you don't use something you will lose it. If you don't use funding you will lose it. If you don't use your office space you will lose it. If you don't use your parking spaces you will lose them. And if you don't use your SWAT team you will lose that too. During times of falling violent crime rates, its only natural that the threshold for when departments are willing to use a SWAT team will fall as well.

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Can we change the acronym to mean Standard Weapons and Tactics?

  • some guy||

    Or change the meaning of the word "Special".

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Or just use the already-extant alternate meaning of "special."

  • Hank Phillips||

    SWAT: Strength, Weakness, Asset-forfeiture and Threats

  • B.P.||

    I'm quite sure I could have caught the perp in the Austin scenario by having one officer sit quietly in the shadows at the front of the property, and one at the rear, waiting for the guy to eventually walk out of the place. Not as fun as blowing up a bunch of shit, I know.

  • some guy||

    Those flash-bangs and smoke grenades were about to expire. This was part of the department's battle against wasteful spending.

  • I can't even||

    Yea - I would have thought covering all possible exits would have been one of the steps taken before smashing their way through the house.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Obviously, you are not a police officer.

  • Anotherbob||

    It is, the escape was made prior to their arrival, and prior to an effective perimeter being set up.

  • ||

    Bob Hodges: [to his new partner] There's two bulls standing on top of a mountain. The younger one says to the older one: 'Hey pop, let's say we run down there and fuck one of them cows'. The older one says: 'No son. Lets walk down and fuck 'em all'.

    These dipshits can't even get one.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    tear gas rounds shattering the windows and a small army of SWAT officers breaching the door and detonating flashbang grenades in his neighbor's home. Between these two events, SWAT officers and police dogs occupied his back yard, commandeered his backyard as a sniper post, and cut a large hole in his fence.

    Jesus H Christ. These guys are like Little Bill's deputies in Unforgiven

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If this asshole didn't want his house demolished, he shouldn't have made it a haven for burglars.

  • KWlib||

    Rule number one. NEVER call the cops. Things will only get worse.

  • Hank Phillips||

    There was a similar incident in Brazil recently. An iPhone app alerted the homeowner to burglars while he was out of town. He called the cops, they arrested the perps with no property damage.

  • ||

    I want to see one of these libertarian moments happen to Nick. Not death...just lose a couple of teeth.

  • Anotherbob||

    What a bunch of crap, anytime there's a barricaded suspect who refuses to come out of a dwelling/building the SWAT team should be called out, it is what they train for and do, they are the best bet of everybody ending up safe, at worst, of only the bad guy ending up hurt or killed. Yes, sometimes prior to their arrival the bad guy slips through before an effective perimeter can be set up, but until the house is cleared the SWAT members will not know that.

    What a bunch of snowflake, pacifist, whiners.

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