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?