Wednesday, May 26, 2010

SWAT Teams

I read Beat and Release on a regular basis.  The author is a cop and takes the title for his blog from a politically incorrect police method that is officially no longer employed by law enforcement in the United States.  Since the author writes anonymously for many of the same reasons I do, and since his writing has the feel of authenticity about it, I'm willing to believe the author is what he proclaims to be: a male law enforcement officer working in a large city who is in fair health at best (the man suffers pain stoically), who is married with children and of intemperate disposition and somewhat irascible.  He write well, indicating he possesses intelligence and education.  I find his opinions generally reasonable, and I have developed a fair amount of respect for him.

A few weeks ago Beat and Release (B&R) wrote a short essay entitled Innocent Victims - Where Are They? which is quite good.  B&R points out that:
The majority of crime victims are victimized because they choose to live a specific lifestyle, e.g. drug users who get robbed or murdered while trying to purchase their drug of choice.  Or the dealer who gets murdered by the competition.
Which tends to make a lot of sense when you think about it.  Most people I know do not lead the life of a criminal, and if marijuana were legalized I would truthfully say that none of the people I know are criminals.  They don't cheat on their taxes, abuse family members, steal things, start fights or get blind drunk and go out for a drive while playing with their gun collection.

B&R continues:
It didn't take long for me to discover that the first order of business when assigned a case was to check out the victim.  A lot of the time they had outstanding warrants.  I would have them come in and give me a statement regarding their case, then hook them up on the warrant, clearing two cases in one fell swoop.
I once was stopped for a moving violation and the arresting officer asked me about my driving record.  I couldn't think of any violations in the past five years and said so, whereupon the officer assured me he was going to check my license for outstanding warrants.  I simply shrugged, not knowing how to respond to that statement.  The officer returned shortly thereafter, handed me my license and wished me a nice day, for which I thanked him.  When we experienced a theft at home, the police were very courteous and helped my mother develop better security.  After reading B&R's piece, I would suppose that the police might have been pleasantly surprised to find someone who did not have an outstanding warrant and who was glad to see them.
B&R: I know that doesn't sound right to the average person.  We should rejoice because of that fact.  For those of us who are dedicated to a long career helping others it proves to be a disappointment. 
Which is understandable.  Since B&R intends to spend the vast majority of his time (when he isn't filling out paperwork) interacting with victims and criminals and has presorted these two groups into good guys and bad guys, he must now contend with the fact that, odds are, they are all bad guys.  B&R may work all year and not be able to help someone who really is minding their own business and trying their best to get along, and who has been victimized by a criminal that B&R might be able to catch.
B&R: I simply supplanted the disappointment with a fascination of what one person could do to another, or to themselves.
B&R continues to describe his attitude and talks about his impending retirement.  I would say that he was in a funk when he wrote this and will likely feel better later on.  I would also like to mention that B&R is unofficially credited with coining the term "Shaniqua Theater", a term used to describe in two succinct words the extended “Baby Mama drama” that he and other police have to contend with on a regular basis, and which is aggravating to everyone within earshot.  Everyone with sensibilities somewhat higher than, say, a set of Goodyear radials.

That said, B&R has written a new piece on the police: SWAT Teams and Warrant Service.  In it he talks about SWAT teams (I know, big surprise here, right?  Bite me.) and does so from the perspective of a regular police officer.  This is a good essay and I recommend you read it before continuing. 

Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams had their origin back in the 1960s.  While there was a lot of violence in the U.S. during that period, one event that contributed heavily to the formation of SWAT was Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people from a tower at a university in Texas.  In trying to stop Whitman it was discovered that the police didn't have the firearms or the training they needed to deal with him.  Drug violence in the 1980s made SWAT a necessity.  It's still a necessity today.

B&R makes the valid point:
Fourth - 'dynamic' entry techniques have undoubtedly prevented more injuries and deaths than the public believes.  We only hear about the few that have gone south.
I have no idea how many search warrants are issued and served annually, how many of these are 'no-knock' warrants, how many are served with 'dynamic' entry techniques or how many people are injured in any way during the service of these warrants.  I've never seen this news reported.  I do hear about the search warrants that have gone wrong somehow, but I have no way of knowing if the single event I read about in the local paper is one out of five or one out of 1000.  But, me being a betting man, I'd be willing to bet that the 'dynamic' entry tactics are designed to prevent injury and death to the police.  The welfare of the public whose residence is being search is likely a consideration, but I'm betting the priority of the public welfare isn't anywhere close to the police.

This sounds outrageous until you stop and consider B&R's first essay on innocence and victims.  The people whose front door has been kicked in and who are being held at gunpoint are nothing like most of the people I associate with on a regular basis; they're nothing like anyone I know.  They are, in fact, violent criminals who know why the police are in their living room, who know what the police are going to find and who, given the right opportunity, would cheerfully murder the individual policemen searching their home.  They would then have a party afterward.

My detractors may say that this sounds a little far fetched.  Consider this: When I was young and broke, my girlfriend and I lived on Floyd Street in Toledo, Ohio, which is in the ghetto.  The walls of our apartment were made of quarter inch plywood (a slight exaggeration).  We had the audacity to ask our neighbors in the next apartment to turn their music off, it being one in the  morning and both of us having to go to work later on that day.  We also had the unmitigated gall to get up at six AM, get ready for work and leave; making noise that woke the baby.  So one night after the music got turned off, we heard them plotting to murder us – shoot us as we slept.  So no, I don't think it far fetched that criminals would kill cops and celebrate afterward.

B&R points out that police, including SWAT teams, sometimes make mistakes.
Sixth - when you hear on the news about a SWAT raid hitting the wrong house it is, simply, a fuck-up.  Or a clerical error.  Typos cause problems.  Simply putting the wrong color of the target house on the search warrant can cause this.  If your house is green and your drug dealing neighbor's house is aqua, it is possible to hit the wrong house no matter how much they brief before the raid.  These incidents are unfortunate, but cops, even the highly trained SWAT operators, are human and do make mistakes.
Indeed.  The trouble here is that there is no penalty for making a mistake like this.  Consider that SWAT teams employ violent methods during the execution of their jobs, and that parameters on just what kind and how much violence can be used are established by the police department, not the common citizen.  Those very same parameters are approved by elected officials, such as the local mayor and city council members.  So, when the correct house is searched, the question of abuse by police becomes excessive force.  If the wrong house is raided, the question is still excessive force – since criminal charges are decided (ultimately) by the Department of Justice (DOJ), and since the DOJ works very closely with the police, it's very unlikely criminal charges will be made against the SWAT team.  That leaves civil penalties.

Anyone who has ever had to deal with civil court beyond small claims can attest to the fact that courts run on something called attorney time.  In real time, this means years.  This means that ten years after the SWAT team kicked in the wrong front door or used excessive force, the victim might get some money from the local government.  The police officers involved in the raid may not even remember that particular raid very clearly.  Amounts in these cases vary widely, but I'm told that $50,000 would be the expected amount unless someone is permanently injured or killed.  From B&R:
Tenth - No officer, agent or SWAT operator relishes the taking of a human life, even when someone seemingly deserves it.
Which I think is likely the truth.  If that were the case, the policeman in question would very probably be discovered by his fellow officers and department psychologist and relieved of SWAT duty.  At least, that's what I hope would happen.  What B&R is leaving out is that while SWAT team officers may not relish the act of killing someone, they may be somewhat callous to the act.  These men are dealing with violent criminals; they carry fully automatic weapons and wear extensive body armor.  Before they leave the police station to go and serve the search warrant, they have prepared themselves for a gun fight.  And, if someone else ends up dead, well that's just tough luck.  The police are able to go home to their families.

B&R finishes his essay by admitting that there are bad cops on SWAT teams. 
Now, are there bad SWAT operators like there are bad cops, lawyers, check-out clerks, doctors, etc?  Yes there are.  I recently had a video of a SWAT narcotics search warrant (Missouri, I believe) in which the operators shot a dog in a cage and a small Pekinese.  I try not to second guess situations when I wasn't present, but this was totally uncalled for, in my opinion, even if they found a bale of marijuana in the home.  Seriously, how much damage can a caged dog and a Pekinese really do.  I have stuck my boot in the mouth of a charging pit bull to keep him from attacking.  I doubt I would have much problem controlling a Pekinese, even if his incessant yapping was an epic annoyance.
That there are bad SWAT team members is no surprise to me; what is surprising is that another police officer is willing to admit that this condition exists.  This admission tends to give the rest of the essay a lot of credibility.  The question then becomes what to do about bad behavior?

If we the people, the same people that give the SWAT teams their machine gun, their body armor and their badge want the police and the SWAT team to change their behavior, then I propose the following:
  • Equip each SWAT team member with a camera mounted on their helmet.  Record the raid in its entirety so if any questions about excessive force are asked later on, answers will be a lot more obvious than they are now.  If someone is shot, let's have the whole scenario on digital media for review.
  • Establish criminal penalties for raiding the wrong house.  If the search warrant states the address as 5250 Anystreet and the SWAT teams raids the place next door by mistake, congratulations Ace, you are all criminals.  Expect to be treated as such.

  • Make sure there are no children in the home.  If there are children present, the house doesn't get raided.

  • Hold the judge that signed the search warrant responsible for the behavior of the SWAT team.  The judge knows what the SWAT team is going to do.  The judge also knows that if unnecessary force is used to apprehend a drug dealer, no one will care very much.  Holding the judge liable will make him or her think twice before putting his signature to a search warrant.

  • Publish the results of SWAT teams and search warrants.  If the police are actually fighting crime, we'd all like to hear about it and pass some congratulations around.  As things stand right now no one knows if search warrants are successful or not.
The people who should be hearing about any dissatisfaction are not necessarily the police or the SWAT teams.  The elected officials, especially the ones who don't publish an email address, are the people that should be hearing about this.  Write your elected officials including your local judges and tell them what you think.  They probably won't appreciate hearing from you, but, well, that's life in the fish bowl.

My thanks to Beat and Release for taking time to write his blog.

3 comments:

jackbootedstormtrooper said...

Hmmm, a few points if I may:

"Equip each SWAT team member with a camera mounted on their helmet. Record the raid in its entirety so if any questions about excessive force are asked later on, answers will be a lot more obvious than they are now. If someone is shot, let's have the whole scenario on digital media for review."

-That's in the works. In fact, Tazer has some pretty spiffy camera technology they have been hawking lately.

Establish criminal penalties for raiding the wrong house. If the search warrant states the address as 5250 Anystreet and the SWAT teams raids the place next door by mistake, congratulations Ace, you are all criminals. Expect to be treated as such.

-Perhaps the most ill-informed thing I have read by you.

Make sure there are no children in the home. If there are children present, the house doesn't get raided.

-Okay, I was wrong. That is.

Hold the judge that signed the search warrant responsible for the behavior of the SWAT team. The judge knows what the SWAT team is going to do. The judge also knows that if unnecessary force is used to apprehend a drug dealer, no one will care very much. Holding the judge liable will make him or her think twice before putting his signature to a search warrant.

-It'll never happen. Why do you think DWIs are so hard to prosecute? Because judges and politicians (is that redundant?) like to drink and drive. Lack of consequences is a perk of being a judge.

Publish the results of SWAT teams and search warrants. If the police are actually fighting crime, we'd all like to hear about it and pass some congratulations around. As things stand right now no one knows if search warrants are successful or not.

That's a good idea, but again, it won't happen. Nobody wants to report, or hear about the SWAT standoff that was ended without incident.

I'll give you an "A" for putting forth the effort of trying to understand.

Sorry for the excessively long and un-formatted comment, but blogsplat won't let me use HTML. At least not in the way I wanted.

Beat And Release said...

Jack,

This was a well written piece and I appreciate the kind words. As you may or may not know, I teach one day a week at a local high school, for free, on my own time and have for eleven years. I don't teach in uniform, but instead in jeans and whatever happens to be my favorite Harley-Davidson t-shirt that week. I want the kids to know me as a person first, then a cop. The first statement I make to each class the first time we meet is, "I will always be honest with you. I will always tell you what I perceive as the truth. If there is a situation in the news involving possible liability on the part of an officer of department, I will freely tell you that the officer or department f*cked up. The only limitation is if it is an incident involving my department or my guys/gals because I am forbidden by policy from commenting publicly. Feel free to ask me again after any civil and/or criminal cases are wrapped up and I will provide a no-sh*t assessment of the situation."

When one takes the totality of the circumstance of any specific case into account it can usually be shown whether there was simply a mistake made or if criminal intent was involved. One can lead to a civil suit, the other to prison time. Department are sensitive to bad press and in most good departments is doesn't much evidence of a policy violation for an officer to receive some sort of punishment, ranging from letters of caution to termination Talk to some of your local first line officers and most will report they have little use or respect for the DOJ, so the cozy relationship that many believe exists is largely a fallacy.

In situation where there is any doubt the officers are investigated first by their department, which looks for violation of policy. Once that investigation is concluded the State police conduct an investigation into whether or not laws were broken. After that investigation is complete, the DOJ does an investigation to determine if federal law was broken or civil rights violations occurred.

If we didn't do search warrants on homes with children in them, we would do very few search warrants. Our SWAT team hit a house last year. Officers noticed strange behavior toward the child on the part of the parents. Since they were handcuffed an officer stepped up the change the toddler's dirty diaper. Stuffed in the diaper was a semi-automatic pistol. A good SWAT team who conducted surveillance of the target location will know children are present and give that issue a high priority during the raid planning and briefing. Many agencies will fore-go the flash bang type of entry in that situation.

Thanks again for the reference to Beat and Release and thank you for a well-considered response to the issue.

Respectfully,

Beat and Release

Mad Jack said...

My thanks to BeatAndRelease and JackBootedStormTrooper for their well written comments.