No, It Really Is Because of the Drugs

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

Protein Wisdom blogger Dalreen Click links to the video of the Pima County raid, and writes:

Radley Balko pursues the story. Glad this is on his radar. However, he asserts in another post covering yet another FUBAR raid “This is your war on drugs.”

Really? Set aside a moment the debate on the legalization of drugs and ask yourself, honestly, do you think these kind of pre-dawn, over-the-top, pseudo-military raids would stop if drugs were fully legalized? You don’t think they’re used for other things like, say child pr0n?<—Radley’s own post, fer cryin’ out loud!

The issue is not the object of the warrant, but the tactics by used in ostensibly serving the warrant.

What follows won’t be anything new to readers of this site, but it’s worth correcting people on this stuff. (I’d also encourage Click to read my paper on the rise of SWAT teams in America, which goes into all of this in much more detail.)

The mass increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last 30 years is unquestionably a product of the war on drugs. The Pentagon giveaway programs, which have turned millions of pieces of military equipment over to domestic police departments; the Byrne and other federal law enforcement grants tied exclusively to drug policing; the federally-funded multi-jurisdictional drug task forces that are almost always paramilitary in nature, civil asset forfeiture laws; the fact that in the 1980s and 1990s the federal government sent members of elite military units like the Navy SEALS and Army Rangers out to train police departments in drug interdiction—all of these policies contributed to the militarization of America’s police departments, and nearly all were enacted because politicians decided the war on drugs ought to be fought more like an actual war.

It isn’t all that surprising that SWAT teams are now used to break up neighborhood poker games, arrest people suspected of downloading child porn, and for sorts of other nonviolent crimes unrelated to illicit drugs. They are government entities, after all. Mission creep is encoded into their DNA.

But the drug war is the driving force behind the proliferation of SWAT teams over the last 30 years (though since September 11, DHS anti-terror policy has contributed quite a bit as well). And the overwhelming majority of SWAT callouts today are still for the service of drug warrants.

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36 Responses to “No, It Really Is Because of the Drugs”

  1. #1 |  bruce | 

    You’re correct on the cause, but Click makes a good point (perhaps not the point she intended) that if drugs were legalized tomorrow these raids would not stop. Mission “uncreep” will be hard to attain, so the raids will still occur for poker, porn, etc.

  2. #2 |  Radley Balko | 

    I disagree. If the federal drug war ended tomorrow, police departments wouldn’t have the funding to keep these SWAT teams up. Maybe the forced entry tactics would continue, but there would be far fewer opportunities.

    There would be no federal drug-fighting grants, and I don’t think poker games are going to be nearly as lucrative when it comes to asset forfeiture. Plus, without the drug war, you’re probably going to have to lay off a good percentage of law enforcement personnel. There just won’t be as much for them to do.

  3. #3 |  Nando | 

    I think the primary driving force is the military wanna-be mindset most cops have. They either weren’t smart enough to pass the ASVAB, or they couldn’t hack it as a member of the military, so they joined the “Military Light”. As a former military person, with quite a few friends who joined police forces for these reasons, I know what I’m talking about.

    Now, Radley is right in that if they don’t have the money, they won’t be doing the raids. Since it’s hard to stop the “gung-ho” mentality of cops, we need to take away their toys (or money, in this case).

  4. #4 |  tarran | 

    Radley, since the day George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison et al. began conspiring to prevent another instance of Shay’s Rebellion (where hayseed farmers, often vets of the war of independence, rebelled against the taxes and inflationary policy and the state militia refused to put down the insurrection), the Federal govt has been a tool to crush freedom in one way or another.

    The next war on the people won’t be the war on drugs. It will be the war on carbon, or nanotech, or porn or something else that is inconsequential.. It will come as a shock to us now just as the current nightmare would come as a shock to any one living in the 1870’s who couldn’t imagine that the U.S. would be fighting aa war on people drinking Milk of Laudanum.

  5. #5 |  JS | 

    bruce “Mission “uncreep” will be hard to attain, so the raids will still occur for poker, porn, etc.”

    I kind of agree with this. One thing is clear, law enforcement people love dressing up and playing war. But Radley’s right about their funding rying up. If they don’t have money to play war against the American people then they’ll eventually have to stop. The biggest factor will still be public opinion. When the average person no longer sees cops as automatic heros then maybe things can change.

    The Jose Guerena story over at HuffPo is a good example of the kind of exposure the drug war needs.

  6. #6 |  FridayNext | 

    I think your headline should be “No, it really is because of the fear of drugs.” It isn’t the drugs themselves that cause this, but those who fear the effect of drugs, real or imagined, on society.

    In the same vein that money is not in fact the root of all evil, as the adage is often misquoted, but the LOVE of money. Whether money or drugs, inanimate objects do not have agency.

  7. #7 |  Dan | 

    I’m siding with Radley on this one. Look at the stats from the Drug War Clock available at http://www.drugsense.org/cms/wodclock then do the math.

    So far this year the US (fed and state) has spent $16.775 billion on the drug war. The average cost spent per arrest is about $24,500. 52% of drug law arrests are for cannabis offenses. According to the clock, 89% of those arrests are for mere cannabis possession. So if just the war on cannabis stop on 1/1/2011, $8.6 billion would not be required. That pays for a lot of manpower and equipment.

    The results (if you can call them that) of all this spending?

    Only .65% (less than one percent) of people arrested for drug law violations actually end up in prison. Which gives me another way to look at this; thus far in 2011 the US has spent $3.7 million per person who actually end up in prison for a drug law crime.

  8. #8 |  Darleen Click | 

    with all due respect, Radley, what exactly makes you believe all funding for SWAT teams would dry up with the declaration the “War on Drugs” is over?

    Really, please point out where an achieved goal has meant the shutdown of the Fed bureaucracy and attendant funding … cause I would love to see it.

    All that funding would just be shuffled over to whatever Criminal Element Du Jour that would allow the Feds some measure of control in local jurisdictions.

    SWAT teams are needed in specific, and fortunately rare, situations — they actually got their start in Los Angeles in the late 60’s; and I’m old enough to remember watching the SLA shootout on live TV.

    But if you’re going to push it from the WoD angle rather than concentrating on how wrong this tactical response is in all but a handful of situations, then you’re picking a rather losing argument because the majority of people may want to decriminalize pot, but once you start down the road saying heroin, cocaine, and meth are ok, you start losing the base you need to reign in this abuse of police power.

    IMHO, of course.

    DaRLeen ;-)

  9. #9 |  EH | 

    Bruce’s point hinges on post-WOD raids being as socially acceptable as drugs ones are now. Nowadays you have the rhetoric of armed thugs, gangs, and brown people in general being a risk to all of us and the future of the country, etc. “Child porn,” to use the instant counter-example, doesn’t have these things.

    It will be much harder to justify dynamic-entry flash-bang lazy-cop garbage against armed and dangerous porn consumers, which as far as I know don’t exist. What Click objects to are the tactics of the raid, but she misses that the “object of the warrant” is used to justify the tactics 110% of the time.

    That said, I’d be happy to see this topic turn into a full-blown blogwar. It’s worth it to hash all these issues out.

  10. #10 |  seannyboy | 

    I hear a lot about this militarization of police, but what is it specifically that is objectionable about this? What specific tactic, or piece of weaponry or gear, is the problem here? Should police not have access to heavier body armor, helmets, rifles, or modern semiautomatic handguns?
    Furthermore, I know firsthand about both the police/SWAT and military tactical worlds, and the superficial similarities in weapons and gear seem for many commentators to obscure the continuing differences between military maneuvers and police tactics. In my own experience, I have heard police instructors explain, in detail, why a certain military technique/mindset is inappropriate to civilian policing- and this in a big-city SWAT unit that is not known for libertarian tendencies, to say the least.

  11. #11 |  Just Plain Brian | 

    but once you start down the road saying heroin, cocaine, and meth are ok

    This mindset is part of the problem. Just because something is not against the law does not make it “ok”. It simply means that the guys with the guns don’t need to be involved.

  12. #12 |  Radley Balko | 

    with all due respect, Radley, what exactly makes you believe all funding for SWAT teams would dry up with the declaration the “War on Drugs” is over? Really, please point out where an achieved goal has meant the shutdown of the Fed bureaucracy and attendant funding … cause I would love to see it.

    All that funding would just be shuffled over to whatever Criminal Element Du Jour that would allow the Feds some measure of control in local jurisdictions.

    It’s not that the federal government funds SWAT teams. They don’t. (Though they do equip them.) It’s that they specifically fund drug policing, which warps the priorities of police departments, which a big reason why the vast majority of SWAT call outs are to serve drug warrants. You have this SWAT team. If the feds are going to pay you for every pot smoker you arrest, might as well have some fun and send the SWAT team out to do it. If the federal drug war were to end tomorrow a couple things would happen. First, there would simply be less for SWAT teams to do. I doubt there are enough neighborhood poker games to compensate for the 100+ drug-related SWAT raids per day that would no longer happen. I suppose they could start sending them out to collect unpaid parking tickets, but I suspect there would be some resistance. Second, I don’t doubt the money would keep flowing. But the incentives would be more properly structured. I’d rather the feds stay out of criminal justice. But if they’re going to hand out checks, better they’re block grants than grants that specifically encourage diverting law enforcement resources toward nonviolent crimes.

    But if you’re going to push it from the WoD angle rather than concentrating on how wrong this tactical response is in all but a handful of situations, then you’re picking a rather losing argument because the majority of people may want to decriminalize pot, but once you start down the road saying heroin, cocaine, and meth are ok, you start losing the base you need to reign in this abuse of police power.

    I’m not necessarily pushing it from the WoD angle. I’m opposed to the war on drugs. I’m opposed to the use of SWAT teams, save for in a few limited situations. These two positions often–very often–overlap. But you saw and commented on a single post. I’ve reported on the use of SWAT teams to enforce alcohol laws, gambling laws, even the occasional white collar crime. The militarization problem is especially pernicious in drug policing, and has been primarily driven by the drug war, but yes, it now infects many different aspects of domestic policing.

    Finally, I don’t think it’s impossible for someone to hold the position that drugs should remain illegal, but that we also shouldn’t be sending paramilitary police teams barreling into the homes of suspected drug offenders. In fact, I’ve talked to a number police officers, particularly older cops, who believe exactly that.

  13. #13 |  CRNewsom | 

    @ #3 | Nando | May 28th, 2011 at 3:50 pm
    “…They either weren’t smart enough to pass the ASVAB…”

    This is possibly the saddest, most pathetic information presented in this thread. Not because it’s incorrect, but because it is completely correct.

    There was a Fark thread recently with the headline: 23% of high school students who want to go into the military fail the test. (http://www.fark.com/comments/5841324) (sorry to link outside, Radley). A question was asked as to the difficulty of the test in comparison to the SAT. The answer was as follows “It isn’t. It’s brutally easy. Like on a “Which shape is a square?” and “How many fingers am I holding up?” level.”

    That’s what it takes to fail the ASVAB (be a cop). One must be completely devoid of any thought at all. They have people that scrub toilets in the military. They need those people, too. So when you see the red and blue lights, you know you’re dealing with someone who (quite possibly) wasn’t smart enough to pass a test where the minimum passing level is toilet scrubber.

  14. #14 |  supercat | 

    #10 | seannyboy | May 28th, 2011 at 5:27 pm “What specific tactic, or piece of weaponry or gear, is the problem here?”

    The problem is that police are not called upon to demonstrate that they are conducting searches in a fashion reasonably calculated to minimize the risk or harm to persons and property, and government personnel who conduct searches in patently unreasonable fashion or cause gratuitous risk or harm to persons or property are not recognized as what they are: burglars, robbers, or (in some cases) murderers.

    If a jury which was fully informed of the information upon which a raid was based, the way in which the way was planned, and all events that transpired on the raid, would conclude that the raid was conducted in a reasonable fashion, that would suggest that any tactics used in that particular raid were appropriate. If such a jury would conclude that the raid was not conducted in reasonable fashion, that suggest the tactics were inappropriate. What people object to are not particular tactics or tools, but rather the fact that tactics and tools are often used in inappropriate situations and with little accountability.

    BTW, I would aver that dynamic-entry raids should be presumed to be unreasonable, and that participants should be required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their actions were, in fact, reasonable. In the situations where such raids are genuinely appropriate, it should not be too difficult for the police to convince a jury of that. Nonetheless, I would suggest that the fact that a cop was involved in a dynamic entry should be regarded as prima facie evidence that the cop committed robbery, unless the cop can provide evidence sufficient to demonstrate otherwise.

  15. #15 |  JOR | 

    “If the federal drug war ended tomorrow, police departments wouldn’t have the funding to keep these SWAT teams up.”

    Politically influential* military and paramilitary forces rarely simply disband even if the funding does. In that case they usually end up carving out little fiefdoms for themselves or resorting to nomadic banditry with various degrees of de jure or de facto state and popular legitimacy.

    *And sometimes relatively uninfluential, if they’re cohesive enough, but the cops and their SWAT teams are a truly aristocratic warrior caste.

  16. #16 |  seannyboy | 

    Supercat, thanks for your reply.
    For an interesting perspective on the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit, including their attitudes on these issues, I’d recommend Jennifer Hunt’s Seven Shots, published last year. They place a very heavy emphasis on containment and minimal force.
    It’s also interesting, in light of these conversations, that the LAPD SWAT unit and several prominent trainers have started to place a heavier emphasis on the use of surround/call out tactics in executing search warrants. See Paul Howe’s website combatshootingandtactics.com and look in the “published articles” section for some examples.

  17. #17 |  Buddy Hinton | 

    I think [i]seannyboy[/i] asks the important question here.

    The answer is that the announcement was poor. There should have been much more siren action, more megaphones (or even one at least) and more time between the announcement through the megaphone and the breach of the door.

    It is as simple as that.

  18. #18 |  Pinandpuller | 

    My impression of the end of Prohibition is that instead of laying off “revenuers” they started taxing machine guns and suppressors-thus begat the ATF.

  19. #19 |  Greybear | 

    Radley, can you name me even ONE instance in history where a government has voluntarily relinquished a power it held? Yes, the WOD provided a plausible excuse for these tactics, but it did not require them. The WOD, from its inception in the 1930’s has been about power and control. The War on Drugs/War on Terror/War on Whatever are merely symptoms. The disease is government and you won’t cure that by focusing on the symptoms.

  20. #20 |  perlhaqr | 

    It’s not that the federal government funds SWAT teams. They don’t. (Though they do equip them.) It’s that they specifically fund drug policing, which warps the priorities of police departments, which a big reason why the vast majority of SWAT call outs are to serve drug warrants.

    Yes, but Darleen has a really good point with: Really, please point out where an achieved goal has meant the shutdown of the Fed bureaucracy and attendant funding … cause I would love to see it.

    The ATF got started up because of the end of Prohibition. They couldn’t just fire all those revenooers, so they made a (constitutionally ludicrous) class of firearms illegal with the NFA of 1934 and moved the tax cops from busting people making the devil’s ‘shine to people sawing the barrel off a shotgun.

    I absolutely agree that the Wo(S)D has been the genesis of huge quantities of this violence against the citizenry. But I will eat my hat if the end of the War on Drugs brought about an end, or even a significant reduction, in the amount of federal financing available to local police departments to use on fancy toys to control the populace with. Unless, and this is a big unless, the WoD is ended as a result of a general turnaround in the populace getting tired of being hunted for sport by our own police.

  21. #21 |  perlhaqr | 

    Hah. Apparently I should read all the comments before throwing in my two cents. *hat tip to pinandpuller*

  22. #22 |  Darleen Click | 

    Finally, I don’t think it’s impossible for someone to hold the position that drugs should remain illegal, but that we also shouldn’t be sending paramilitary police teams barreling into the homes of suspected drug offenders. In fact, I’ve talked to a number police officers, particularly older cops, who believe exactly that.

    I absolutely agree. Outside of the most bunkered of drug houses, why is it reasonable to kick in doors and shoot to kill anyone that gets in the way?

    It is a horrible situation in which citizens are made to fear the people whose duty is to protect them.

  23. #23 |  Zargon | 

    Whether the end of the WoD would significantly improve the usage of SWAT teams seems a rather silly thing to argue, given that the WoD seems highly unlike to end anytime soon.

    On the very tamest of WoD issues, medical marijuana, the feds have proven they don’t give a shit both about a majority of the population, which is par the course, but also about state law, which goes to show just how far they’ll go to preserve the WoD.

  24. #24 |  Whim | 

    The TACTICS of a SWAT team extremely escalate the level of violence, create confusion on the part of both home residents and the assault team, and drastically increase the potential for tragic consequences.

    Add a No-Knock feature, and at night, the risk to the citizen further increases.

    Toss in a few “flash-bang” GRENADES, and they add further confusion and disorientation to everyone involved.

    No-Knock, late night SWAT raids are a proven formula for: DEATH OF THE CITIZEN.

    When SWAT was started in L.A. back in the 1960’s, it was specifically intended as a specially trained, but rarely used heavily armed team for HOSTAGE RESCUE or a barricade situation. Like a bank robbery where bank hostages were taken, a la the movie “Dog Day Afternoon”.

    At that time, the police were lightly armed with .38 caliber or .357 caliber six-shot pistols. They may or may not have been issued a shotgun. They did not have much individual firepower. They were also more of a “peace officer” mentality.

    Now, they are of a LAW ENFORCEMENT and Military Wannabe mentality.

    SWAT are armed with sniper rifles, and automatic assault rifles like M-16’s.

  25. #25 |  marco73 | 

    Anytime you fund something, you will get more of it. Just run some searches on SWAT serving warrants. Here’s one for SWAT serving a warrant for bad checks:
    http://journalstar.com/news/local/article_ba4e1fd7-60f4-5aef-8078-70d12c7a9800.html
    Granted, the police had “information” that the bad check person might have a weapon, so let’s go in full SWAT. As has been previously pointed out on this site, SWAT gets called out if there is any weapon in the household, even legally registered guns.
    But millions of American households have guns. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to conclude that if the WOD ended tomorrow, every Barney Fife SWAT member would just shift to serving warrants for bad checks, dui, or unlicensed lemonade stands.

  26. #26 |  Warren Bonesteel | 

    People at Protein Wisdom know all there is to know about all there is to know. They are assured of their own intellectual superiority over the plebes (the rest of us). iow, having a rational discussion with them – about anything – is impossible. You’re wasting your time, Radley. They can’t hear anything outside of their own echo-chamber.

  27. #27 |  Darleen Click | 

    Just for informational purposes and clarification, Mr. Bonesteel attempted a couple of years ago to threadjack several times on PW, insulting host and commenters and was thoroughly deconstructed.

    Just view his commentary on “People at Protein Wisdom” through the context of bitter grudge.

    Carry on!

    :-)

  28. #28 |  McGehee | 

    People at Protein Wisdom know all there is to know about all there is to know.

    Well, we know all there is to know about Warren Bonesteel, which to his way of thinking is exactly the same thing.

  29. #29 |  Bob Reed | 

    So Warren,

    What ever happened to that civil war that was going to break out in 6 months…2 years ago or so?

    Just curious…

    You claimed to be tapped into some reliable sources at that time.

  30. #30 |  Joe | 

    I agree the war on drugs was what gave us the gift of swat.

    I want to take it back.

    As for Warren Bonesteel…well he is more of a rusty dick.

  31. #31 |  ThomasD | 

    The WoSD did not give us SWAT. Sixties radicalism gave us SWAT.

    The incident in Tuscon would still be problematic regardless of whatever premise the government used to gain their warrant. It was the manner and methods they employed in serving that warrant that killed an innocent civilian.

    You can argue all you want that ‘taking away the funding’ might reduce the problem, but so long as LEOs are willing -and permitted- to freely engage in such brazenly un-Constitutional acts the problem will not be eliminated.

    Radly wants to roll back the WoSD, I’m in agreement. He sees Tuscon as a direct consequence of the WoSD, I disagree. We may never reach agreement on that latter point. But it really doesn’t matter because we need to recognize that those types of actions by law enforcement have become an accepted standard of practice, one that the law condones and the populace accepts. It is a problem that has effectively taken on a life of it’s own. Take away the WoSD and it will not go away, any more than the Mafia went away with the end of alcohol prohibition.

    In that sense, and from a strictly tactical approach, why even raise the issue of the premise used to gain the warrant? It does not matter. Frankly, even if the man had been guilty of some heinous crime (with the possible exception of specifically killing a cop while resisting arrest) I’d still have a serious problem with the manner in which they served the warrant. It is an approach all but guaranteed to create bodies, and this was just another example of that.

  32. #32 |  John Spragge | 

    To answer the question asked by “seannyboy”: I can’t answer for anyone else, but entering a house throwing stun grenades and slaughtering the family pets crosses several lines I wouldn’t want the police in my city or my country to cross. It should suffice to surround the house, then put in a call to the occupants, ask them to leash their animals and exit the house with their hands in view. Then the search can proceed. If that procedure means some evidence goes up the chimney or down the toilet, better that than terrorizing the children and slaughtering the pets of a (presumptively) innocent family.

  33. #33 |  Joe | 

    Sixties radicalism may have been the initial spark that gave us SWAT, but back then such forces were limited to a few major cities. Now even medium sized towns are looking for a grant to get its own tactical force. It is the war on drugs that is funding this expansion.

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