Pubdate: Fri, 22 Sep 2006
Source: Home News Tribune (East Brunswick, NJ)
Copyright: 2006 Home News Tribune
Author: Ronald Fraser
Note: Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT
Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.


You and your law-abiding neighbors in New Jersey might be just one 
street address away from a life-threatening, midnight raid by a local 
paramilitary police unit. As these so-called SWAT squads increasingly 
become America's favored search warrant delivery service, bungled 
raids -- including many to the wrong address -- have skyrocketed. In 
these assaults on private property, scores of innocent citizens, 
police officers and nonviolent offenders have died.

In a recent CATO Institute report titled "Overkill: The Rise of 
Paramilitary Police Raids in America," Radley Balko describes how, 
"Over the last 25 years, America has seen a disturbing militarization 
of its civilian law enforcement, along with a dramatic and unsettling 
rise in the use of paramilitary police units for routine police work. 
The most common use of SWAT teams today is to serve narcotics 
warrants, usually with forced, unannounced entry into the home."

These raids -- as many as 40,000 per year -- terrorize nonviolent 
drug offenders, bystanders and wrongly targeted civilians who are 
awakened in the dead of night as teams of heavily armed paramilitary 
units, dressed not as police officers but as soldiers, invade their homes.

Botched N.J. Raids

During 2005 -- a very bad year for SWAT teams in New Jersey -- 
Paterson police stormed the home of Michelle Clancy at 5:30 a.m. with 
a drug warrant, breaking off the doorknob on their way in. Clancy, 
her 65-year-old father and her 13-year-old daughter were home at the 
time. The police, having raided the wrong apartment, later said, 
"These things do happen."

In Newark, police officers raided the home of 59-year-old Cedelle 
Pompee, looking for drugs and guns only to discover that they were on 
the wrong street.

A Morris County paramilitary drug raid also went wrong. At 4:45 a.m. 
officers erroneously assaulted the apartment of Fernando Lopez and 
held him at gunpoint. When Lopez was finally allowed to see the 
warrant, he pointed out that they had targeted the wrong apartment.

SWAT Origins

Originally, Los Angeles officials formed the nation's first SWAT 
units in response to civil riots and hostage-taking and bomb-toting 
radical groups in the 1960s. But by 1995, one study found, 89 percent 
of the nation's police departments, including 65 percent of smaller 
towns in the 25,000 to 50,000 population range, had a paramilitary unit.

As the violence-prone '60s faded away, SWAT squads found a new lease 
on life in the emerging tough-on-drugs culture of the 1970s. By 1995, 
serving warrants, mostly in no-knock "drug raids," accounted for 75 
percent of the actions of the nation's SWAT squads.

Threats To Liberty

These SWAT squads have become more and more of a threat to our civil 
liberties. First, they depend on notoriously unreliable informants 
when picking raid targets. Self-serving and ill-informed sources 
often send raids to wrong addresses.

Second, SWAT teams trained by U.S. Army Ranger and Navy Seal units 
blur the line between war and law enforcement. Citizens are then 
treated as if they are, in fact, combatants.

Third, the use of military assault weapons and tactics -- nighttime 
raids, crashing through front doors and setting off stun grenades 
inside homes -- actually turn otherwise nonviolent situations into 
violent confrontations when startled occupants try to arm and defend 

Finally, by 1990 (the last year for which the information has been 
made public) 38 percent of all police departments, 51 percent of all 
sheriff departments and 94 percent of all state police departments in 
the United States received money from the sale of boats, cars and 
other assets seized during drug raids. This money is then used to 
outfit more SWAT teams for more asset-seizing raids -- a practice 
that serves as a license for SWAT teams to confiscate private 
property for their own use.

To rein in out-of-control SWAT units, New Jersey's state and local 
governments should limit the use of these squads to their original 
purposes, end corrupting asset forfeiture policies and pass laws that 
safeguard families' rights to the privacy and sanctity of their homes.
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