Pubdate: Tue, 03 Oct 2006
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2006 Roanoke Times
Author: Ronald Fraser, of Burke, writes on public policy issues for 
the DKT Liberty
Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.
Note: First priority is to those letter-writers who live in circulation area.


You and your law-abiding neighbors in Virginia 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 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, 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 (most commonly called Special 
Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT) 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.

Balko reports that in 2000, based on a tip from a "reliable" 
informant, Pulaski police conducted a 4 a.m. raid on the home of 
William and Geneva Summers, breaking down the couple's back door, 
waking them and holding them at gunpoint. No drugs were found. The 
informant later admitted he had lied to the police. The judge who 
issued the warrant said she thought it was unusual for an informant 
to lie and that she had never heard of that happening before.

This year, police officers making a 6 a.m. raid on a Dale City home 
broke down a door, handcuffed Arlita Hines and three teenagers and 
lined them up, face down, on the floor for two hours while they 
searched the home. The police then realized they had made a mistake 
- -- the man they were looking for had not lived in the home for more 
than a year.

Even when the police get the address right, SWAT raids often end 
tragically. In January, a Fairfax County SWAT team served a warrant 
on Salvatore Culosi Jr., an optometrist with no criminal record and 
no history of violence. He was suspected of running a sports gambling 
pool with friends. As officers surrounded Culosi outside of his home, 
an officer's gun discharged, killing Culosi. An official 
investigation did not charge the officer with wrongdoing. Officials 
said later that nearly all of Fairfax County's search warrants -- 
even document searches -- are executed by a SWAT team.

How did the once trusted neighborhood cop become a serious threat to 
life and privacy at home? 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. By 1995, one study found, 89 
percent of police departments, including 65 percent of smaller towns' 
in the 25,000-50,000 population range, had a paramilitary unit.

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

These SWAT squads have become a threat to our civil liberties. They 
depend on notoriously unreliable informants when picking raid 
targets. And SWAT teams trained by U.S. Army Ranger and Navy Seal 
units blur the line between war and law enforcement. Citizens are 
treated as if they are combatants.

The use of military assault weapons and tactics actually turn 
otherwise nonviolent situations into violent confrontations when 
startled occupants try to arm and defend themselves.

By 1990, 38 percent of all police departments, 51 percent of all 
sheriff departments and 94 percent of all state police departments in 
the U.S. 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, Virginia'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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