Pubdate: Tue, 20 Jun 2006
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2006 The New York Times Company
Author: John Tierney
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)


Of all the excuses for weakening the Fourth Amendment, the weirdest 
was the one offered by Justice Antonin Scalia last week in a Michigan 
drug case.

He wrote the majority opinion allowing police officers to use 
evidence found in a home even if they entered without following the 
venerable rule to knock first and announce themselves. To reassure 
traditionalists, Scalia declared that unreasonable searches are less 
of a problem today because of "the increasing professionalism of 
police forces."

Well, it's true that when police show up at your home in the middle 
of the night, they're better armed and trained than ever. They now 
routinely arrive with assault rifles, flash grenades and battering rams.

So if your definition of a professional is a soldier in a war zone, 
then Scalia is right. The number of paramilitary raids has soared in 
the past two decades as cities, suburbs and small towns have rushed 
to assemble their very own SWAT teams.

Some police veterans complain about "militarizing Mayberry," and 
can't figure out why towns averaging one homicide a decade need 
paramilitary units. But younger cops like the glamour -- our very own 
SWAT team, just like on TV! Who wants to patrol a beat when you could 
be playing commando?

And who can resist free gear from Washington? Congress encouraged the 
SWAT syndrome by directing the Pentagon to give local police 
departments old machine guns, armed personnel carriers and 
helicopters. The federal government has also helped subsidize drug 
raids and encouraged locals to be aggressive by letting them keep a 
cut of the drug dealers' assets.

The SWAT teams were originally supposed to deal with extraordinary 
threats, like hostage situations, snipers and heavily armed drug 
gangs. Since 9/11, of course, they've been justified for combating 
terrorists. But such situations are so rare that the teams have had 
to invent new missions to keep busy -- and to pay for their 
operations by finding assets to seize.

Most of the time they're used simply to carry out searches for drugs, 
often on the basis of dubious tips from informants, often against 
small-time dealers and other people with no history of violence. The 
commandos have a proclivity for going to the wrong address, and they 
tend to be impatient with anything that gets in their way. In 
articles about SWAT raids, a motif is the shooting of family pets in 
front of children.

It's hard to know how many botched and unnecessary raids there have 
been, because police don't systematically track their errors, and the 
victims often have little recourse. But in a forthcoming report for 
the Cato Institute, Radley Balko concludes that mistakes have been 
made in more than 200 raids over the past decade.

He finds that overzealous raiders caused the deaths of a dozen 
nonviolent offenders, like recreational marijuana smokers and 
gamblers. In a Virginia suburb of Washington earlier this year, an 
optometrist being investigated for betting on sports was standing 
unarmed outside his town house, offering no resistance, when a SWAT 
officer's rifle discharged and killed him.

Balko also finds that two dozen people died in raids who were not 
guilty of any crime, like a Mexican immigrant killed by Denver police 
raiding the wrong home. Some died because they understandably assumed 
the masked invaders were criminals and picked up weapons to defend 
themselves. Some were innocent bystanders, like an 11-year-old boy 
shot in Modesto, Calif., and a 57-year-old woman in Harlem who had a 
heart attack when police set off a flash grenade during a raid based 
on a faulty tip.

"Prosecutors typically let police officers off the hook when they 
mistakenly shoot a civilian," Balko says, "on the theory that 
mistakes are understandable during the confusion of a raid. Fair 
enough. But civilians don't get the same deference. My research shows 
that when someone on the other end of a botched raid mistakes a 
police officer for an intruder and shoots in self-defense, his odds 
of facing jail time are about one in two."

The best way to avoid these mistakes would be to save SWAT teams for 
real crises and let police execute search warrants the old-fashioned 
way. They could find out, for instance, if they're at the wrong 
address before anyone pulls the trigger.

But thanks to the Supreme Court, they now have less reason to knock 
first and shoot later. They can be more professional than ever. 
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