Drug War Police Tactics Endanger Innocent Citizens

Drug War Police Tactics Endanger Innocent Citizens
Posted by CN Staff on July 21, 2006 at 17:10:19 PT
By Radley Balko
Source: Fox News Network 
USA -- Winston Churchill is commonly credited with having said, "Democracy means that when there's a knock in the door at 3 am, it's probably the milkman." One wonders what Churchill would make of modern-day, drug war America.For the last year, I've been researching a study on SWAT teams, "no-knock" raids, and the rise of paramilitary tactics in domestic policing (the study was released this week). The trends I've found are troubling, and some of the individual stories are absolutely heartbreaking.
Each day in America, police SWAT teams raid more than 100 private homes, many times very late at night, or very early in the morning. Many times, these teams don't even bother to knock. Because these raids are violent, confrontational, and often conducted on questionable intelligence (I'll get to that in a moment), they've left a long trail of "wrong address" raids on frightened innocents, needless injury, and even death.Since the early 1980s, the U.S. has seen a 1,300 percent rise in the number of SWAT team deployments, from 3,000 per year in 1981, to more than 40,000 per year in 2001 (the number is likely even higher today). It's of no coincidence that this dramatic increase has taken place over the period the U.S. has reinvigorated its war on drugs.According to Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska, who has tracked the trend, the vast majority of these raids are to serve routine drug warrants, many times for crimes no more serious than possession of marijuana.If you've seen an episode of Cops or Dallas SWAT, you know the routine. These raids are commonly conducted late at night, or just before dawn, to catch suspects by surprise. Police sometimes deploy "flash grenades," then batter down or blow up doors with explosives. They then storm the home, subduing occupants, handcuffing them at gunpoint, sometimes pushing them to the ground.They then search the home, typically with little regard for personal belongings. If the family dog gets in the way, he'll be executed.This would all be acceptable if SWAT teams were used as they were originally intended. L.A. police chief Darryl Gates invented the concept in the 1960s shortly after the Watts riots. Gates wanted an elite team of police who could defuse dangerous situations like riots, hostage-takings, or bank robberies. For about a decade, that's how SWAT teams were used, and they performed marvelously.Unfortunately, in the 1980s Congress began making surplus military gear available to local police departments, with the intent that they use it for drug enforcement. Millions of dollars worth of military-grade rifles, tanks, helicopters, body armor, and other gear made its way to civilian police organizations.In some cases, the trend grew absurd. One rural county in Florida assembled its own air force with the helicopters and planes it got from the Pentagon. Another tiny town had more M-16s in its police department than the town had stoplights.With all of this war gear, cities, towns, and even small towns decided to start their own SWAT teams. As often happens with government entities, the mission of these SWAT teams began to expand over time, to include not just emergency situations, but more routine police work as well. Federal grants for drug arrests and asset forfeiture laws that make drug policing more lucrative than other types of policing offered further incentives to use SWAT teams to serve drug warrants.The problem is, drug policing is quite a bit different than sending an elite paramilitary team to deal with a known, immediate threat to the community. When there's a hostage situation, a bank robbery, or a riot, it's pretty clear where the incident is happening, and who's involved. That's not true of the drug trade.Because most drug crimes are consensual crimes, there's no direct victim to report them. Therefore, police have to rely on informants to tip them off to whose dealing, and where. These informants are notoriously unreliable. They tend to be criminals themselves, looking for leniency. Or they could be rival drug dealers, looking to bump off the competition.The problem is, these violent, highly-confrontational SWAT raids are conducted based on information first gleaned from informants. Which means the information isn't always accurate. Which means an untold number of innocent Americans have been subjected to the horrifying predicament of having armed men invade their homes in the middle of the night, and needing to decide immediately upon waking if the intruders are cops or criminals, and if they should submit or resist.Of course, even if the suspect is guilty of small-time dope use or dope dealing, I would argue that that doesn't mean there's justification for kicking down their doors and invading their homes as they're sleeping.Have a look at this map. -- -- It plots nearly 300 botched SWAT raids I've found over the course of about a year of research. It is by no means comprehensive. My guess is that it doesn't even begin to make a full accounting for how many times this has happened, both because police are reluctant to report their mistakes, and because the victims of botched raids are often too afraid or embarrassed to come forward.As I've begun to write about this issue, many more victims of these raids have called or emailed to tell me their own stories - most of which never made it into the newspaper.But even the documented cases should be cause for concern. They include the cases of Salvatore Culosi and Cory Maye, both of whom I've written about previously in this column. They include 40 cases in which a completely innocent person was killed. There are dozens more in which nonviolent offenders (recreational pot smokers, for example, or small-time gamblers like Culosi) or police officers were needlessly killed.There are nearly 150 cases in which innocent families, sometimes with children, were roused form their beds at gunpoint, and subjected to the fright of being apprehended and thoroughly searched at gunpoint. There are other cases in which a SWAT team seems wholly inappropriate, such as the apprehension of medical marijuana patients, many of whom are bedridden.Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much appetite for change. When a 2003 mistaken raid in New York City ended with the death of 57-year-old Alberta Spruill -- who was completely innocent -- public outrage and media scrutiny forced the city to promise reforms. One attorney who specializes in these cases tells me that barely three years later, the mistaken raids are happening again, and that the city maintains the reforms it promised were merely "discretionary."Increasingly, these raids are moving beyond the drug war. SWAT teams are now being employed to serve white collar warrants, too, as was the case with Culosi. Sad as it is, perhaps that's what it will take. Perhaps once upper-class people with more power and social leverage begin to feel the brunt force of this blunt law enforcement tool, we'll begin to see some change.Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute specializing in "nanny state" and consumer choice issues, including alcohol and tobacco control, drug prohibition, obesity and civil liberties. Separately, he maintains the The Agitator weblog: The opinions expressed in his column for are his own and are not to be associated with Cato unless otherwise indicated.Respond to the Writer:  reply Cato Study: Source: Fox News Network (US)Author: Radley BalkoPublished: Friday, July 21, 2006Copyright: 2006 FOX News Network, LLC. Contact: views Website: Justice Archives
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Comment #14 posted by rchandar on July 26, 2006 at 16:55:43 PT:
...always remember your "simple bud," your "inner bud."--rchandar
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Comment #13 posted by Dan B on July 25, 2006 at 06:04:20 PT
Okay--I See Now. My Bad.
That makes a lot of sense. I see, too, that Libby seems to have been making the same point that I was making--not that the fake plants are worth that much, but that the LEOs tend to claim that a smaller amount of cannabis equals a larger amount.Sorry about that.I hope all is well for you and yours.Dan B
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Comment #12 posted by BGreen on July 24, 2006 at 13:53:36 PT
I am not that Reverend Bud Green
I was just a simple Bud until I was ordained a few years ago.I'm much better looking than that other guy, too. LOLThe Reverend Bud Green
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Comment #11 posted by ekim on July 24, 2006 at 13:46:11 PT
good going Dan B 
its allways nice to hear from you. iam sorry to say that i was posting a site of a lady named Libby. you can read more of her posts at again sorry for the mixup.
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Comment #10 posted by Dan B on July 24, 2006 at 06:41:47 PT
In defense of the show, $40,000 worth of silk and wood replicas of cannabis plants probably does look a lot like $1 million worth of the real thing. Real cannabis costs a lot more than silk and wood (especially the kind bud).Just a thought.I do, however, see your point that cops overvalue the price of verboten substances, both to make it look like they made a bigger bust than they did and to charge the person from whom they confiscated (i.e., stole) the substance with a more serious "offense."In any case, congrats to your pal Joe White.Dan B
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Comment #9 posted by ekim on July 22, 2006 at 16:10:56 PT
Way to go Joe
My pal Joe White of Change the Climate has hit the big time with his new company that sells fake marijuana plants. Until now he's been selling them mostly to law enforcement agencies who use them for training purposes but the silk and wood replicas are of such high quality that the TV show Weeds has purchased $40,000 worth of the pseudo-weed to dress up their program. Ironically, under the heading, life imitates art, the show will use the plants to represent $1 million worth of pot. That's about how overvalued it is by law enforcement in real life busts.
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Comment #8 posted by Max Flowers on July 22, 2006 at 09:08:27 PT
I've been meaning to ask you for ages... are you the same Reverend Bud Green who was on the Wally George Show (L.A. area) all those years ago (early 1980s)??
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Comment #7 posted by mayan on July 22, 2006 at 06:26:35 PT
I hope these agents are enjoying the bud they stole since the sick and dying could have really used it...Agents make 'visits' to medical pot shops: Marijuana seized, warnings given; nobody arrested: everyone could buy a bunch of decoy plants and put them everywhere, among some real bud, of course. The cops would just have a sh*t-fit... Man Peddles Marijuana Plants, Legal Because They're Fake:,0,2633056.story?coll=hc-headlines-local
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Comment #6 posted by whig on July 21, 2006 at 22:52:23 PT
Alcohol does seem to have a way of making violence seem more reasonable, doesn't it? Quite unlike cannabis.
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Comment #5 posted by BGreen on July 21, 2006 at 22:37:45 PT
I understand your anger, Wayne
We live in a country that cares more about an embryo than they do about actual humans that are citizens and taxpayers.It's really f'd up if you think about it. Then again, if there was very much thinking going on we wouldn't be in this situation in the first place.The Reverend Bud Green
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Comment #4 posted by Wayne on July 21, 2006 at 22:36:19 PT
OK maybe I went a little too far
I apologize. I've had a bit to drink tonight, and I'm angry. The world is going straight to hell, and the U.S. is largely to blame, and I'm angry. But I mean seriously, there are a LOT of wrongful intrusions by SWAT teams and police all over this country, all the time. And no one even bats an eye or bothers to question it. And it makes me angry.What are we headed for? Is this something that the American public really wants to pay for? Is anyone going to stand up and do something? I tried briefly last week, but apparently my elected representatives don't give a sh**.It seems to me like these crazed people just want to kill. I'm telling you, I've never killed anyone, but I've heard that once you get that taste for blood, it never stops. When someone can just pull the trigger and blow someone's head off in the name of good government or religion, what are you left with? My comments were harsh, but are they that far from the truth?
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Comment #3 posted by BGreen on July 21, 2006 at 22:31:03 PT
Yeah, I don't even own a gun
I just know they'd try and pin some "firearm used in commission of a felony" charge on me to take away whatever chance I'd have of ever being a free man. :(I'm so freakin' non-violent. I just wish they'd leave me alone.The Reverend Bud Green
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Comment #2 posted by whig on July 21, 2006 at 22:14:27 PT
I sympathize with what you are saying and the fact is, in many parts of the country and in many neighborhoods today, there is not a situation "approaching a police state" at all -- it is absolutely, 100% a police state, right now.But saying we should "start shooting" cops is counterproductive, in the extreme. I understand the motivation to defend against aggression, but when you are clearly overmatched and your resistance is more likely to lead only to a further escalation of violence and bloodshed, I have to disagree and hope that people will not take your words to make such a response something that people would consider as reasonable or appropriate.Please do not encourage violence on either side of this dispute, but wage PEACE on war. If nothing else, please realize that even if you could somehow manage to prevail through force, you could not continue to hold your victory but through ongoing and permanent force -- replacing one police state with another. I won't sign on for that.
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Comment #1 posted by Wayne on July 21, 2006 at 22:02:05 PT
what else is new?
What needs to happen is that mainstream America needs to see this. They need to know that we are quickly approaching a police state in this country. And that their children are NOT going to be any safer because of it. Today it's drugs and terrorism, tomorrow it will be will never end. You will have to become a police officer or a soldier just to remain free.The American public needs to know that THEIR TAX DOLLARS are going to fund some wanna-be 'SWAT' team out in bum-f*** Idaho, whose only claim to fame was that they busted two teenagers smoking pot in the last 3 years, and those teenagers are gonna be locked away from society, if they're even still alive. Whoop-de-frickin-doo!Give me a BREAK!!! I say start shooting the SWAT team cops, they're gonna kill you anyway no matter what. They're just like the nutcases in the Middle East, they have that taste for blood. They just want to kill people, they don't care who...
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