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Time to Curb SWAT Rampages

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SWAT teams are finally getting some overdue bad press. Usually the SWATers are starring in some TV pseudo-docudrama where they go smashing into someone’s home and discover him with a dumb look and a bong. However, people are now beginning to ask questions about the wisdom of the routine use of massive police force.

Prof. Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University estimated that the use of police SWAT teams has “increased by 538%” since 1980, leading to the “militarization” of civilian police. Ninety percent of police departments responding to a 1995 survey by Kraska reported having an active paramilitary unit. The Boston Globe reported, “Cities such as Fresno, Calif., and Indianapolis routinely send officers into communities to patrol in full battle dress, giving these communities all the ambience of the West Bank.” The Washington Post noted in 1997, “The explosive growth and expanding mission of SWAT teams has, in turn, led to complaints that an occupying army is marching through America’s streets — that they are too aggressive, too heavily armed, too scary.”

Kraska observed: “We have never seen this kind of policing, where SWAT teams routinely break through a door, subdue all the occupants and search the premises for drugs, cash, and weapons.” (The SWAT acronym originally stood for “Special Weapons Attack Team” but was sanitized and relabeled: “Special Weapons and Tactics.”

Once local governments militarize the police, they naturally find more and more pretexts to send out their storm troopers — if for nothing else than to keep people in place. How else to explain the practice of St. Petersburg, Florida, in deploying the teams to keep order along a parade route or of the Greenwich, Connecticut, SWAT deployment any time the lottery jackpots exceed one million dollars, as the New York Times reported? Palm Beach County has 12 separate SWAT teams; weapons were found in fewer than 20% of the homes and locations that they raided in 1996.

The militarization of local police is being fueled by massive federal aid. Since 1995, the Pentagon has deluged local law enforcement with thousands of machine guns, over a hundred armored personnel carriers, scores of grenade launchers, and over a million other pieces of military hardware. The police arms buildup has also been fueled by federal drug-war aid. Instead of relying on street smarts and old fashioned toughness, police departments are referring on high-tech weaponry, courtesy of Uncle Sam-the same mentality that led to zero American combat casualties during the Kosovo bombing but left the land to be protected in complete shambles.

SWAT teams are used most often for no-knock raids in drug cases. However, the hardware may be driving the policy: the fact that so many cities have police all dressed up for war makes it easier for departments to rely on massive intimidation rather than old-fashioned police work. No-knock raids have become so common that thieves in some places routinely kick down doors and claim to be policemen.

No-knock SWAT raids at wrong addresses have become a national scandal. Naturally, some police departments have responded to the problem by seeking to define it out of existence. New York City police Commissioner Howard Safir told a local paper that his police have not wrongfully raided someone’s house unless the police go to a different address than that typed on the search warrant — regardless of whether they have any justification for otherwise busting down doors.

SWAT teams are routinely called out to deal with people threatening to take their own lives — often with tragic results. As the San Antonio Express-News reported on May 23, “A 48-year-old armed man was killed in a hail of gunfire early Saturday by a special operations police squad during what police said was an attempt to stop him from committing suicide.”

A Fitchburg, Massachusetts, SWAT team attacked an apartment building in December 1996, seeking to arrest a drug dealer. However, one of the stun grenades the team used (similar to those the FBI used at Waco) set fire to the building and left 24 people homeless.

Average, peaceful Americans should not need to worry about government agents storming into their homes on the flimsiest of pretexts. Judges must rein in SWATs, politicians must slash funding for militarization of the police, and citizens must cease tolerating lawmen who act like an occupying army.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.