The New York Times has a good story today headlined, “War Gear Flows to Police Departments.” Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s leftovers have been corrupting domestic law enforcement since the 1990s. Following is a piece I wrote for Playboy in 2000 on the militarization of SWAT teams. The article includes a discussion of Waco and the 1999 high school shootings in Littleton, Colorado.
Playboy March, 2000
FLASH. BANG. YOU’RE DEAD : SWAT teams make dramatic TV but horrible justice; the increase in the number of SWAT teams has led to violent, and sometimes misguided, justice
By James Bovard
When University of Texas student Charles Whitman climbed the Texas Tower in 1966 and began shooting people, the Austin police were caught underarmed. Officials called in off-duty cops and asked for citizens to bring their deer rifles. TV footage showed puffs of concrete as cops’ return fire chipped away at the sniper’s position. Eventually, officers climbed the stairs to the observatory deck and patrolman Ramiro Martinez emptied his handgun into the suspect. Then, seizing a shotgun from a fellow officer, he finished the job.
The well-publicized shootings provided the pretext for many police departments to gear up for war and changed both the weaponry and tactics of law enforcement.
Police chief Daryl Gates launched the nation’s first Special Weapons and Tactics team in Los Angeles in 1971. Gates’ unit became famous for demolishing homes with tanks that were equipped with battering rams. Law enforcement went on steroids and became larger than life.
There are now more than 30,000 SWAT teams in the U.S. Peter Kraska, a criminal justice scholar at Eastern Kentucky University, estimated that the police’s use of SWAT teams has increased by 538 percent in units formed since 1980. Ninety percent of law enforcement departments serving populations over 50,000 that responded to a 1995 survey by Kraska reported having an active paramilitary unit.
Since 1995, the Pentagon has inundated law enforcement agencies with thousands of machine guns, more than 100 armored personnel carriers, scores of grenade launchers and more than a million other pieces of military hardware. Instead of relying on street smarts and old-fashioned investigative work, police departments now depend on military weaponry and intimidation.
SWAT teams, envisioned as a defense against urban terrorists, have become a threat to innocent life.
* At 11 p.m. on August 9, 1999, 20 SWAT officers from the El Monte, California police force attacked a home occupied by six sleeping people in Compton, about 20 miles away. Police shot off the locks on both the front and rear doors and exploded a flash-bang grenade.
Two SWAT team members wearing masks rushed into the bedroom occupied by 64-year-old Mario Paz, a father of six and grandfather of 14, and his wife, Maria Luisa, who screamed, “My husband is sick! He’s an old man!” One policeman shot Paz twice in the back. Members of the Paz family later said they thought the house was being robbed. The police targeted the house because a narcotics suspect had occasionally used the Paz’ mailing address. Police made no effort to determine who was in the house before attacking.
* In Osawatomie, Kansas at 1:25 a.m. on February 13, 1999, police from three jurisdictions smashed into the home of Willie Heard, searching for cocaine. They set off a flash-bang grenade. Heard’s 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, was frightened and screamed, “Daddy!” Heard apparently thought his daughter was in danger and picked up an unloaded .22 bolt-action rifle (not the weapon of choice of major drug terrorists). An officer then forced open the door to Heard’s bedroom, saw him with the rifle and opened fire, killing him. Police records noted that 11 seconds had elapsed since the forced entry. County Attorney David Miller did the subsequent investigation and announced seven weeks later: “The investigation indicates that the officer acted in self-defense and in defense of another officer.”
* In Beaver Dam, Wisconsin on April 17, 1995, the police carried out a raid against Scott Bryant, a 29-year-old tech college student living in a trailer with his eight-year-old son. The first officer through the door shouted, “Search warrant! Search warrant!” Then, as Bryant was being placed on the couch to be handcuffed, detective Robert Neuman came through the door and shot him in the chest. Neuman later said he did not recall firing the shot. The local district attorney suggested Neuman might have been startled when his colleague shouted “search warrant.” A neighbor recalled: “There was no knock or announcement. It was a kick through the door and a shot.” Police targeted Bryant after a month’s search of his garbage turned up trace amounts of marijuana on four different occasions. A subsequent investigation by DA Robert Wells concluded that the sheriff’s detective “handled his gun in a negligent manner” because he entered the trailer with his finger on the trigger. No charges were filed against the detective. A small amount of marijuana was found in the trailer. Dodge County, Wisconsin later paid $950,000 to settle the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Bryant’s survivors.
* At 1:30 a.m. on July 12, 1998, a squad of six Houston police charged into the apartment of Pedro Oregon Navarro. The 22-year-old fled into his bedroom; police smashed down the door and, when they saw that Navarro had a handgun, unleashed some 30 shots. Navarro died, shot 12 times, nine in the back. The police had no warrant for the search but claimed that a confidential informant said he had witnessed a drug deal at the address. Police did no further investigation before attacking. (No drugs were found.) “I don’t know of any authority at this point that gave the police the right to be in that residence,” said Harris County District Attorney John Holmes. “But that doesn’t make the shooting a crime.” Holmes explained that the police “do not have to sit still for a citizen pointing a firearm at them, even if they entered unlawfully.” A grand jury thought otherwise and indicted two officers for violating Navarro’s civil rights.
* At 2:30 a.m. on October 12, 1995, six members of the elite Street Crime Action Team smashed down an apartment door on the west side of Topeka, Kansas. Stephen Medford Shively, a 34-year-old college student, was terrified and called 911.
Police claim that while they were battering down the door, they announced who they were and that they were carrying out a search for marijuana. Apparently, not loudly enough. Shively fired through the door at the intruders, hitting and killing police officer Tony Patterson. The other officers then shot and wounded Shively. The city district attorney announced she would seek capital murder charges against Shively. A Kansas jury acquitted him, finding that he acted in self-defense. (He was convicted on drug charges and aggravated assault and spent two years in prison.) A Kansas appeals court concluded that police officers used a misleading affidavit to get the warrant: “Regrettably, the loss of an officer’s life might have been prevented if the affidavit had been candid and not designed to mislead the magistrate into issuing the search warrant.”
* On December 16, 1996, the Secret Service, the Customs Service and a swarm of local police (including two SWAT teams as well as a canine team) launched a predawn raid on a house in Albuquerque. The purpose of the raid: seizing counterfeit drivers’ licenses, birth certificates and checks. Sixty-nine-year-old Ralph Garrison, who lived next to and owned the house being raided, awoke to the sounds of windows breaking and doors being smashed in. Garrison came outside–then raced to dial 911: “They’re breaking in with axes and all kinds of stuff.” Police claimed they identified themselves but, with a Customs Service helicopter hovering overhead, it is unclear whether Garrison understood. Garrison repeatedly pleaded with the 911 operator to “hurry up” and send police to the scene to stop the destruction of his rental house. He finally declared, “I’ve got my gun and I’m going to shoot the son of a bitch,” and showed up in the back doorway with a .22 pistol. Three cops responded with AR-15s (the civilian version of a military assault rifle). A dozen shots were fired by the cops. Garrison still had the phone in his hand when he was cut down–the 911 tape ends with the sound of gunfire. The police also shot Garrison’s 14-year-old dog.
When Garrison’s family filed a civil rights lawsuit, a federal judge ruled that the officers who killed Garrison had reacted reasonably.
* Thirty-three-year-old Larry Harper, an unemployed plumber in Albuquerque, was distraught. He called his brother and told him he was going to kill himself; his brother alerted the police. One street cop and nine SWAT team members, plus a canine team, found Harper on a trail at a nearby picnic area, whereupon he fled, demanding that they stop chasing him because he had done nothing wrong. The SWAT team drove Harper into a stand of juniper bushes. Family members arrived and requested a chance to talk to Harper, and Harper told the SWAT team he would come out if his brother could witness his surrender. The SWAT team refused both requests.
The police sniper who killed Harper with two shots claimed he saw Harper raise a pistol and point it in the direction of the officers. In 1998 the Albuquerque Police Department paid $200,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Harper’s survivors.
* On the morning of August 19, 1994, sheriff’s deputies in Riverside County, California smashed into the mobile home of 87-year-old Donald Harrison and his 77-year-old wife, Elsie. The elderly couple was in bed when the deputies entered, looking for a drug lab. The couple never recovered from the experience: Donald died from a heart attack four days later.
According to Harrison’s son, the search warrant described a mobile home surrounded by a four-foot ivy-covered fence; the Harrisons’ home had no such fence. The house targeted was listed as being made of corrugated aluminum; the Harrisons’ home was made of fiberboard. And the Harrisons’ trailer was painted a different color than the trailer identified in the search warrant.
* On March 13, 1996, 12 SWAT officers wearing camouflage fatigues smashed into a two-story condominium in a quiet residential neighborhood close to a naval base in Oxnard, California. Officer James Jensen Jr. went up the stairs and threw a flash-bang grenade into the hallway. Daniel Christian, the raid commander, followed Jensen up the stairs, then mistakenly pumped three shotgun rounds into his back and side.
The police initially explained that Christian “mistook his partner for a suspected drug dealer.” The house was empty at the time of the raid; police had done no surveillance of the residence in the preceding five days. Christian had been written up two months earlier for “poor judgment” and “unprofessional conduct.” The internal police report recommended his removal from the SWAT team.
Jensen’s family filed suit; the city settled for $3.5 million. Christian was finally removed from the SWAT team after a disagreement with a fellow officer.
Nothing reveals the danger of the SWAT mentality better than the response of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the Branch Davidians in 1993. The ATF could easily have arrested David Koresh on gun charges and, after he was in custody, carried out a search of the Davidians’ residence. Koresh had cooperated with authorities on several occasions. He routinely went shopping in nearby Waco and often jogged outside of the compound. Nine days before the raid on February 28, two undercover ATF agents (whom Koresh and other Davidians had recognized) visited the Davidian residence and met with Koresh to go shooting. Koresh, two other Davidians and the agents proceeded to have a pleasant time shooting two AR-15 assault rifles, an ATF agent’s .38 Super pistol and two SIG Sauer pistols.
Koresh provided much of the ammo for the plinking.
A congressional investigation later concluded: “The ATF deliberately chose not to arrest Koresh outside the Davidian residence and instead determined to use a dynamic-entry approach. The bias toward the use of force may in large part be explained by a culture within ATF, a propensity to engage in aggressive law enforcement.”
The code words for launching the assault were “show time,” indicative of the fact that at least 11 media outlets were there to witness the serving of the warrant. On February 28, 1993, 76 ATF agents drove up to the front of the Branch Davidians’ residence in two large cattle trailers. Federal law requires that agents knock and announce their purpose before forcibly entering a residence. However, the ATF planned for one group of agents to storm the front door while a second group climbed ladders and smashed in through second-story windows. They had rehearsed the dynamic entry for three days at a nearby military base. The timetable–seven seconds to get through the front door, 22 seconds to secure the second story, 60 seconds to neutralize the compound–didn’t allow much time for constitutional niceties. No single agent had been assigned the task of announcing their presence or the purpose of the raid. The ATF would later admit that it had never rehearsed a peaceful entry.
According to Koresh, when he saw the cattle trailers pull up and the ATF agents dressed in military-style uniforms, he opened the front door and said, “Get back. There are women and children here.” The ATF answered with a hail of bullets; Koresh was hit twice. The government maintains that an unarmed Koresh slammed the door and that cult members were waiting in ambush.
Four ATF agents ended up dead, more than 20 were wounded and six Davidians perished. The surviving agents were allowed to retreat from the area after negotiating a ceasefire.
After the ATF snafu, the FBI was brought in to resolve the conflict with the Branch Davidians. Fifty-one days later, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team launched an armored vehicle and tear gas assault on the residence occupied by scores of women and children. More than 70 people subsequently died.
And what happens when a SWAT team performs its intended role–confronting crazed gunmen? On April 20, 1999, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting spree in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. By the time the two ended their massacre by committing suicide, 12 students and one teacher were dead or mortally wounded. Dave Sanders bled to death because the police took nearly four hours to reach the room he was in–even though students had placed a large sign announcing “One Bleeding to Death” in the window.
The first police officer on the scene exchanged fire with Harris and Klebold. Shortly after noon, police radioed that they needed to be resupplied with ammunition. It arrived–in the form of almost 800 policemen, enough to form eight SWAT teams from five jurisdictions. Eventually, the on-site commander sent 50 members into the school.
Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone later explained: “We had initial people there right away, but we couldn’t get in. We were way outgunned.” Jefferson County SWAT team commander Terry Manwaring concurred: “I just knew the killers were armed and were better equipped than we were.” SWAT teams made no effort to confront the killers in action; instead, they devoted their efforts to frisking students and marching them out of the building with their hands on their heads.
The police response was paralyzed by concerns for officer safety. A spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department said, “We had no idea who was a victim and who was a suspect. And a dead police officer would not be able to help anyone.” Donn Kraemer of SWAT team explained: “If we went in and tried to take them and got shot, we would be part of the problem. We’re supposed to bring order to chaos, not add to the chaos.”
As one former law enforcement officer observed: “Everything the SWAT teams did that day was geared around fear. A great flaw in the training for SWAT teams is that they’re so worried about officer safety that they’ve lost their ability to fight.”
The New York Times reported that most of the SWAT teams were not sent in “for fear that they might set off a new gunfight.” Sheriff Stone justified the nonresponse: “We didn’t want to have one SWAT team shooting another SWAT team.”
James Bovard is author of Freedom in Chains, published by St. Martin’s.
*** On Twitter @jimbovard www.jimbovard.com