SWAT Raids, Stun Guns, And Pepper Spray: Why The Government Is Ramping Up The Use Of Force

Outraged by the Occupy crackdowns, some are now calling for a national discussion on the use of force. That's a welcome development, but it's helpful to review how we got here in order to have an honest discussion.
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In February of last year, video surfaced of a marijuana raid in Columbia, Mo. During the raid on Jonathan Whitworth and his family, police took down the door with a battering ram, then within seconds shot and killed one of Whitworth's dogs and wounded the other. They didn't find enough pot in the house to charge Whitworth with even a misdemeanor. (He was, however, charged with misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia when police found a pipe.) The disturbing video went viral in May 2010, triggering outrage around the world. On Fox News, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer and Bill O'Reilly cautioned not to judge the entire drug war by the video, which they characterized as an isolated incident.

In fact, very little about the raid that was isolated or unusual. For the most part, it was carried out the same way drug warrants are served some 150 times per day in the United States. The battering ram, the execution of Whitworth's dog, the fact that police weren't aware Whitworth's 7-year-old child was in the home before they riddled the place with bullets, the fact that they found only a small amount of pot, likely for personal use -- all are common in drug raids. The only thing unusual was that the raid was recorded by police, then released to the public after an open records request by the Columbia Daily Tribune. It was as if much of the country was seeing for the first time the violence with which the drug war is actually fought. And they didn't like what they saw.

That video came to mind with the outrage and public debate over the now-infamous pepper-spraying of Occupy protesters at the University of California-Davis protest earlier this month. The incident was just one of a number of high-profile uses of force amid crackdowns on Occupy protesters across the country, including one in Oakland in which the skull of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was fractured by a tear gas canister, and in New York, where NYPD Officer Anthony Bologna pepper-sprayed protesters who had been penned in by police fencing.

But America's police departments have been moving toward more aggressive, force-first, militaristic tactics and their accompanying mindset for 30 years. It's just that, with the exception of protests at the occasional free trade or World Bank summit, the tactics haven't generally been used on mostly white, mostly college-educated kids armed with cellphone cameras and a media platform.

Police militarization is now an ingrained part of American culture. SWAT teams are featured in countless cop reality shows, and wrong-door raids are the subject of "The Simpsons" bits and search engine commercials. Tough-on-crime sheriffs now sport tanks and hardware more equipped for battle in a war zone than policing city streets. Seemingly benign agencies such as state alcohol control boards and the federal Department of Education can now enforce laws and regulations not with fines and clipboards, but with volatile raids by paramilitary police teams.

Outraged by the Occupy crackdowns, some pundits and political commentators who paid little heed to these issues in the past are now calling for a national discussion on the use of force. That's a welcome development, but it's helpful to review how we got here in order to have an honest discussion.

Part of the trend can be attributed to the broader tough-on-crime and drug war policies pushed by politicians of both parties since at least the early 1980s, but part of the problem also lies with America's political culture. Public officials' decisions today to use force and the amount of force are as governed by political factors as by an honest assessment of the threat a suspect or group may pose. Over the years, both liberals and conservatives have periodically raised alarms over the government's increasing willingness to use disproportionately aggressive force. And over the years, both sides have tended to hush up when the force is applied by political allies, directed at political opponents, or is used to enforce the sorts of laws they favor.

How We Got Here

According to Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska, the number of SWAT raids carried out each year in America has jumped dramatically over the last generation or so, from just a few thousand in the 1980s to around 50,000 by the mid-2000s, when Kraska stopped his survey. He found that the vast majority of the increase is attributable to the drug war -- namely warrant service on low-to-mid-level drug offenders. A number of federal policies have driven the trend, including offering domestic police departments military training, allowing training with military organizations, using "troops-to-cops" programs and offering surplus military equipment and weaponry to domestic police police departments for free or at major discounts. There has also been a constant barrage of martial rhetoric from politicians and policymakers.

Dress cops up as soldiers, give them military equipment, train them in military tactics, tell them they're fighting a "war," and the consequences are predictable. These policies have taken a toll. Among the victims of increasingly aggressive and militaristic police tactics: Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md., whose dogs were killed when Prince George's County police mistakenly raided his home; 92-year-old Katherine Johnston, who was gunned down by narcotics cops in Atlanta in 2006; 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda, who was killed by Modesto, Calif., police during a drug raid in September 2000; 80-year-old Isaac Singletary, who was shot by undercover narcotics police in 2007 who were attempting to sell drugs from his yard; Jonathan Ayers, a Georgia pastor shot as he tried to flee a gang of narcotics cops who jumped him at a gas station in 2009; Clayton Helriggle, a 23-year-old college student killed during a marijuana raid in Ohio in 2002; and Alberta Spruill, who died of a heart attack after police deployed a flash grenade during a mistaken raid on her Harlem apartment in 2003. Most recently, voting rights activist Barbara Arnwine was raided by a SWAT team in Prince George's County, Md., on Nov. 21. Police were looking for Arnwine's nephew, a suspect in an armed robbery.*

The drug war has been the primary policy driving the trend but, since 2001, the federal government has also used the threat of terror attacks to further militarize domestic law enforcement. This includes not only finding new sources of funding for armor, weapons and gear, but also claiming new powers for the "War on Terror" that are then inevitably used in more routine law enforcement.

But paramilitary creep has also spread well beyond the drug war. In recent years, SWAT teams have been used to break up neighborhood poker games, including one at an American Legion Hall in Dallas. In 2006, Virginia optometrist Sal Culosi was killed when the Fairfax County Police Department sent a SWAT team to arrest him for gambling on football games. SWAT teams are also now used to arrest people suspected of downloading child pornography. Last year, an Austin, Texas, SWAT team broke down a man's door because he was suspected of stealing koi fish from a botanical garden.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article indicated that the police may have raided the wrong house. Arwine initially made that claim when the police didn't immediately produce a search warrant. The Prince George's County Police Department has since unsealed the search warrant, which shows that they were looking for Arwine's nephew. The police say they found evidence that the nephew was living or staying in Arwine's home, as well as evidence of the robbery.

SWAT teams are even sent to enforce regulatory law now. In Hartford, Conn., a SWAT team recently raided a bar on the premise of suspected underage drinking. The same happened at a fraternity at Washington State.

Often, these inspections are merely a way for police to perform a full-on drug raid without the hassle of obtaining a search warrant. Tactical units in Orlando recently raided a series of black-owned barbershops under the premise of an occupational licensing inspection. Once inside, they then scoured the businesses, customers and employees for illicit drugs, mostly coming up empty. There have been similar incidents at bars, with police departments sending SWAT teams on drug raids under the cover of a regulatory alcohol inspection, and once again getting around the need for a search warrant.

The city of Atlanta recently agreed to a $1 million settlement with customers and employees of the Atlanta Eagle nightclub. The gay club is alleged to have been the site of open sex acts and drug sales, but the raid -- in which customers were detained on the floor at gunpoint -- was officially for a mere booze inspection. The police never bothered to get a warrant.

In 2007, a federal SWAT team raided the studio of an Atlanta DJ suspected of violating copyright law. And in June, the Department of Education's Office of Inspector General sent its SWAT team into the home of Kenneth Wright in Stockton, Calif., rousing him and his three young daughters from their beds at gunpoint. Initial reports indicated the raid was because Wright's estranged wife had defaulted on her student loans. The Department of Education issued a press release stating that the investigation was related to embezzlement and fraud -- though why embezzlement and fraud necessitate a SWAT team isn't clear, not to mention that the woman hadn't lived at the house that was raided for more than a year. Ignoring these details, however, still leaves the question of why the Department of Education needs a SWAT team in the first place.

The Department of the Interior also has one, as does the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Last August, gun-toting federal marshals raided the Gibson Guitar factory in Nashville, Tenn. The reason? The company is under investigation for importing wood that wasn't properly treated.

In 2006, a group of Tibetan monks inadvertently overstayed their visas while touring the U.S. on a peace mission. Naturally, immigration officials sent a SWAT team to apprehend them.

It hasn't always been this way. Yes, there has always been police brutality, and the civil rights era in particular produced a number of striking images of excessive force brought down upon peaceful protesters. But it has become routine to use force that is disproportionate to the laws the police are enforcing. Because it has happened gradually over the course of about 30 years, the public has become accustomed to it.

There was a time when the level of force governments chose to use in response to a threat was commensurate with the severity of the threat. From the inception of the SWAT team in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, paramilitary police units were generally only deployed when someone posed an immediate and violent threat to others -- incidents like hostage situations, bank robberies, riots or escaped fugitives.

Today, SWAT teams are routinely deployed against people who pose little to no threat at all. It's hard to come up with a legitimate reason that the federal government needs to send heavily-armed, heavily-armored SWAT teams to raid medical marijuana clinics, for example. Whatever your position on the debate over whether federal or state law should govern pot dispensaries, the idea that their customers and employees pose a violent threat to federal agents is absurd. There's also little justification for sending SWAT teams to raid the offices of doctors accused of over-prescribing prescription painkillers, co-ops accused of selling unpasteurized milk, or for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to send paramilitary squads into businesses suspected of employing undocumented immigrants.

Beyond The SWAT Team

The militarization of police departments can also instill in police a militaristic mindset among cops not involved with the SWAT team. This is troubling because, again, soldiers and cops have very different jobs.

The UC-Davis students may be fortunate they were only pepper-sprayed. In recent years, the stun gun has become the weapon of choice for noncompliance with a police order. A little over a week after the UC-Davis incident, for example, a 61-year-old North Carolina man died after a police officer shot him with a stun gun for failing to stop on his bicycle when ordered. Roger Anthony's family says he may have failed to stop because he was hard of hearing. He had done nothing illegal. And Anthony is far from the first person to die after receiving a charge from a stun gun.

Police have used stun guns on pregnant women, the elderly and children as young as six. They're carried by security personnel in some schools. Stun guns may well be appropriate as an alternative to more lethal measures like real guns, but it's now acceptable in much of the country for police to send a jolt of electricity through someone for noncompliance with a police officer, argument over a traffic ticket or even petulance among children.

The image of the domestic cop dressed in camouflage or a battle dress uniform, toting an assault weapon, or decked out in armor more appropriate for a battlefield is also now common, particularly at protests and high-profile summits or conferences.

At the 2008 GOP Convention, police staged preemptive raids on the homes of possible protesters and rabble-rousers. There were mass arrests of protesters and journalists, few of which resulted in any actual charges. At the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh, camouflage-clad cops deployed sound cannons and arrested protesters, students and even onlookers. This was not because they broke any actual laws, but on their potential to cause disruption. Ironically, the more important the event and the more consequential the decisions are likely to be, the less likely police and government officials are to allow dissent -- and the more force they're likely to employ to keep protesters silent.

But the military mentality extends to more mundane police activities as well. In 2009, I wrote an article for the Daily Beast about the odd phenomenon of cops shooting dogs. In drug raids, killing the dogs in the targeted house is almost perfunctory. We also see stories about cops killing dogs while chasing suspects across the property of a third party, or killing a dog who growls at them after they were called to a house on an unrelated matter.

These stories have punch, and public reaction to them can be even stronger than to stories about cops killing people. On some level, that's understandable: the slaughter of a family pet inflicts gratuitous emotional harm. The often cold reactions from police departments to these incidents also show a certain indifference to the people they are supposed to be serving -- again, more the way a soldier interacts with citizens in another country than as with a police officer serving his community.

It's also symptomatic of a mentality that habitually turns first toward force. There are ways to deal with aggressive dogs other than shooting them. But few departments give police officers training on how to deal with dogs. Postal workers get that training, and they report very few incidents of dog attacks. But postal workers don't carry guns. When you can use lethal force, it's easier to do so than to use less aggressive tactics. If you have little regard for the people against whom you'll be using that force -- and when there are usually no consequences for using it -- it isn't difficult for violence to become the first option instead of the last.

The Politics of Force

The amount of force the government uses to uphold a given law is no longer determined only by the threat to public safety posed by the suspect. Now, it appears to give an indication of how serious the government is about the law being enforced. The DEA sends SWAT teams barreling into the offices of doctors accused of over-prescribing painkillers not because the doctors pose any real threat of violence, but because prescription drug abuse is a hot issue right now. The feds sent SWAT teams into marijuana dispensaries not because medicinal pot merchants are inherently dangerous people, but because officials believe the dispensaries are openly defying federal law. It is, to put it bluntly, a terror tactic. Sending a couple cops with a clipboard to hand out fines and shut down a dispensary doesn't convey a strong message. Sending a bunch of cops dressed like soldiers to point guns at dispensary owners and their customers certainly does.

There's also little evidence that people who consume child pornography pose much of a violent threat to police officers, yet the federal government now routinely sends SWAT teams to apprehend them. The amount of force, again, isn't dictated by the threat posed by the suspect, but by the disgust the government wants to register at the alleged crime. And while a good portion of the public probably won't lose much sleep over government violence directed at suspected child pornographers, the suspected part is important. Last April an FBI SWAT team in Buffalo, N.Y., staged a violent raid on man suspected of downloading child porn. They had the wrong guy. The man had an unsecured wireless connection, and a neighbor had used it to download the porn.

The lesson federal officials drew from the case was not that perhaps it's unwise to send SWAT teams for such low-level offenses, or that perhaps law enforcement should be sure they have the right guy if they are going to conduct such raids. No, the lesson federal officials drew from the case was applicable to the rest of us: It's dangerous to have an unsecured wireless connection.

The amount force government authorities use, then, is no longer based not on what sort of threat a suspect poses to the government or those around him, but on the political implications of the laws being enforced. It isn't difficult to see how we get from here to pepper-spraying and beating peaceful protesters, particularly if the protesters are becoming a thorn in the side of politicians or are losing support from the public.

Partisans haven't reacted well to these trends, either. Last month, Jonathan Meador, a reporter for the Nashville Scene alt weekly, was arrested while covering a police crackdown on occupy protesters in Nashville. Meade's arrest was outrageous -- even more so given that the crackdown itself was illegal. But a couple of weeks before his arrest, Meade himself wrote an article mocking concerns over the heavy-handedness of the federal raid on Gibson Guitars.

It's a tidy anecdote that goes a long way to explain how mass police militarization can happen with little objection. When excessive government force is directed at people like us and people who with whom we sympathize, we're outraged. But point the guns at people with whom we have little in common, or whose politics clash with our own, and the reaction is indifference or perhaps even a bit of satisfaction.

In the 1990s, it was the right wing that was up in arms over police militarization. Recall the outrage on the right over Waco, Ruby Ridge, and that striking photo from the Elian Gonzalez raid. The left largely remained silent. Right-wing radio hosts continued to rail against jack-booted thugs and federal storm-troopers, but that all died down once the Clinton administration left office. The militarization of federal law enforcement certainly didn't stop, but the Sept. 11 attacks and a friendly administration seemed to quell the conservatives' concerns. So long as law enforcement was targeting hippie protesters, drug offenders and alleged terrorist sympathizers, they were the good guys, not the jack-booted thugs.

In a short but telling 2007 post at Pajamas Media in 2007, conservative commentator Michael Ledeen posted photos of a drug bust in Iran and wrote, "For me, the most revealing thing about them is that the police feel obliged to wear masks while conducting a drug bust in the capital. Tells you something about the relationship between the people and the state." Of course, police in America often cover their faces when conducting drug raids. What's "revealing" is both that Ledeen thought that doing so was indicative of a police state, and that he wasn't aware it was going on regularly here.

Given the history, the reaction from some on the right to the Occupy crackdowns has been predictable. After summarizing some of the more gleeful conservative commentary on the UC-Davis incident, libertarian Steven Greenhut, editor of the investigative journalism site CalWatchdog, then chides them. "What's really disgusting is the natural instinct of so many conservatives to stick up for the police," Greenhut wrote. "They don't like the Occupy protesters, so they willingly back brutality against them, without considering the possibility that conservatives at some point might be on the receiving end of this aggression."

Shortly after Jared Loughner allegedly opened fire in the parking lot of a Tucson grocery store last January, we saw much hand-wringing about the threat of violence against the government. In fact, violence against government officials is actually pretty rare. But just three days before Loughner's rampage, police in Framingham, Mass., raided the home of 68-year-old Eurie Stamps. Stamps wasn't the target of the drug raid. Police were after the son of Stamps' girlfriend, and actually apprehended him outside the home. They raided the house anyway. Stamps, who was unarmed and broke no laws, was shot and killed by a police officer. By my count, he's at least the 46th innocent person killed in a botched drug raid. Every politician in Washington condemned the Loughner shootings, and rightly so. But nearly every politician in Washington supports the laws and policies that led to the death of Eurie Stamps.

Both left and right have spent a good part of the last couple decades trying to tie their political opponents to fringe movements that advocate or have engaged in violence. (There are, of course exceptions, on both sides.) Certainly, there are crazy people out there who pose a violent threat, both to others and to the government. But we all recognize them as crazy. Whether be it the dramatic rise in the number of SWAT raids and SWAT teams, the ubiquitous use of stun guns, harsh crackdowns on peaceful protesters, or just the increasingly militaristic mindset of law enforcement on the whole, government violence against its own citizens is much more troubling than the violence of a small number of citizens--because government actions carry an air of legitimacy.

Few politicians have the backbone to call for less power, weaponry and authority for law enforcement, because nobody loses an election by being "too tough" on crime. They'll only begin to question these trends when there's a political benefit to doing so -- or political harm for keeping quiet. So long as partisans on both sides only speak up when their own are on the receiving end of excessive government force, there isn't much incentive for policymakers to care.

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