By Scott Tibbs, June 9, 2014
In the discussion of the Bounkham Phonesavanh case (the 18-month-old baby who suffered horrific burns due to a flash-bang grenade exploding in his portable crib) I have seen arguments that paramilitary SWAT raids may make things safer both for police and suspects, because people faced with overwhelming force may be less likely to engage in a shootout with police. Because nationwide data on police shootings is rare (more on that later) we have to employ common sense in examining these tactics and the risks they present.
Does it make sense that a paramilitary unit bursting into someone's home in the middle of the night, armed with assault weapons and setting off flash-bang grenades, would be safer for the people being raided? Or would sending an officer to arrest a suspect with the minimum force necessary be safer for both the suspect and innocent bystanders? Is not one of the principles of law enforcement to not use more force than is necessary?
Keep in mind that police have been shot and killed because the occupants have assumed a paramilitary SWAT raid was a home invasion. It was just such a scenario that put Corey Maye on death row for killing a police officer when he mistook a paramilitary SWAT raid for a home invasion.
We also need to examine some critical facts about this raid: The target who the SWAT team was after was not even living at the residence at the time. He had been kicked out of the house. The target of the raid was arrested later without incident at a separate location, and he had no weapons on him. The police found no weapons or drugs at the home where SWAT officers horribly maimed an 18-month-old baby.
Putting aside Phonesavanh case, are SWAT raids safer overall? I do not know, but I do know this: The burden of proof should not be on those who object to paramilitary raids to prove they are more dangerous than traditional police work. The burden of proof should be on the government to demonstrate that the paramilitary raids they are conducting makes things safer for both sides. The government does not get to violate basic civil rights and then say "prove what we're doing is not safer." In a constitutional republic built on individual liberty, it just does not work that way.
For more on police shootings of civilians, see here and here and here and here and here and here and here.
But while we know how many police officers are killed annually, we do not have similar data for civilians killed by police - whether they are armed criminals or unarmed innocents who make a "furtive movement" that causes officers to assume they are in danger. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that use of deadly force is increasing - but, again, we do not have hard data. We do know, thanks to Radley Balko's work, that the total number of paramilitary SWAT raids have dramatically increased over the last 30 years
Also, the problem is not the lack of sensible gun control. We had the right to own guns well before the militarization of police kicked into high gear in the 1970's and 1980's, and we did not have paramilitary strike forces breaking down doors at 3:00 am looking for some weed. The problem is police militarization, not allowing law-abiding citizens to own firearms. Politicians have exploited the fear of crime to boost police budgets and even outright steal from citizens - asset forfeiture abuse is rampant, even when people are not even charged with a crime.
Eisenhower warned of the military industrial complex. We are facing a militarized police-industrial complex.
For the last forty years, we have been fighting a "war" that we cannot possibly win. We have demonized drug users and fear-mongering politicians have stoked public fear of the drug trade. Hollywood movies and TV shows have not helped, casting drug users and dealers in the worst (and most violent) light possible. We have rural police departments - such as the Morgan County Sheriff's Department and the West Lafayette Police Department - getting armored vehicles straight from war zones that are designed to withstand military grade explosives and Improvised Explosive Devices.
Paramilitary SWAT raids, flash-bang grenades exploding in a baby's face, and other outrages are just symptoms of the problem. The real problem here is the War on Drugs itself. If we want to back down the militarization of law enforcement, greatly reduce paramilitary police raids, and restore the civil liberties we have lost over the last forty years, we have to end the War on Drugs. We need to start treating drug abuse as a public health problem and not as a military threat. (Note that the suspect in the Phonesavanh raid was described as a domestic terrorist by the drug warriors.)
We have gone so far over the edge in the War on Drugs that we cannot fix the problems it has caused by tinkering with it. We have to completely tear down the way we deal with drug abuse and rebuild a new policy from scratch.
See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.