In his book "Rise of the Warrior Cop," Radley Balko recounts the rise of police SWAT teams (SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics) armed with heavy military equipment. SWAT raids began as rarely used methods of dealing with violent situations, like hostage-takings.
But government always grows.
In the 1970s, there were about 300 SWAT raids per year. "As of 2005," says Balko, "100 to 150 per day."
What began as a few specialized groups of police trained to address genuine threats to safety has degenerated into small armies descending on organic farms where farmers sell unpasteurized milk and legal medical marijuana dispensaries getting raided as if they were heavily armed threats.
The increase began under Nixon-era politicians who wanted to look "tough on crime," even if that meant exaggerating the threat posed by illegal drugs. As the futile war on drugs escalated, cops worried that drug users would destroy evidence if cops knocked and announced themselves. So they stopped doing that, changing a centuries-old rule that treated citizens' homes as their castles -- castles whose owners must be presented with a warrant before police can enter.
Soon, every police department wanted a SWAT team -- and many were more interested in getting cool military gear than in considering the potential downside -- like terrorizing innocent people, raiding the wrong house and causing violence.
"I found over 50 cases where a completely innocent person was killed in one of these raids," says Balko. Often this happens because the homeowner does not realize who is breaking down his door in the middle of the night.
Iraq War veteran Jose Guerena just knew that armed men were bursting in. So he picked up his semi-automatic rifle. Before he could take the safety off, police fired 71 bullets, hitting him 22 times.
Police raided his house because they suspected drugs were there. But after Guerena was killed, police found no drugs and no evidence of drug dealing. Today, the vast majority of SWAT raids are about drugs, not terrorism or hostage situations. Guerena's brother was arrested on drug charges. Balko says, "It appears Guerena's crime was being related to someone."
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