Where’s my SWAT team?

In one of those, you’ve-got-to-be-shitting-me stories, Radley Balko, at the Agitator, reports that NASA has a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team at the Kennedy Space Center–in case, you know, we find ourselves sucked into an alternative sci-fi universe where NASA needs quasi-military tactical response teams. It’s reasonable, I suppose, for NASA to have security guardsbut why do they need assault rifles, armored vehicles, and camouflage?

Late last year, the Washington Post picked up on a story about a raid conducted by agents of Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General at a California residence. Agents broke into Kenneth Wright’s house at 6 a.m., grabbing him by the neck in his boxers and handcuffing him while the team searched his home. Still in his underwear, he and his three children were forced into the back of a police car.

Wright said the agents were looking for his estranged wife (who was not there) about her unpaid student loans. The DoE responded that it was a criminal investigation concerning “bribery, fraud, and embezzlement of federal student aid funds.” While the Office of Inspector General denies using a “SWAT team,” the fact is that heavily armed federal agents broke down a man’s door in the predawn hours, assaulted him, and terrified his children, executing a simple warrant concerning (at most) a white collar crime.

The Post previously broke a story about the Education Department purchasing dozens of Remington Model 870 12-gauge shotgunsto replace the old models, which were wearing out.

No child will be left behind.

In fact, the proliferation of powerful weaponry seems to have reached every branch of government. Here’s a man who works for the National Parks Service, which, notwithstanding Ken Burn’s hyperbole, probably doesn’t need assault rifles at the Jefferson Memorial:

Yeah, this looks reasonable.
Yeah, this looks reasonable.

Here is a NYPD officer, patrolling a street corner in lower Manhattan. Note that he’s not responding to any call for unusual force, just wandering the streets:

I feel freer already.

There seems to be little concern that normalizing the use and display of excessive force could be detrimental to the public’s safety or liberties, or that putting soldiers on the streets is a hallmark of police states and banana republics. There is an increasing lack of concern about introducing violence into non-violent situations. SWAT teams were originally intended to be special purpose units for hostage situations or other already volatile situations, but more and more, the regular use of military equipment and extremely violent tactics to serve simple warrants creates, rather than defuses, dangerous situations.

Even when everything goes the way it is supposed to, a SWAT raid is an extraordinarily dangerous and chaotic operation. Doors are smashed down, people have guns pointed in their face while being tackled and handcuffed, generally late at night or in predawn hours. But it’s easy for things to just go wrong. Officers often simply shoot pets because they feel threatened. It’s easy for a resident, even an innocent one, to mistake a no-knock raid for a break in and arm themselves. SWAT teams are keyed up and expecting danger, so it’s easy for officers to mistake the intentions of residents and instinctively shoot first. The use of smoke grenades and flash-bangs add further danger and confusion to an already volcanic situation. Police regularly get the address wrong, or raid the wrong side of condos and duplexes, as was the case in the Cory Maye story.

The militarization of police forces around the country is a growing problem, and the bodies will keep piling up, as a result of bad tactics or bad training, as long as the war on drugs and the culture of irresponsibility in law enforcement continue.

  • The Cato Institute maintains an interactive map of botched SWAT raids around the country. 
  • Radley Balko wrote a damning analysis of paramilitary SWAT teams for Cato called “Overkill.” [He has a forthcoming book on police militarization titled Rise of the Warrior Cop.]
  • Read Cheye Calvo on his efforts to get some accountability for the use and behavior of SWAT teams.
  • Lindy wrote a great song called “No-Knock Raid,” which the fellas at Reason TV made into a video: