Smash-up Policing: When law enforcement goes military

By Dave Kopel

National Review, May 22, 2000

THE seizing of Elian Gonzalez will earn a Pulitzer Prize for photographer Alan Diaz, who caught the federal agent waving a machine gun at the terrified boy. The picture shocked many Americans, but there's something even more shocking that's not in the picture: Similar events-in which people are assaulted in their homes by SWAT teams waving machine guns, spewing foul language, threatening to shoot people, and trashing the house as a tactical distraction-happen every day in the United States, without media attention.

Because of the war on drugs, law enforcement throughout the U.S. has been militarized. The Founding Fathers worked hard to prevent oppression by standing armies, but the militarization of law enforcement is making more and more Americans subject to precisely the kind of violence the Founders worried about.

The Los Angeles police department started the trend in the 1960s when future police chief Daryl Gates created the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. Gates had originally wanted to call it a "Special Weapons Attack Team," but changed the name for public-relations purposes.

In the 1980s, violent home invasions under the pretext of drug-law enforcement became routine. In 1988, for example, LAPD officers, including members of the department's task force on gangs, broke into and destroyed four apartments on Dalton Avenue; the apartments were suspected to be crack dens, but in fact were not. The officers who participated in the raid were promoted.

The police in Fresno, Calif., have taken the next step: The Fresno SWAT team now deploys a full-time patrol unit, in complete battle gear. According to criminologist Peter Kraska, the Fresno police department considers the SWAT patrol an "unqualified success," and "is encouraging other police agencies to follow suit."

Kraska also notes that "perhaps as many as 20 percent" of police departments in cities with a population over 50,000 have already put their own paramilitary units into street police work. In many cases, money for these deployments comes from "community policing" grants from the federal government.

When law-enforcement agencies create SWAT teams, they often assure the public that the squads will be used for hostage rescue and similar activities. Fortunately, there are not enough actual hostage takings to keep the SWAT teams busy; as a result, the paramilitary units have a tendency to look for other tasks, ones in which there is no need for their special violent skills.

Today, the vast majority of SWAT deployments are to serve search warrants in cases of suspected drug sales or possession. Serving a search warrant by violently breaking into a house (as opposed to knocking first and demanding entry) is justifiable in certain situations-such as when the occupants are known to be armed and dangerous-but not in most. Former New York City police commissioner William Bratton has explained: "In those instances where the suspect might be armed, we would call in a special tactics unit. Over time, though, it became common to always use the tactical unit no matter what or who the warrant was for. They used stun grenades each time and looked at it as practice."

The victims of these raids are not just people who break the drug laws. Rev. Accelynne Williams was a substance-abuse counselor in a poor neighborhood in Boston. One evening in 1994, he was visited in his apartment by a substance abuser who also happened to be an undercover informant in the pay of the Boston police. Later, the informant tried to direct the police to the address of a drug dealer in the apartment above that of Rev. Williams-but the police misread the informant's floor plan as directing them to the Reverend's apartment. Of course, if the police had checked, they would have discovered that the apartment they were actually raiding belonged to a 70-year-old retired Methodist minister, and that there were no signs of drug activity at the apartment.

Armed with the search warrant, however, and plenty of firearms, the police broke into Rev. Williams's apartment, screamed obscenities at him, chased him into his bedroom, shoved him to the floor, and handcuffed him while pointing guns at his head. He promptly died of a heart attack.

In Denver last September, Ismael Mena was shot dead in his home during an invasion by a SWAT team. The officers were acting on the basis of a search warrant claiming that $ 20 worth of crack had once been sold in Mena's home. In fact, the "confidential informant" had given the wrong address.

This trend toward excessive use of force has spread well beyond police departments: The Colorado Daily has reported that even the campus police at the University of Colorado at Boulder have received SWAT-style "sniper training with AR-15 rifles, a semiautomatic version of the M-16." (This was deemed necessary for the campus police, even though the Boulder police department already had a SWAT unit.)

The desire of smaller law-enforcement agencies to emulate their big brothers is one cause of police militarization; Washington's encouragement is another. A federal statute requires that surplus military equipment (such as M-16 automatic rifles, night-vision scopes, and even combat vehicles) be donated to domestic law enforcement. Another federal law subsidizes local police hiring of ex-military personnel, and it is ex-military who account for almost all SWAT-team members. The Navy SEALs, the Army's Delta Force, and other elite military attack forces provide extensive free training to police tactical teams, and this training is funded by congressional drug-war dollars. But military training-which stresses absolute obedience and swift annihilation of the target-is not appropriate for good police behavior, which, after all, requires capturing suspected criminals (not killing them), minimizing the use of force, and acting with a scrupulous regard for the Constitution.

In contrast to ordinary police officers, who usually dress in blue, "tactical officers" are garbed in black to maximize their intimidating effect. Michael Solomon, a Rutgers University professor who studies the psychology of clothing, explains that black uniforms tap "into associations between the color black and authority, invincibility, the power to violate laws with impunity."

The weapon of choice for SWAT teams is the Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun-the kind that the INS agent was waving at Elian Gonzalez. Heckler & Koch's advertising to civilian law enforcement conveys the message that by owning the weapon, the civilian officer will be the equivalent of a member of an elite military strike force, such as the Navy SEALs. The ad copy links civilian law enforcement to military combat, with lines like "From the Gulf War to the Drug War."

But the most dangerous aspect of police militarization isn't the machine guns: It's the change in police attitudes. In a constitutional republic, policemen are supposed to be "peace officers." Police militarization promotes maximal use of force as a solution, even when no force at all is required. If the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms did not have so many "Special Response Teams," BATF might have reacted differently at Waco-taking up David Koresh's telephone offer to let them come and investigate his guns. What they did instead was "serve" a search warrant through a 76-man helicopter, grenade, and machine-gun attack on a home containing dozens of children.

Janet Reno's initial justification for using a SWAT team (instead of normal immigration agents) to snatch Elian Gonzalez was that somebody in the house or in the crowd outside might have been armed. (She had in mind a security guard who had a handgun-carry permit issued by the state of Florida.) Her theory offers a rationale for SWAT-team invasion of any home in the U.S., any time there is a search warrant to be served: About half of all households contain firearms, and the police do not know which ones.

In the 1995 decision in Wilson v. Arkansas, a unanimous Supreme Court rejected the idea that mere invocation of the words "guns" or "drugs" could justify no-knock "dynamic entries." But even after Wilson, no-knock operations carried out by tactical teams are routine in drug cases.

New York University law professor Paul Chevigny points out that in the long run, the police will be the biggest losers from police militarization and its accompanying mentality: "The police think of themselves as an occupying army, and the public comes to think the same. The police lose the connection with the public which is a principal advantage to local policing, and their job becomes progressively more difficult, while they become more unpopular."

An erosion of public confidence in the police has to be a matter of grave concern for anyone who cares about the future of law and order.

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