Balko on SWAT raids

by Kieran Healy on July 18, 2006

Radley Balko’s study of the increase in paramilitary police raids by SWAT teams “is now available”: from Cato. They’ve also produced a “map of botched raids”:, using Google Maps, to show the distribution of raids that involved some kind of serious error. I’d like to see a table of that data as well (or, because I’m greedy, the whose dataset). There are a lot of things one could do with the data beyond just plotting the incidents on a map, though this is certainly an effective way to draw attention to the issue. The “monograph itself”: contains summaries of a large number of the botched raids. The rise of paramilitary policing is a serious problem in itself — just on the very narrow grounds that mistakes are common — but is also clearly bound up with larger questions of criminal justice policy in the United States, and America’s “astonishingly high”: rate of incarceration.

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An Experiment in Scotch » Why We Have Police
07.19.06 at 8:11 am



jet 07.18.06 at 12:49 pm

Ah yes, the War on Drugs, creating a better America one SWAT raid at a time.


mds 07.18.06 at 1:03 pm

That’s what makes Second Amendment absolutists so cute (especially the ones who treat no other Amendments as absolute): “They’ll pry my guns from my cold, dead hands; which, after a freaking paramilitary police unit comes smashing in every door and window, is a virtually certain outcome.” Then again, if we were able to legally own nukes, perhaps that would act as a deterrent of government misbehavior. Or, just perhaps, people could stop voting for those who are trying to create a police state. But that would distract from the NRA’s campaign to protect American firearm owners from the nefarious UN gun confiscation plan.


mpowell 07.18.06 at 1:43 pm

A friend of mine in college from Maine (where the liberals are a little different) used to maintain that the 2nd amendment helped to forestall oppression from the police even though the US military could not reasonably be resisted. The constitutional and institutional barriers to using the military against american citizens are a lot higher, so he felt this distinction was relevant.

I’m not sure I buy this argument or not, but private citizens could plausibly resist SWAT team raids. SWAT teams just don’t have the kind of heavy weaponry to make it a truly unfair fight. So far, though, it doesn’t seem like officer deaths have acted as much of a deterrent.


derek 07.18.06 at 1:58 pm

You must be wrong. SWAT raids were a phenomenon of the KKKlinTOON years, but they stopped. The proof is that I haven’t seen any fuss raised in the even-the-liberal media about jackbooted kitten stompers since Bush was elected.

I expect I will read all about it when the next Democratic president is elected, and the next Lon Horiuchi is selected for witch-hunting. (Horiuchi’s nine minutes of fame was also earned under a president named Bush, and used to smear a Democrat who could not have been responsible for it unless he had a time machine)


John Emerson 07.18.06 at 2:18 pm

I live now in an American farm town of 1500 people (not a suburb of anywhere). The crime rate is very low and we have one inexperienced, underworked cop.

A year or two ago a guy locked himself into a room after making threats against his girlfriend mixed with suicide threats. I don’t know the details (whether she as with him or not — I don’t think so). Anyway, SWAT teams came from miles around (6-7 cars in all. They closed off the street and wouldn’t let anyone go home or leave home. After a few hours the incident was defused and everyone relaxed.

None of these towns need SWAT teams. They’re like luxury prestige items. The usual claim is that there are meth labs everywhere, but these claims mostly come from interested people in the police and rehab biz, often from private contractors going around making their living making speeches puffing up the problem. I’ve heard rumors about meth from two different people since I’ve come home, and in both cases I think that it was pure paranoid scuttlebutt about the internal enemy — no data, no doumentation, just hunches and law enforcement oral tradition.


Alexander Wolfe 07.18.06 at 2:27 pm

I’m with Jet on this. I think the war on drugs has definitely been the main contributing factor in the rise of the use of SWAT teams. I read in the Fort Worth weekly just last week about a raid that resulted in the death of the suspect, who may or may not have pointed a gun at the officers. In the end the police netted a few ounces of marijuana and some illegal weapons. You have to wonder if it was even necessary to conduct a raid in that fashion, even if police intelligence that indicated that he was dealing drugs had been true. I think there needs to be some questioning of some basic assumptions regarding police procedure.


John Emerson 07.18.06 at 2:29 pm

Let me also agree with Jet this once. The Democrats’ timidity on the drug war is shameful, though not the most shameful thing about them, unfortunately.


Barry 07.18.06 at 2:45 pm

Derek, you’re stealing *my* mockery.


james 07.18.06 at 3:23 pm

If no one is injured, are SWAT raids against suspects later to be found innocent correctly defined as a misuse of police procedure?


abb1 07.18.06 at 3:25 pm

SWAT raids were a phenomenon of the KKKlinTOON years…

You reminded me of little Elian and Donalto Dalmuply (or whatever). I hoped they were permanently erased from my memory. Damn you. Damn you. May you burn in Hell for this.


jet 07.18.06 at 3:46 pm

#3 mpowell,

First let me state that the US is as far from a condition where armed insurgency is a posibility as I can see. Political options are still an extremely viable way for changing government, and oppresion of minorities is a receding condition, not a growing one.

But you are wrong about an armed population not being a threat to the US military. If 1% of the population decided that Adolf Future-President-ler has started killing off minorities and Congressional power has lost all checks on the executive branch, and the only option is revolution, then think about this. 1% of today’s population is 3 million people. If those people are a conglomerate of armed militias, they wouldn’t stand a chance against the US army. But, 1, the US army would have trouble finding officers and soldiers who would fight this militia. And 2, imagine if the Iraqi insurgency had as easy access to the US military industrial complex as it does to the Iraqi industrial complexes, which it blows up regularly.

On a different note, I think it a bit funny that people here are blaiming the 2nd amendment for SWAT raids. Because surely criminals wouldn’t have weapons if it weren’t for the 2nd amendment, right? Criminals break the law, who would have thought?


Scott Martens 07.18.06 at 4:42 pm

Jet, in all of human history, has there been a single case of “the army would never attack citizens of their own country” in which that proved to be true? I can’t think of one off-hand, and I really can’t see America as the exception.

And yes, with gun control the police might be less likely to think a low level seller of dime bags might have enough firepower to kill a cop. It is conceivable, although far from certain, that they therefore might hesitate to use SWAT teams to arrest them, reserving them for their original purpose: police action against people actually likely to be heavily and illegally armed.

People in cities claim to buy guns to defend themselves against home invasion. SWAT teams exist to perform home invasions. SWAT teams therefore shoot first and ask questions later. The logic of it and the causal link seem clear enough.


Brett Bellmore 07.18.06 at 5:15 pm

“about jackbooted kitten stompers”

The jack booted kitten stompers were, as I recall, BATF agents, not regular SWAT. They stopped when Clinon left office because Bush put the BATF back on a short leash. However, in all fairness, it must be noted that it was Bush’s father, not Clinton, who originally took the leash off them. The worst that can be said in that regard was that Clinton was no improvement on the elder Bush, and nobody expected him to be.

“And yes, with gun control the police might be less likely to think a low level seller of dime bags might have enough firepower to kill a cop.”

Then the police would be damned fools, because gun control has never proven to be an effective way to disarm career criminals.


Barry 07.18.06 at 5:27 pm

How do the armament rates between US and UK criminals compare?


asg 07.18.06 at 5:28 pm

People in cities claim to buy guns to defend themselves against home invasion. SWAT teams exist to perform home invasions. SWAT teams therefore shoot first and ask questions later. The logic of it and the causal link seem clear enough.

How many of the examples of dead innocent people in Balko’s study involve homeowners who were killed because they fired at police? I haven’t read the paper but I suspect the proportion is very small.


minneapolitan 07.18.06 at 6:47 pm

I’ve no doubt that the Cato Institute has underestimated this problem to some extent. I can remember at least two recent “wrong door” SWAT raids in the Twin Cities that received some media and activist attention, but which aren’t on the Cato list/map. I’m sure there are thousands of other cases that also stayed beneath their radar.

Having said that, the examples provided are certainly disturbing. I’ve been arrested myself, and it’s scary enough when the police are fairly polite and professional.

I guess the part of all of this that bothers me most is the willful doublethink that you encounter when discussing the police and their (mis)conduct with middle-class white people. Bring up the cops when you’re out at the bar with some friends and everyone has at least a couple of horror stories about incompetent, abusive, racist, terroristic police officers. And yet, even people who vote Democratic or Green seem to rate police issues pretty far down on their list of political criteria. The question then, is whether this kind of ambivalence is rational. Do those of us with a little bit of wealth and plenty of white skin privilege profit more from having the cops around to bust black and brown heads, or is the security we enjoy purchased at too high a price? Even many of the avowed radicals I talk to want to shy away from answering that one.

Frankly, this all seems to be another legacy of slavery to me. The police are still the most efficient maintainers of the color line, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.

Given that we have over 2 million people incarcerated in this country, many of whom must work at slave wages or suffer SWAT-style raids on their cells for being “uncooperative”, perhaps my use of “legacy” above is a bit too euphemistic.


derrida derider 07.18.06 at 7:50 pm

As the saying goes, you’re not tough on crime unless you’re tough on official crime too.

If you really think you need a team of goons, then they should be held on a very short lease, and held rigorously accountable for any mistakes.


jet 07.18.06 at 10:21 pm

Scott Martens,
The one positive thing to come out of Katrina was the overwhelming evidence that US soldiers despise the idea of fighting US citizens. Makes me all the more thankful to them.


Cian O'Connor 07.19.06 at 4:03 am

#5: John,
I think one of the reasons for the rise of SWAT teams in areas which really don’t need them, is the self-financing aspect of the drug war. The police can seize property which they claim is connected to drugs (and the proof of connection is very low. Your teenager smoked a joint in your car – the police can seize the car, and yes this has happened. Sometimes the police have seized property on mere suspicion – its up to you to prove them wrong), and so this allows them to raise quite substantial funds. There was one police force in one of the border states, which setup and ran a “sting” operation involving drug trafficking from Mexico. In law enforcement terms it was pointless, but the police force made several millions from the resulting seizures.


gr 07.19.06 at 4:13 am

“How do the armament rates between US and UK criminals compare?”

This is just anecdotal evidence, to be sure. But for what it’s worth, in my hometown (Hamburg, Germany), career criminals cerainly do have access to illegal firearms and use them on occasion (but not against cops, usually against other criminals). On the other hand, a lot of the violence exercised by career criminals over here doesn’t involve guns but only knives, fists and other blunt objects. Guns are more of a weapon of last resort, it seems. Not something you’d brandish in any odd confrontation. Perhaps general cultural differences in the attitudes towards guns and gun use somehow rub off even on criminals?


Slocum 07.19.06 at 6:37 am

You must be wrong. SWAT raids were a phenomenon of the KKKlinTOON years, but they stopped. The proof is that I haven’t seen any fuss raised in the even-the-liberal media about jackbooted kitten stompers since Bush was elected.

It is notable that the main fuss being raised now is by libertarians rather than Democrats. Democrats are worried about seeming ‘soft on crime’. Libertarians, on the other hand, aren’t going to be elected anyway, and don’t have to worry about that. But also, complaining about this sort of thing was associated with the anti-government right during the Clinton years and so maybe liberals in the U.S. now to reflexively avoid the topic? (Especially since there’s no way to pin this problem on Bush).

In any case, the larger is that the electorate broadly support these kinds of anti-drug raids and so pols of both major parties tend to do so as well. And why is there such support in the electorate? I would suggest that it is because middle class people have very little reason to fear this could happen to them. In their own neighborhoods, the police knock politely on the door.


Harald Korneliussen 07.19.06 at 7:21 am

“So far, though, it doesn’t seem like officer deaths have acted as much of a deterrent.”

Of course not, it acts as a provocation.

There are many historical cases of armies being reluctant to attack their own families. Portugal? perhaps the Philippines?


Richard J 07.19.06 at 8:29 am

As I understand it, the coup against Chavez initially succeeded because he had given the order to fire on the protestors, at which the army balked. (Of course, the conspiracy within the coup kicked in, and people realised there were worse things than Chavez.)


David 07.19.06 at 11:48 pm

Fun fact about gun control and SWAT raids. Balko cited a few incidents where suspects were judged SWAT-worthy threats specifically because they had permits to own/carry firearms, which made them dangerous.

Hello, irony.

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