- Radley Balko
The January 2012 raid of Matthew Stewart’s Ogden home that left one member of the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force dead shocked the local community. But it didn’t come as much of a surprise to journalist and author Radley Balko, who for years has been writing about drug raids in national publications; his book about the militarization of America’s police forces, Rise of the Warrior Cop, was released this summer. Balko will be speaking at a free event at the Salt Lake City Main Library (210 E. 400 South, 801-524-8200, SLCPL.org) on Thursday, Aug. 29, at 7 p.m. in the Nancy Tessman Auditorium alongside family members of Utahns killed by police, including Stewart and Danielle Willard. A 5 p.m. protest is planned at Salt Lake City police headquarters across the street from the library on 300 East.
How did you start looking into police militarization?
I started at the Cato Institute as a policy analyst, focusing on civil liberties—part of that was the drug war. That’s when I started reading about a lot of these wrong-door raids. There would be an account of the raid, and then a quote from a police spokesman who’d say, “This is an isolated incident, this almost never happens.” You read enough articles about isolated incidents, and you start to wonder how isolated they are.
Reading these stories, they made me angry. You read about people who get killed, you read about how shooting the dog is perfunctory in a lot of these raids, you read about the botched, mistaken wrong-door raids, and the complete lack of accountability ... and kind of the callousness. A lot of these police departments write off as collateral damage the people who are victimized in these situations.
If these are mostly isolated incidents, is there a real problem?
I think the real debate we need to have here is whether it’s appropriate for police dressed as soldiers to be breaking into homes 100 times a day in America to serve search warrants to people suspected of crimes. The “suspected” part is important, too—these raids are extraordinarily violent, they’re designed to injure people. The flash grenades are supposed to blind you and deafen you temporarily; they’ve also caught houses on fire. There’s a very thin margin for error, and when one small thing goes wrong, you end up with bodies.
Even if they got the right house every single time, there’s still an important question about whether this kind of force is appropriate for the level of crime it’s being used against. You could use SWAT raids to apprehend people who have outstanding parking tickets, and a very very tiny percentage of them would end in tragedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate use of SWAT teams. The wrong-door raids make great stories, but I think the broader question is, is this level of force, used this often, appropriate?
Have policing styles become more militarized as technology has advanced?
Technology is neutral—it’s how it’s used, and what kind of policing strategies are used to incorporate it. When the Taser was introduced, it was supposed to be a substitute for lethal force. If that were how it was used most of the time, it would be a plus in terms of reducing violent interactions between police and citizens. Unfortunately, it’s become a compliance tool. Now, we’re getting into these problems with people being Tasered for talking back to a police officer or not immediately following a command, and it’s become a way for police to avoid conflict resolution and trying to de-escalate a situation; they can now just reach for the Taser. The problem goes deeper than technology; it’s more the style of policing, how officers see their jobs, and the policies that are put in place that really allow for the use of more force, more often, for increasingly less-serious crimes.
What’s been the evolution of SWAT?
There are a few major milestones to look at. In the late ’60s, early ’70s, we have the birth of the SWAT team and Nixon declaring war on drugs. These two trends move parallel to each other. You see SWAT teams spread across the country; by 1975, pretty much every large city has a SWAT team. But they’re used in primarily emergency situations, where you have lives at immediate risk—bank robberies, hostage takings, active-shooter situations. You’re using violence to diffuse an already-violent situation, which is appropriate use of that kind of force. At the same time, you have Nixon’s drug war, which is authorizing narcotics officers—these aren’t SWAT teams, these are just undercover cops—to conduct these no-knock raids. They’re kicking down doors and really getting out of control raiding places without warrants and scaring the hell out of people. The two trends stay separate until the early ’80s, and that’s when they really converge in the Reagan administration, and you start to see SWAT teams being routinely—and today, primarily—used to serve search warrants suspected of drug crimes. The main difference here is instead of using violence to diffuse a violent situation, you’re using SWAT teams as an investigative tool on people who are still suspects. Before, you were using that kind of force on people who were in the process of committing crimes, or about to commit a crime. The primary ways SWAT teams are used today create violence and confrontation where there wasn’t any before. And that’s really a marked departure from the original intent.
In the past six or seven years, we’re starting to see SWAT teams move beyond the drug war; they’re raiding poker games, there’s stories of SWAT teams that have raided bars because they thought there was underage drinking going on; even enforcing regulatory laws—there was a series of SWAT raids a couple of years ago on barbershops where they were basically inspections to make sure the barbershops were properly licensed. This use of force that was once reserved for these very rare situations, when there were 200 or 300 SWAT raids across the country over an entire year, is now becoming the first option when it comes to enforcing search warrants or serving search warrants.
Beyond the stories that make national headlines like Matthew Stewart or Danielle Willard, do you think people are aware of this issue?
A couple of years ago, there was a SWAT raid in Columbia, Mo., that the police videotaped for training purposes, and the video made it online and went viral. The response was really fascinating. People were angry at what they saw—the police department got death threats, they had to shut down their phone lines. They were overwhelmed with protests and outrage. The thing about it was, there was nothing unusual about that raid. That was the same raid that’s conducted 100 to 150 times every day in this country. The only thing that was unusual about it, really, was that it as recorded and released. But the battering ram, and they shot a dog, and there was a kid inside they didn’t know about, and this being for basically for low-level pot offenses—all that was routine. What it says to me is that there are a lot of people who just aren’t aware of how the drug war is actually being fought on the ground.