Kill zone

By Joel Miller

Editor’s note: Get Joel Miller’s new book, “Bad Trip: How the War Against Drugs is Destroying America” in ShopNetDaily.

Early on the morning of May 14, 2003, officers broke down the door to 68-year-old Timothy Brockman’s apartment, tossed in a stun grenade, blitzed the residence with guns, gas masks and shields and rousted the old man from bed. Surprisingly, no weapons or drugs were found in the possession of the former Marine and retired factory worker. But perhaps it wasn’t too surprising, considering the quality of the investigation.

As the New York Times reported, there was one informant who identified the wrong apartment building, another informant who didn’t really exist, confusion about the apartment address on top of the misidentified building, little or no double-checking of evidence, and no checking at all of various key assumptions. Still, armed with much more determination than preparation, the officers rushed in like the Delta Force of dope.

“They threw some kind bomb in here,” Brockman said after the raid. The flashbang grenade – designed to distract and immobilize residents – set fire to his carpet, and the concussive ruckus so terrified his neighbors that they split the building with their kids still decked in pajamas, fearing for their lives, thinking a terrorist had attacked their building.

Sadly, the war on drugs makes that assumption increasingly understandable.

On Nov. 20, 2002, for instance, three cousins – Salvador Huerta, Marcos Huerta and Vicente Huerta, all young men who worked at a San Antonio restaurant – were sitting around their apartment after work watching TV. Around 8 p.m. a dozen SWAT officers invaded the home, firing tear gas, allegedly shouting profanities and violently beating two of the men.

“We were kicked and punched at least 20 times,” said Salvador, who suffered a broken front tooth and a swollen face. Marcos’ face was cut and his head bruised. Vicente, the lucky one, didn’t stick around for his. He lit off instead of taking the boot. After a vain search for drugs and guns, the police realized they were at the wrong apartment. According to the San Antonio Express-News, “police apologized several times and went five apartments down and arrested two people. …”

In a more publicized case, while getting ready for her government job in downtown New York City the morning of May 16, 2003, Alberta Spruill walked into the main room of her Harlem apartment as a dozen officers from the city police’s Emergency Service Unit and regular patrol converged on her home. Told by a confidential informant they’d find a cache of guns and drugs, guarded by dogs, the ESU team battered open the front door and chucked a stun grenade into the room Spruill had just entered. The device exploded with a concussive, deafening bang above a glass-top table, instantly shattering it amid a blinding white flash. Then, with whip-sting speed, six tactical officers rushed the dwelling and handcuffed a coughing and screaming Spruill.

As operations go, up to this point the raid went flawlessly. But police were soon puzzled to find neither guns nor drugs in the home of the 57-year-old, churchgoing grandmother. The snarling guard dogs had apparently taken a powder as well. As it turned out, the informant had been less than accurate. The cops had the wrong apartment. But that didn’t stop Spruill from dying of a heart attack within hours of the raid – literally scared to death.

When the sheriff’s office of Preble County, Ohio, got word from an informant that residents of a rural farmhouse were peddling pot, it conducted a quick investigation and then sent its ESU team on a late-evening, no-knock raid. Because police thought there might be more than a dozen men at the farmhouse, they deployed a heavily armed team of 15. The result, besides what the Dayton Daily News referred to as “a small amount of marijuana, pipes and a bong, papers used in rolling the drug, and weapons,” was a dead suspect, Clayton J. Helriggle, who police shot as he came down the stairs with a 9mm handgun.

Helriggle’s mother admits it was regular practice for her son and the men at the house to smoke pot in the evening after work. But such a raid was hardly necessary. No evidence indicated a major commercial operation. Only a minute amount of marijuana was found, and in Ohio possessing less than 3.5 ounces is only an infraction – worth a $100 fine, not a lead deposit.

As for possession of weapons, it was a farmhouse. What farmhouse doesn’t have a few rifles and other firearms? Given that fact alone, Helriggle’s death is likely the police’s fault more than anything. When the police raid a house at twilight, it’s perfectly predictable that a suspect would pick up a gun and come down the stairs to face the intruders. Responsible homeowners and renters should be expected to defend their families and homes from invaders.

When John Adams was killed in a bollixed raid in Lebanon, Tenn., it was precisely his attempted defense of his wife and home that got him killed.

After hearing knocking at the door, John’s wife, Loraine, went to answer. There was no reply when she asked for identification. Instead, the door was kicked in and five officers stormed the house, immediately cuffing her. John wasn’t so fortunate. “I thought it was a home invasion,” said Loraine. “I said ‘Baby, get your gun!'” He did, and as cops rounded the corner into the room where he sat, they drilled John three times. He died later that night.

No drugs were found. The police got the wrong house – a pathetic mistake because it was one of only two dwellings on the block.

Just as bad and problematic as forcing such dangerous confrontations in the first place (especially when police are less than thorough in their investigations) is the fact that no-knocks often put people at incredible levels of risk for even meager drug busts.

In January 2003, for instance, police in Spokane, Wash., decided to raid a home based on the sale of a single $20 rock of cocaine, endangering not only the officers but also the three boys and a woman who lived there. Worse, they found no drugs. Getting the bust was so important that it was worth creating a life-threatening situation in which police stormed a home not even knowing that they’d find drugs inside. Picture it this way: Playing poker, a man slides a $20 crack rock into the pot; sitting across the table, the police see the bet and raise him a family.

Jesus and Wendy Olveda of Dalton, Wis., found themselves on the floor after black-clad police burst through the door – their 3-year-old girl left to watch in horror as her parents were cuffed on the ground. Wendy, five months pregnant, tried to inform the officers that they were in the wrong house, but no one listened. When she told officers she was pregnant, “they responded by pushing her head down on the ground in front of her daughter,” according to the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen. Jesus also tried to tell them they had the wrong house: “When I lifted my head to say they got the wrong address, one of them put a knee on my head and ground it into the floor.” They should have listened.

Officers found no drugs because the next-door neighbor was the actual target. Ironically, Wendy, a fifth-grade teacher, is a founding member of the local drug-prevention program. “This is a very traumatic experience for my whole family,” she later said. “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to sleep. How can such a thing happen to an innocent family?” It’s a question many are asking.

“Is it worth putting an entire family at risk for what is sometimes a small amount of drugs, or small-time dealers?” asks Peter Kraska, criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University. While his answer is clearly “no,” drug warriors seem to think the answer is “yes.” According to Kraska’s figures, between 1980 and 2000, deployment of tactical police increased more than 900 percent. Once a rarity, calling out SWAT for drug warrants has increased to the point that today it is routine, often no matter how small the reward.

As I point out in my new book “Bad Trip: How the War Against Drugs is Destroying America,” part of the problem is that the drug war has encouraged a change in the mindset of what constitutes good policing. Thorough investigation used to be paramount. No longer. In the new militarized style of policing, confrontation has replaced investigation. And the sudden door-kicking display of brute force is increasingly routine.

The big-gun approach was pioneered by Daryl Gates in the 1960s, who later became the celebrated Los Angeles chief of police (a position he held when he told a Senate committee that casual drug users should be rounded up and shot because “we’re in a war,” and even occasional use “is treason”). Within a few years, SWAT caught on across the country. Today, known variously as Emergency Services, Special Response, Tactical Operations, and Violent Crime Suppression Units, there are more than 30,000 such units operating in jurisdictions across the nation.

We can blame the twin catastrophes of the Johnson and Nixon administrations for the spread of SWAT teams. Johnson’s big-government schemes provided the funding for national SWAT outfitting, which Nixon then expanded along with the first federal provisions for no-knock drug raids, marrying for the first time highly militarized police teams and the legal weapon needed to kick down doors and swarm private homes.

No-knock was quite a departure from standard warrant service. For a search to be constitutionally kosher, it must abide by certain strictures. One of those is the knock-and-notice principle. As it is currently codified in U.S. law, “The officer may break open any outer or inner door or window of a house, or any part of a house, or anything therein, to execute a search warrant, if, after notice of his authority and purpose, he is refused admittance …” (emphasis added). In other words, police shouldn’t just blurt “Police!” and then go Dirty Harry on the door with a boot or battering ram. No-knock authority gets around that annoyance.

One more thing was needed to bring us to the tragic situation we find ourselves in today – the blurring line between military and law enforcement.

Today, SWAT officers dress more like soldiers than police. They come decked in ballistic helmets, in all-black fatigues or cammies, sometimes schlepping ballistic shields.

Police are also armed more like soldiers, using surplus military equipment and sporting military or military-like weaponry, including Colt-made M-16s and AR-15s, Ruger Mini 14s, Steyr AUGs, Ingram MAC 10s, and, most popular, Heckler and Koch MP-5s. Says tactical policing expert Capt. Robert L. Snow, these automatic-fire assault rifles and submachine guns “are favored because they are compact, reliable, and very accurate. SWAT teams also like them because they can be set to fire a single shot, set to fire two or three shot bursts, or set on automatic fire.”

Much of this equipment comes from the U.S. government. The flow started in 1981 with the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Officials Act, which “encouraged the military to (a) make available equipment, military bases, and research facilities to federal, state, and local police; (b) train and advise civilian police on the use of the equipment; and (c) assist law enforcement personnel in keeping drugs from entering the country,” writes Diane Cecelia Weber in a Cato Institute briefing paper, “Warrior Cops.”

Previously, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 proscribed such transfers, but in 1987 Congress again worked to make it easier for local police departments to score military hardware with a more streamlined process. Six years later, in 1993, Congress ordered the Department of Defense to get the lead out on such transfers, ordering the sale of surplus equipment for anti-narcotics purposes.

The results have been profound. “Between 1995 and 1997 the Department of Defense gave police departments 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers. The Los Angeles Police Department has acquired 600 Army surplus M-16s,” writes Weber. Given that SWAT was born in the City of Angels, maybe that last bit isn’t too surprising, but the militarism trend is national. “Even small-town police departments are getting into the act. The seven-officer department in Jasper, Florida, is now equipped with fully automatic M-16s.”

The H&K MP-5 machine pistol, notes David B. Kopel of the Denver, Colo.-based Independence Institute, is usually purchased by police rather than donated. “These weapons are sold almost exclusively to the military and police. The 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.”

One example of H&K ad copy Kopel provides: “From the Gulf War to the Drug War.”

“When a weapon’s advertising and styling deliberately blur the line between warfare and law enforcement, it is not unreasonable to expect that some officers – especially when under stress – will start behaving as if they were in the military,” says Kopel.

The problem goes back to the metaphor itself. War and policing are vastly different. In common parlance the military’s job is to kill people and break things. As Reagan administration Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb puts it, soldiers are supposed to “vaporize, not ‘Mirandize.'” On the other hand, police are trained to solve problems with scrupulous attention to suspects’ civil rights and with a multitude of solutions, lethal violence being the last rung on the escalating ladder of force. No-knock raids race up the ladder, going straight to the threat of lethal force.

Some police chiefs recognize the contradiction in roles and the danger of mixing them. “I was offered tanks, bazookas, anything I wanted,” said Nick Pastore, former police chief in New Haven, Conn. Pastore said he “turned it all down because it feeds a mindset that you’re not a police officer serving a community, you’re a soldier at war.”

It’s a terrible shame, really. People still have a lot of faith in the police and want to feel as if they can trust them.

“The police – they’re all right with me,” said the good-natured Timothy Brockman after the bungled raid on his apartment. Occasionally suffering from seizures, the elderly man is grateful when officers are out and about and can help him up when he falls afflicted in the street. “You have people who say, ‘The police are dirty, this and that.’ I can’t find any fault with them that I know of. They got a job to do. But I don’t know why they came and broke into my house,” he said, betraying at least a slight fracturing of his faith.

“I don’t see any right in that. If they have me under surveillance, they would watch me and see who’s coming in and out. Not to come in like storm troopers.”

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