When local cops drive tanks: The deadly consequences of militarizing Mayberry

Equipping police with weapons of war doesn't make communities safer

Published October 21, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
(AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

Excerpted with permission from "I'm From the Government and I'm Here to Kill Your" by David T. Hardy. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

Everything was done right, except it was the wrong apartment.

—A Boston police source, after a SWAT raid killed a seventy-five-year-old retired minister

If I’d been here and heard that [the SWAT raid on his house] going on, I probably would have taken my pistol and shot through the door. I’d probably be dead. And some of the officers would probably be dead, too.

—Tyrone Echols, Mayor of Venice, Illinois

The invention of the law enforcement SWAT concept traces to the late Daryl Gates, the controversial head of the Los Angeles Police Department who seemed to think there was no such thing as excessive force and once told the Senate Judiciary Committee that casual drug users should be “taken out and shot.” Gates’s brainchild was a civilian police unit that was given special training and military weaponry, and was intended to be used in high-speed storming of hostage and other barricade situations. The unit was initially to be termed the Special Weapons Assault Team until it was pointed out that “assault” in a police unit’s name would be bad public relations. The unit’s name instead became the Special Weapons and Tactics unit, SWAT.

At the state and local level, the concept of SWAT units quickly spread, probably aided by the understanding that getting paid to practice with machine guns, armored vehicles, and high-tech instruments was an attractive job description. Even small-town forces soon had SWAT teams—the “militarizing of Mayberry” some termed it. John Fund, writing in National Review, noted: “By 2005, at least 80 percent of towns with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 people had their own SWAT team.”

Few would complain if this approach were used only where it was originally intended: against dangerous criminals in barricade situations, where there was no alternative to the sudden use of overwhelming force. But such uses are rare, and thus mission creep has become the rule. As John Fund continues, “the number of raids conducted by local police SWAT teams has gone from 3,000 a year in the 1980s to over 50,000 a year today.”

Such SWAT deployments in routine searches and law enforcement often bear tragic results.

May 5, 2011, Tucson, Arizona

Jose Guerena was sound asleep; the Marine veteran had finished working his graveyard shift in the copper mines a couple of hours before. He awakened to the sound of explosions and the terrified screams of his wife, Vanessa, that there were people in the yard with guns.

“Take the boy and get in the closet, get in the closet,” he called as he grabbed his AR-15, emerging from his bedroom in time to see his front door smashed open and a crowd of armed men standing outside. One began to enter.

The strangers were an ad-hoc SWAT team of officers from four agencies. They had a search warrant for the Guerena house but no arrest warrants. They suspected that some of Guerena’s relatives were dealing in marijuana and that he might have some evidence.

The team’s briefing had included assurances that “this family has a history of violence to include kidnapping and homicide.” The briefer neglected to say that the history consisted of Guerena’s relatives having been crime victims.

Guerena stood with his AR-15’s safety set to “safe,” as he tried to make sense of the situation. Armed men in dark-green outfits and helmets smashing his door and entering his house?

The officer in the lead, seeing that Guerena had a rifle, halted and began to step backward. He tripped over the man behind him and fell. He had his finger on the trigger, and his gun fired.

The rest of the team heard the shot and saw him fall. Reflexively, they assumed that Guerena had shot the fallen man and went into an “empty your magazines” drill. Those who were outside packed into the doorway to add their firepower. Four men fired seventy-one shots in a matter of seconds; twenty-two hit Guerena.

Vanessa left the closet and tried to talk to her husband, who did not respond. She called 911 as their son pleaded, “Mom, what’s happened to my dad?”

The 911 call was futile; the SWAT team had retreated and did not know if Guerena was alive or dead. They held the ambulance at bay for more than an hour while they brought in a bomb-deactivation robot and sent it in to locate his body. The search revealed nothing illegal, and they retrieved Guerena’s rifle with its safety still on.

January 25, 1994, Stockton, California

At 2:00 a.m., retiree Manuel Medina Ramirez was awakened by armed men breaking down his door. He drew his bedside pistol and fired at the invaders. One fell, but the other police opened fire on Ramirez, who died at a local hospital. The intruder who fell was Officer Arthur Parga. He too died, leaving behind a pregnant wife and five-year-old son.

The motive for a violent raid: Ramirez had let a friend use his (Ramirez’s) address to obtain a driver’s license. When the friend was arrested with five pounds of marijuana, police had assumed that the address shown on the license was a drug stash house. A search of the house found no drugs.

March 25, 1994, Boston, Massachusetts

Rev. Accelyne Williams, a seventy-five-year-old retired Methodist minister, died of a heart attack after thirteen heavily armed police used sledgehammers to break into his apartment, then broke down his bedroom door, wrestled him to the floor, and handcuffed him.

A reportedly intoxicated informant had told police the apartment was full of drugs and guns. The search found nothing illegal.

August 2, 2008, Berwyn Heights, Maryland

Cheye Calvo, Mayor of Berwyn Heights, recalled his experience:

I remember thinking, as I knelt at gunpoint with my hands bound on my living room floor, that there had been a terrible, terrible mistake.

An errant Prince George’s County SWAT team had just forced its way into our home, shot dead our two black Labradors, Payton and Chase, and started ransacking our belongings as part of what would become a four-hour ordeal. . . .

I remain captured by the broader implications of the incident. Namely, that my initial take was wrong: It was no accident but rather business as usual that brought the police to—and through—our front door.

Prince George’s County Sheriff’s deputies had kicked down the Mayor’s door, shot his dogs, and held the Mayor and his mother-in-law at gunpoint. The reason for the search: a marijuana sales ring had come up with a novel way to move its product. They would ship the pot via FedEx to innocent persons, and a confederate who delivered for FedEx would skim off the packages and keep them. Police had intercepted a box of pot addressed to the Mayor.

May 16, 2010, Detroit, Michigan

Detroit’s Police Special Response Team raided seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones’s grandmother’s house looking for a male suspect, who in fact lived in a different apartment. The team was accompanied by a film crew for the A&E series "The First 48," recording the raid for the television show. The team opened by throwing a flash-bang grenade (a beer can–sized firecracker designed to give a blinding flash and stunning concussion). It landed near and burned Aiyana; a member of the raid party then accidentally shot her to death.

Danger and adrenalin do not make for safe gun handling. In 1989, police mistook the sound of exploding flash-bangs for gunfire and fatally shot twenty-year-old Dexter Herbert. The same year saw police sergeant Mark Murphy shot in the head by a fellow officer during a SWAT raid, and Irvington, New York, police officer Keith Neumann was killed by “friendly fire” during a search that recovered an eighth of an ounce of cocaine. In a 2000 drug raid, the SWAT team ordered three children to lie on the floor, and for unknown reasons kept their guns aimed at them. An officer accidentally fired his shotgun, killing eleven-year-old Alberto Sepulveda.

March 10, 2011, Phoenix, Arizona

Sheriff Joe Arpaio had obtained five armored vehicles from the military. He let actor Steven Seagal command an enormous self-propelled 155 mm howitzer (which looks like a tank on steroids)—and take it on a SWAT raid against the home of Jesus Sanchez Llovera. Seagal crashed it through the wall surrounding the house. The SWAT team went in, bashed in the door of the house, and arrested Llovera. The criminal charge that required such a raid? Organizing cockfights. Llovera ultimately pled guilty to a misdemeanor.

In 2011, after waiting four hours for treatment in a Veterans Administration hospital, a sixty-five-year-old vet decided to go to a different hospital. A nurse informed him he was “not authorized” to leave, and when he insisted, she called in the VA police. (Yes, the VA has its own police.) They tackled him, threw him down, and pinned him with a knee in his back and a boot on his neck. The latter caused a split in a neck artery, which killed him. A doctor informed his wife that he had fallen and suffered a stroke, and reported his death as natural.

January 28, 2012, Fitchburg, Massachusetts

Judy Sanchez was awakened by a pounding on her apartment door. Then a chain saw began cutting through the door, and armed men entered, shouting, “FBI, get down!” She lay down and they proceeded to search her apartment while her three-year-old daughter cried in terror for her. After half an hour, one agent noticed that the search warrant was for apartment 2F, but they had sawed their way into apartment 2R. They instructed Sanchez on how her landlord could get reimbursement for a new door and left.

May 28, 2014, Cornelia, Georgia

Police obtained a search warrant claiming that a reliable informant told them he’d bought a small quantity of meth from Wanis Thonetheva. The SWAT team sent to execute the search warrant threw in a flash-bang grenade. The grenade landed in the crib of an eighteen-month-old child, blew off the child’s nose, and inflicted third-degree burns. A team member was later charged with lying to obtain the search warrant: the tip had not come from a reliable informant but from someone she barely knew.

* * *

These are not rare, isolated cases. There is a simple indication that such fouled-up SWAT raids occur with frequency. Performing a Google search for “botched swat raid” will turn up 1,390 hits (and 58,000 if the words are not put in quotation marks).

How did we get to a situation where we tolerate outright attacks on American citizens on American soil—and indulge them until they are almost commonplace? One study of seventy-nine SWAT deployments in Massachusetts found that only ten involved barricaded and nonsuicidal subjects. The remaining seven-eighths involved drug searches, routine patrol, or—oddly—responses to suicide threats.

Another study of eight hundred SWAT deployments nationwide found that that only 7 percent involved barricade, hostage, or active shooter situations; 62 percent were drug searches, two-thirds of which involved use of battering rams or other forced entry. Search warrants that not long ago would have been served by uniformed officers and a knock on the door are now being served by black-clad teams with battering rams and assault rifles. Investigative journalist Radley Balko, in his book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces," calculates that the average annual number of SWAT team deployments rose from thirteen per team in 1986 to fifty-five in 1995, a rise of 423 percent in nine years.

Of still greater concern is that nearly half of departments have used SWAT in crime prevention—that is, not to apprehend lawbreakers, but to try to intimidate the locals into following the law. A representative of an unnamed “highly acclaimed” police department explained to researchers:

We’re into saturation patrols in hot spots. We do a lot of our work with the SWAT unit because they have bigger guns. We send out two, two-to-four men cars, we look for minor violations and do jump-outs, either on people on the street or automobiles. After we jump-out, the second car provides peripheral cover with an ostentatious display of weaponry. We’re sending a clear message: if the shootings don’t stop, we’ll shoot someone.

Quite an original approach to preventing shootings!

Federal Agencies Go SWAT

The FBI was the first federal agency to form a SWAT unit, and by the 1990s, each of its fifty-six Field Offices had its own team. Other agencies rapidly followed suit. The Marshals Service had its Special Operations Group; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had a Special Response Team; and so on. By the late 1990s, if an agency still did not have its own paramilitary unit, it simply didn’t rate.

Between 1996 and 2008, the number of federal nonmilitary employees authorized to carry guns increased from 74,000 to 120,000.25 By 2016, the number had expanded to 200,000. Federal law enforcement officers now outnumber the United States Marine Corps. This expansion is all the more remarkable when we reflect that serious violent crime—murder, rape, robbery, assault—is primarily a state and local concern; only rarely do these offenses violate federal law.

Even agencies that were not charged with apprehending violent criminals began arming as if they were pursuing terrorists or drug cartels. Soon journalists were wondering:

Why does the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) need submachine guns? The agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) is seeking .40 Caliber semiautomatic submachine guns.

Earlier this year, the US Postal Service listed a similar notice on its website, soliciting proposals for assorted small arms ammunition. And the Social Security Administration put in a request for 174,000 rounds of hollow-point bullets, shortly after the USDA requested 320,000 rounds about a year ago. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service, also requested 46,000 rounds.

The ammunitions purchases are to supply dozens of federal agencies which, in the years since 9/11, have acquired Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams to enforce the inflating definition of their missions. The Department of Agriculture, the Railroad Retirement Board, the Office of Personnel Management, the Labor Department, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are just some of the federal agencies that have their own SWAT units.

Why does every federal agency need a SWAT team? For the same reason that every government building needs to be hypersecure: agency prestige. To lack tight building security would be to admit that no terrorist would waste explosives on the Council on Environmental Quality, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. By the same token, to have no SWAT team is to admit that the offenders your agency pursues aren’t particularly nasty characters.

The federal Byrne grant program exacerbates the problem of militarized policing. The program awards grant monies based on matters such as numbers of drug-related arrests and numbers of drug seizures. As Radley Balko notes, “The grants reward police departments for making lots of . . . arrests (i.e., low-level drug offenders), and lots of seizures (regardless of size) and for serving lots of warrants. . . . Whether any of that actually reduces crime or makes the community safer is irrelevant . . .”

Federal Aid Encourages the Militarization of Local Police

Much of this militarization of law enforcement is the product of a 1994 federal program that was consciously designed to encourage such militarization. Under that program, the Justice Department and the Pentagon were jointly given $37.5 million to promote law enforcement use of military weapons. One purpose of the program was to open new markets for defense contractors, whose industry was declining after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Where President Dwight D. Eisenhower once warned of the “military-industrial complex” and of its “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power,” we might today have the same concern over an apparent military-industrial-law enforcement complex.

In 2014, a black teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The result was rioting, and police responded with armored vehicles and other military equipment. The public for the first time began to hear of the federal “1033 Program.” The program is established by section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act31 and authorizes the Defense Department to transfer military items to federal and local law enforcement, provided that the items are “excess” to the needs of the Defense Department and “suitable for use by the agencies in law enforcement activities, including counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities.” Weaponry—firearms, tanks, etc.—cannot be transferred legally so it is regarded as loaned property. No fewer than eleven thousand state and local agencies are registered to use the program, and about eight thousand of them are active users.

The 1033 Program, one might say, exists to put the “war” in the “War on Drugs.” The Defense Department appears to have taken a rather relaxed stance on the question of what is “excess” and “suitable for use . . . in law enforcement activities.”

This is no small program and one has to wonder if it makes the world a safer place. In 2013 alone, the Pentagon transferred half a billion dollars’ worth of equipment to law enforcement agencies.34 A broader study of transfers between 2006 and mid-2014 found that the Defense Department had passed out:

  • 50 airplanes, including 27 cargo transport aircraft
  • 79,288 assault rifles
  • 11,959 bayonets
  • 479 bomb detonator robots
  • 3,972 combat knives
  • 205 grenade launchers
  • 422 helicopters
  • $124 million worth of night-vision equipment, including night-vision sniper scopes.

Los Angeles area law enforcement alone received 3,452 firearms. Quite a few MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles) were passed out as well, sticker price $733,000 each. It is unclear why any domestic law enforcement agency would need M16s that fire twelve to fifteen rounds per second or bayonets, let alone mine-resistant ambush-protected armored vehicles.

Federal programs such as the Byrne grants distort local police decision making. Investigative journalist Radley Balko cites the case of a small police department where the sex crimes unit had to struggle for financing, but the SWAT team and drug units were “always flush with money.”

The recipients of the arms were as remarkable as the program:

The 67 police officers of Johnston, Rhode Island, (population 29,000) got ten tactical trucks and 35 assault rifles. Or the security guards of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences signed up for eight rifles and four shotguns, and the campus police at Florida International received 50 M-16 rifles and a mine-resistant vehicle (MRAP).

Are things so bad along the banks of the Missouri River that the town of Yankton (population 14,500) really needs a robot, a grenade launcher, 14 reflex sights, and a pair of riot guns from the U.S. military?

But the town of Mitchell (population 15,500) is listed with $733,000 worth of equipment. The sheriff of Codington County (population 27,500) with $415,400. And when we reach the South Dakota Highway Patrol, headed by Colonel Craig Price, things get wildly out of hand: $2.7 million worth of full-tracked carriers, armored trucks, grenade launchers, and other equipment. Robots, riot guns, night sights, a military helicopter: the Highway Patrol has you covered if war breaks out in the Bad Lands and the Black Hills.

Navajo County, Arizona, experienced zero murders and one armed robbery in 2014, but was given one MRAP vehicle, three other armored vehicles, and twenty-four assault rifles. Wasatch County, Utah, which experienced no murders and no robberies, received an MRAP and fifteen M16s. Where there actually was some crime to be found, the equipment totals were quite impressive. Five counties in the Los Angeles urban area (Los Angeles, Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, and Ventura) sought and received 4,854 night-vision devices; 3,851 M16s; 27 helicopters; 7 armored vehicles; and 5 grenade launchers.

The 1033 Program is actually but a part of the whole picture. The Department of Homeland Security has been issuing grants to local law enforcement to finance their militarization, a program that today “dwarfs the 1033 program.” In 2011, it was estimated that over the past decade DHS had issued no less than $34 billion in grants for this purpose, which underwrote the purchase of everything from assault rifles to armored vehicles.

Schools Get Military Equipment

The Chronicle of Higher Education found that many university police departments were joining the law enforcement arms race; 124 colleges and universities obtained material through the 1033 Program. Half had acquired M16s, fully automatic assault rifles. Arizona State University had the most, seventy, while the University of Maryland and Florida International University had fifty each.

Even K-12 school security wanted to be able to rock-and-roll with M16s:

Texas and California top the list of states in which school districts are known to have received weapons, with 10 districts in Texas having received a total of 82 M-16 and M-14 rifles, 25 automatic pistols and 45,000 rounds of ammunition, and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) receiving 61 M-16 rifles, three grenade launchers and an MRAP.

Gone are the days when elementary school teachers kept classroom order with deadly rulers—today they can draw M16s and grenade launchers from the school armory!

Law Enforcement Militarization: The Larger Picture

Ever since the concept of professional policing arose in the nineteenth century, the American approach has been to draw a clear line between military and police functions, training, and thinking. This was a practical separation: the military is fundamentally aimed at the enemy with an objective to break things and kill people; the police are aimed at erring citizens with an objective to bring them into compliance with the law. Over the past few decades the two functions have moved toward a merger. The military function is seen as bringing the enemy (the word itself has vanished from our discourse, now they are “insurgents” or “fighters”) to “justice.” The police function, in contrast, is increasingly seen as obtaining compliance by intimidation and overt use of force. The confusion of the two functions is neither practical nor politically healthy and leads to a government that is more dangerous and intimidating to its own citizens than to its enemies.

The military function is one that is especially dangerous, and thus we have for centuries kept it under the tightest of controls. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the military has kept itself under those controls. The military world is bound by concepts of honor, duty, obedience, and submission to civilian control. There is a considerable danger that civilian agencies may take on the military’s weapons and tactics without acquiring these restraining factors. We need look no farther than the tragedies at Waco and at Ruby Ridge to see the reality of this danger. To have the weapons of war carried by those who lack the military’s restraining ethos is to create a dangerous imbalance between power and responsibility, and to make the United States a more dangerous place.

By David T. Hardy

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