While it may not make front page news every day, the war on drugs is as serious as ever. Even small town SWAT teams are more outfitted than ever before in history, including with heavy equipment like the Cult Submachine Guns and light-mounted AR-15s. Teams resemble a small army moving in on a drug bust, and, as a New York Times investigative report suggests, raids leave behind a trail of blood.
SWAT raids kill
Picture this: you’ve been growing or selling some cannabis or another illicit substance. One night, while you’re home in your bed, you hear a loud banging at the door and suddenly find a room full of cops in full gear, yelling, all with semi-automatic weapons and Glock .40 caliber sidearms pointed your head.
Police officials can allow a no-knock, full SWAT search for even small drug offenses, such as selling $50 worth of methamphetamine in your front yard. This is what happened one family in Cornella, Georgia after one household member accidentally sold the drug to an informant back in 2014.
As the New York Times reports, the police attacked the single story farmhouse at 2:15 am on a May night. The night started when Deputy Jason Stribling took a sledgehammer to a locked side entry way, while shouting that he had a search warrant.
Following protocol, one of the other deputies pulled a flash grenade and launched it into the house. What happened next is absolutely devastating Unbeknownst to him, the officer through the grenade directly into a child’s playpen. Inside the playpen slept 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh.
The baby suffered severe burns and was rushed to the emergency room. The grenade blew a hole through his playpen and melted his pillow. To this day, Bounkham still experiences traumatic nightmares of the event, where he almost died. In another case, police officers shot and killed Todd Blaire of Utah who, startled, grabbed a golf club for self-defense after hearing intruders in his home.
State and federal government agencies do not require reporting on SWAT raids, meaning that much of the devastation of these raids goes unreported. However, The New York Times searched through open records on SWAT raids from 2010 to 2016.
In six years, at least 81 civilians and 13 members of law enforcement were killed during forcible-entry SWAT raids. Of the 81 civilian deaths, half were from minority groups.
This does not count the scores of victims on both sides who were injured during the search and seizure. Sometimes, SWAT teams raid the wrong house. One such occasion cost the life of a 7-year-old girl in Detroit.
What’s so different about SWAT raids?
By November of 2016, fatal police shootings were up 50 percent from the year before. SWAT fatalities make up a small percentage of the overall number of fatal police shootings in the United States. Yet, as NYT points out, SWAT fatalities are a beast of their own.
Author Kevin Sack reports that SWAT raids are the only common police altercation that are initiated by the police themselves. Many are conducted late at night, using the element of surprise to police advantage. Similar techniques are used by the military when appending enemy forces.
Drug crimes are not capital offenses, so it is unclear why this level of response is standard for drug cases. In many instances, those guilty of non-violent drug crimes are met with a greater police force than violent criminals.
Further, there are a lot of areas where SWAT raids can go wrong, increasing the chance of an accident. Some of these include,
- Wrong address
- Unreliable informants
- Lack of oversight
- Failure to knock
To make matters even worse, SWAT raids disproportionately affect minority communities. A recent ACLU report found that 42 percent of raids in 20 U.S. towns were in Black and 12 percent were in Hispanic communities.
A need for reform
Unfortunately, only the state of Oregon has banned no-knock SWAT raids. A Florida supreme court has also disallowed no-knock warrants, and the state of Utah has banned forced entry for drug charges. However, it’s obvious that more reform is sorely needed.
Surprise, forced, and armed entry into someone’s home is a recipe for disaster on all accounts. Yet, forceful search and seizures are carried out an estimated 124 times every single day.
The only way to protect the lives of police officers, innocents, and drug offenders awaiting due processes of the law is to end the war on drugs.
While complete reform of the way U.S. drug cases are handled would be a major ask for state and federal governments, exploring alternate search and seizure protocols could save lives, prevent traumas, and avoid community alienation.