Law Enforcement: SWAT Run Amok
from Drug War Chronicle, Issue #540, 6/20/08
Two recent incidents involving SWAT teams are adding fuel to the fire in the emerging controversy over the routine use of such paramilitarized police units to prosecute the drug war. In Chicago, the Chicago Police Department has been hit with a $10 million lawsuit over a September raid on a social club. Meanwhile, in Florida, the Pembroke Pines Police Department Special Response Team, a SWAT-style unit, shot and killed a 46-year-old homeowner in a dawn raid June 13 that netted a whopping three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana.
(There is even more trouble on the SWAT front. Read StoptheDrugWar.org blogger Scott Morgan's post about the murder prosecution of raid victim Derrick Foster and the killing of raid victim Ronald Terebesi, Jr., here. StoptheDrugWar.org is committed to ending these abuses. Sign our online petition here.)
In the Chicago raid, raw video of which is available here (part one) and here (part two), Chicago SWAT team officers dressed as if heading for combat in Baghdad hit the La Familia Motorcycle Club as it was being used for a birthday party. Officers exploded stun grenades, pointed assault weapons at people cowering in hallways, and, according to the attorney who filed the lawsuit, did so without producing a search warrant.
Attorney George Becker said police also stole $1,500 from amusement machines and $1,000 from a safe they broke open during the raid. Becker also said five women at the club were strip-searched by female officers in front of male officers and club patrons. Becker said those parts of the raid were not recorded because officers pointed surveillance cameras at the ceiling.
"It looked to me like the Chicago Police Department is engaging in military-type activity," said Becker after showing the raid video.
But police are unrepentant. "We believe the officers acted within department guidelines in executing the legal search warrant," Police Department spokeswoman Monique Bond said.
Although police said an informant had told them a shipment of drugs was destined for the building, they seized only a small quantity of drugs and one hand-gun. Two arrests were made -- one on a bond forfeiture warrant and one for reckless conduct.
Police in Pembroke Pines, Florida, are also unrepentant about their SWAT raid that left Victor Hodgkiss dead. Police have released few details about what exactly went down during the dawn raid, except to say they he was shot and killed after confronting them as they entered his home on a no-knock drug search warrant. The raid netted one arrest -- of the girlfriend of Hodgkiss's son, who was charged with possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana.
"We use SRT for all narcotics warrants," Pembroke Pines Deputy Police Chief David Golt told Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel columnist Mike Mayo, who wrote a scathing column denouncing the reflexive resort to SWAT-style tactics. "You never know what you're going to encounter."
As Mayo noted in his column: "In this case, a 46-year-old man with a concealed weapons permit and no record of violent crime encountered his demise in his home of 14 years."
Police did not say whether Hodgkiss was armed when he was shot, but they did say they recovered a weapon from the home.
The Hodgkiss killing bears eerie similarities with another Florida SWAT killing, the 2005 shooting death of Philip Diotaiuto, a 23-year-old bartender shot 10 times by officers after he grabbed a gun as they burst into his home in a dawn raid that netted little over an ounce of marijuana. No charges were ever filed against those officers, but a civil suit filed by Diotaiuto's family is pending.
In both cases, police were aware their target had a weapons permit and used that to justify their resort to SWAT team tactics. In both cases, people ended up being killed over trivial amounts of marijuana.
SWAT team policing excesses are nothing new, but seem to be on the upswing as the units, originally designed for hostage and other dangerous situations, are increasingly used routinely for drug search warrants and other law enforcement purposes. The Cato Institute's Radley Balko has compiled the primary source book for SWAT killings and other abuses, 2006's Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.