"They Throw Kids on the Ground, Put Guns to Their Heads" -- The Horrors Unleashed by Police Militarization
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EARLY IN THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 13, 2000, AGENTS from the DEA, the FBI, and a Stanislaus County, California, narcotics task force conducted raids on fourteen homes in and around Modesto—the culmination of a nineteen-month investigation. One of the homes was that of Moises Sepulveda and his family. According to the Los Angeles Times, the DEA and FBI asked that the local SWAT teams enter each home unannounced in order to secure the area ahead of the federal agents, who would then come to serve the warrants and search for evidence. Federal agents warned the SWAT teams that the targets of the warrants should be considered armed and dangerous. When local police asked if there were any children in the Sepulveda home, the feds answered, “Not aware of any.”
There were. Moises Sepulveda had three children—a daughter and two sons. After the police forcibly entered the Sepulveda home, Moises, his wife, and his children were ordered to lie face-down on the floor with their arms outstretched. They were then told to remain still as officers pointed guns at their heads. Eleven-year-old Alberto was doing just that—lying still under the gun of Officer David Hawn. But shortly after the raid began, Hawn’s gun went off. The boy died instantly.
There were no drugs or guns in the Sepulveda home. A subsequent internal investigation by the Modesto Police Department found that the DEA’s evidence against Moises Sepulveda—who had no previous criminal record—was “minimal.” The city of Modesto and the federal government settled a lawsuit brought by the Sepulvedas for the death of their son for $3 million.
In response to the incident, California attorney general Bill Lockyer assembled a blue ribbon commission to review the procedures, guidelines, and performance of the state’s hundreds of SWAT teams.
The Modesto Bee reported in 2001 that the commission would look at the way SWAT teams were deployed, the use of intimidating clothing and equipment, and, in the words of one commissioner, the “overbearing-type attitudes” of SWAT teams.
Unsurprisingly, the commission found that while SWAT teams were generally justified, defended, and regarded as responders to emergency situations like hostage crises and terror attacks, they were most commonly being used to serve drug warrants. Nevertheless, the panel’s final recommendations did little to address the number of SWAT teams, how they were being used, or police militarism in general. The panel’s chief complaint was that SWAT teams were undertrained and underfunded, suggesting that local, state, and federal government should be throwing more funding and resources at SWAT teams, not less. The other recommendations consisted largely of standardizing procedures, definitions, and guidelines and communicating better with the public. The commission didn’t address any of the more urgent problems that had plagued the state’s SWAT teams over the previous twenty years, such as SWAT teams launching raids based on uncorroborated tips from informants, asset forfeiture incentivizing the use of aggressive policing, or prosecutors and judges neglecting their duty to scrutinize the warrants authorizing these violent raids.
In the end, even if every SWAT team in the state had implemented the panel’s recommendations (and they were by no means obligated to), it’s unlikely that much would have changed. In fact, if the suggestions had been implemented in the 1990s, it seems unlikely that they would have prevented the death of Alberto Sepulveda, the reason for Lockyer’s panel in the first place.
Back in the early 1970s, nationwide outrage over a series of wrong-door drug raids had inspired furious politicians to hastily call congressional hearings; as a consequence, the law that had authorized those raids was repealed. Now, in 2000, an eleven-year-old boy had just been obliterated at close range with a shotgun as his parents and siblings lay on the ground beside him. And even that wasn’t enough to stop his own town from discontinuing the aggressive tactics that caused his death. The mistakes, the terrorizing of innocents, and the unnecessary fatalities would continue.