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"They Throw Kids on the Ground, Put Guns to Their Heads" -- The Horrors Unleashed by Police Militarization

SWAT teams burst through doors armed to the teeth, terrifying (and killing) children. How did we get here?
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP: The Militarization of America's Police Forces by Radley Balko.  Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs Books.

Betty Taylor still remembers the night it all hit her.

As a child, Taylor had always been taught that police officers were the good guys. She learned to respect law enforcement, as she puts it, “all the time, all the way.” She went on to become a cop because she wanted to help people, and that’s what cops did. She wanted to fight sexual assault, particularly predators who take advantage of children. To go into law enforcement—to become one of the good guys—seemed like the best way to accomplish that. By the late 1990s, she’d risen to the rank of detective in the sheriff’s department of Lincoln County, Missouri—a sparsely populated farming community about an hour northwest of St. Louis. She eventually started a sex crimes unit within the department. But it was a small department with a tight budget. When she couldn’t get the money she needed, Taylor was forced to give speeches and write her own proposals to keep her program operating.

What troubled her was that while the sex crimes unit had to find funding on its own, the SWAT team was always flush with cash. “The SWAT team, the drug guys, they always had money,” Taylor says. “There were always state and federal grants for drug raids. There was always funding through asset forfeiture.” Taylor never quite understood that disparity. “When you think about the collateral effects of a sex crime, of how it can affect an entire family, an entire community, it just didn’t make sense. The drug users weren’t really harming anyone but themselves. Even the dealers, I found much of the time they were just people with little money, just trying to get by.”

The SWAT team eventually co-opted her as a member. As the only woman in the department, she was asked to go along on drug raids in the event there were any children inside. “The perimeter team would go in first. They’d throw all of the adults on the floor until they had secured the building. Sometimes the kids too. Then they’d put the kids in a room by themselves, and the search team would go in. They’d come to me, point to where the kids were, and say, ‘You deal with them.’” Taylor would then stay with the children until family services arrived, at which point they’d be placed with a relative.

Taylor’s moment of clarity came during a raid on an autumn evening in November 2000. Narcotics investigators had made a controlled drug buy a few hours earlier and were laying plans to raid the suspect’s home. “The drug buy was in town, not at the home,” Taylor says. “But they’d always raid the house anyway. They could never just arrest the guy on the street. They always had to kick down doors.” With just three hours between the drug buy and the raid, the police hadn’t done much surveillance at all. The SWAT team would often avoid raiding a house if they knew there were children inside, but Taylor was troubled by how little effort they put into seeking out that sort of information. “Three hours is nowhere near enough time to investigate your suspect, to find out who might be inside the house. It just isn’t enough time for you to know the range of things that could happen.”

That afternoon the police had bought drugs from the stepfather of two children, ages eight and six. Both were in the house at the time of the raid. The stepfather wasn’t.

“They did their thing,” Taylor says. “Everybody on the floor, guns and yelling. Then they put the two kids in the bedroom, did their search, then sent me in to take care of the kids.”

Taylor made her way inside to see them. When she opened the door, the eight-year-old girl assumed a defense posture, putting her- self between Taylor and her little brother. She looked at Taylor and said, half fearful, half angry, “What are you going to do to us?”

Taylor was shattered. “Here I come in with all my SWAT gear on, dressed in armor from head to toe, and this little girl looks up at me, and her only thought is to defend her little brother. I thought, How can we be the good guys when we come into the house looking like this, screaming and pointing guns at the people they love? How can we be the good guys when a little girl looks up at me and wants to fight me?And for what? What were we accomplishing with all of this? Absolutely nothing.”

Taylor was later appointed police chief of the small town of Winfield, Missouri. Winfield was too small for its own SWAT team, even in the 2000s, but Taylor says she’d have quit before she ever created one. “Good police work has nothing to do with dressing up in black and breaking into houses in the middle of the night. And the mentality changes when they get put on the SWAT team. I remember a guy I was good friends with, it just completely changed him. The us-versus-them mentality takes over. You see that mentality in regular patrol officers too. But it’s much, much worse on the SWAT team. They’re more concerned with the drugs than they are with innocent bystanders. Because when you get into that mentality, there are no innocent people. There’s us and there’s the enemy. Children and dogs are always the easiest casualties.”

Taylor recently ran into the little girl who changed the way she thought about policing. Now in her twenties, the girl told Taylor that she and her brother had nightmares for years after the raid. They slept in the same bed until the boy was eleven. “That was a difficult day at work for me,” she says. “But for her, this was the most traumatic, defining moment of this girl’s life. Do you know what we found? We didn’t find any weapons. No big drug operation. We found three joints and a pipe.”1

***

POLICE MILITARIZATION WOULD ACCELERATE IN THE 2000S. The first half of the decade brought a new and lucrative source of funding and equipment: homeland security. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, the federal government opened a new spigot of funding in the name of fighting terror. Terrorism would also provide new excuses for police agencies across the country to build up their arsenals and for yet smaller towns to start up yet more SWAT teams. The second half of the decade also saw more mission creep for SWAT teams and more pronounced militarization even outside of drug policing. The 1990s trend of government officials using paramilitary tactics and heavy- handed force to make political statements or to make an example of certain classes of nonviolent offenders would continue, especially in response to political protests. The battle gear and aggressive policing would also start to move into more mundane crimes—SWAT teams have recently been used even for regulatory inspections.

But the last few years have also seen some trends that could spur some movement toward reform. Technological advances in personal electronic devices have armed a large percentage of the public with the power to hold police more accountable with video and audio recordings. The rise of social media has enabled citizens to get accounts of police abuses out and quickly disseminated. This has led to more widespread coverage of botched raids and spread awareness of how, how often, and for what purpose this sort of force is being used. Over just the six years I’ve been covering this issue, I’ve noticed that media accounts of drug raids have become less deferential to police. Reporters have become more willing to ask questions about the appropriateness of police tactics and more likely to look at how a given raid fits into broader policing trends, both locally and nationally. Internet commenters on articles about incidents in which police may have used excessive force also seem to have grown more skeptical about police actions, particularly in botched drug raids.

It’s taken nearly a half-century to get from those Supreme Court decisions in the mid-1960s to where we are today—police militarization has happened gradually, over decades. We tend not to take notice of such long-developing trends, even when they directly affect us. The first and perhaps largest barrier to halting police militarization has probably been awareness. And that at least seems to be changing. Whether it leads to any substantive change may be the theme of the current decade.

***

BY THE MID-1990S, THE BYRNE GRANT PROGRAM CONGRESS had started in 1988 had pushed police departments across the country to prioritize drug crimes over other investigations. When applying for grants, departments are rewarded with funding for statistics such as the number of overall arrests, the number of warrants served, or the number of drug seizures. Those priorities, then, are passed down to police officers themselves and are reflected in how they’re evaluated, reviewed, and promoted. Perversely, actual success in reducing crime is generally not rewarded with federal money, on the presumption that the money ought to go where it’s most needed—high-crime areas. So the grants reward police departments for making lots of easy arrests (i.e., low-level drug offenders) and lots of seizures (regardless of size), and for serving lots of warrants. When it comes to tapping into federal funds, whether any of that actually reduces crime or makes the community safer is irrelevant—and in fact, successfully fighting crime could hurt a department’s ability to rake in federal money.

But the most harmful product of the Byrne grant program may be its creation of hundreds of regional and multijurisdictional narcotics task forces. That term—“narcotics task force”—pops up frequently in the case studies and horror stories throughout this book. There’s a reason for that. While the Reagan and Bush administrations had set up a number of drug task forces in border zones, the Byrne grant program established similar task forces all across the country. They seemed particularly likely to pop up in rural areas that didn’t yet have a paramilitary police team (what few were left).

The task forces are staffed with local cops drawn from the police agencies in the jurisdictions where the task force operates. Some squads loosely report to a state law enforcement agency, but oversight tends to be minimal to nonexistent. Because their funding comes from the federal government—and whatever asset forfeiture proceeds they reap from their investigations—local officials can’t even control them by cutting their budget. This organizational structure makes some task forces virtually unaccountable, and certainly not accountable to any public official in the region they cover.

As a result, we have roving squads of drug cops, loaded with SWAT gear, who get more money if they conduct more raids, make more arrests, and seize more property, and they are virtually immune to accountability if they get out of line. In 2009 the Justice Department attempted a cost-benefit analysis of these task forces but couldn’t even get to the point of crunching the numbers. The task forces weren’t producing any numbers to crunch. “Not only were data insufficient to estimate what task forces accomplished,” the report read, “data were inadequate to even tell what the task forces did for routine work.”

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of heavily armed task forces that have little accountability and are rewarded for making lots of busts has resulted in some abuse.

The most notorious scandal involving these task forces came in the form of a massive drug sting in the town of Tulia, Texas. On July 23, 1999, the task force donned black ski-mask caps and full SWAT gear to conduct a series of coordinated predawn raids across

Tulia. By 4:00 AM, forty black people—10 percent of Tulia’s black population—and six whites were in handcuffs. The Tulia Sentineldeclared, “We do not like these scumbags doing business in our town. [They are] a cancer in our community, it’s time to give them a major dose of chemotherapy behind bars.” The paper followed up with the headline “Tulia’s Streets Cleared of Garbage.”

The raids were based on the investigative work of Tom Coleman, a sort of freelance cop who, it would later be revealed, had simply invented drug transactions that had never occurred.

The first trials resulted in convictions—based entirely on the credibility of Tom Coleman. The defendants received long sentences. For those who were arrested but still awaiting trial, plea bargains that let them avoid prison time began to look attractive, even if they were in- nocent. Coleman was even named Texas lawman or the year.

But there were some curious details about the raids. For such a large drug bust, the task force hadn’t recovered any actual drugs. Or any weapons, for that matter. And it wasn’t for a lack of looking. The task force cops had all but destroyed the interiors of the homes they raided. Then some cases started falling apart. One woman Coleman claimed sold him drugs could prove she was in Oklahoma City at the time. Coleman had described another woman as six months pregnant—she wasn’t. Another suspect could prove he was at work during the alleged drug sale. By 2004, nearly all of the forty-six suspects were either cleared or pardoned by Texas governor Rick Perry. The jurisdictions the task force served eventually settled a lawsuit with the defendants for $6 million. In 2005, Coleman was convicted of perjury. He received ten years’ probation and was fined $7,500.3

The following year, it all happened again. In November 2000, SWAT teams from the Byrne-funded South Central Texas Narcotics Task Force rolled into Hearne, a town of about five thousand people in Robertson County, to wage another series of coordinated raids. The raids netted twenty-eight arrests—twenty-seven of the suspects were black. One of them was Regina Kelly, a single mother. Kelly wasn’t home when her house was raided, she was waiting tables at a local diner.

The police marched her off the job in handcuffs and tossed her in a jail cell. She first thought she had been arrested for unpaid parking tickets. Kelly’s court-appointed attorney encouraged her to take a plea bargain. Plead guilty, and she’d get eighteen years’ probation. She’d get no prison time and wouldn’t lose her kids. She refused. “I wasn’t going to plead guilty to something I didn’t do,” she told me in a 2007 interview. The attorney went back to DA John Paschall, who then offered five years’ probation. Kelly again refused, and told her attorney to ask for the evidence they had used to indict her. Her attorney brought back a tape recording the DA’s office claimed was evidence of her drug sales. The tape recording was a conversation between two men. There were no female voices, and Kelly’s name was never mentioned. Kelly’s bail was then reduced from $70,000 to $10,000. Her parents were able to post bond, and she never had to go to court again. She was eventually cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.

In part because of Kelly’s courageous refusal to accept a plea bargain for a crime she didn’t commit, we now know that all twenty- eight indictments were based on the word of a single confidential informant. Paschall’s office was forced to admit that the informant had both tampered with evidence and failed a polygraph test. At the civil trial for the lawsuit brought by Kelly and other defendants, the informant testified that Paschall had given him a list of twenty black men. He promised leniency for the informant’s own burglary charge if he helped Paschall convict the men on the list. The informant also testified he was promised $100 for every suspect he helped convict beyond that list of twenty. The lawsuit was settled in 2005. Of the twenty-eight people charged, seventeen were later exonerated. The 2008 movie American Violet was based on Kelly’s experience after she was arrested.

But similar mass round-up raids had been going on in Hearne for fifteen years. “They come on helicopters, military-style, SWAT style,” Kelly told me. “In the apartments I was living in, in the projects, there were a lot of children outside playing. They don’t care. They throw kids on the ground, put guns to their heads. They’re kicking in doors. They just don’t care.”

In the following years, there were numerous other corruption scandals, botched raids, sloppy police work, and other allegations of misconduct against the federally funded task forces in Texas. Things got so that by the middle of the 2000s Gov. Rick Perry began diverting state matching funds away from the task forces to other programs. The cut in funding forced many task forces to shut down. The stream of lawsuits shut down or limited the operations of others. In 2001 the state had fifty-one federally funded task forces. By the spring of 2006, it was down to twenty-two.

Funding for the Byrne grant program had held steady at about $500 million through most of the Clinton administration. Just as it had done with the cops program, the Bush administration began to pare the program down—to about $170 million by 2008. This was more out of an interest in limiting federal influence on law enforcement than concern for police abuse or drug war excesses.

But the reaction from law enforcement was interesting. In March 2008, Byrne-funded task forces across the country staged a series of coordinated drug raids dubbed Operation Byrne Blitz. The intent was to make a series of large drug seizures to demonstrate how important the Byrne grants were to fighting the drug war. In Kentucky alone, for example, task forces uncovered 23 methamphetamine labs, seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana, and arrested 565 people for illegal drug use. Of course, if police in a single state could simply go out and find 23 meth labs and 2,400 pounds of marijuana in twenty-four hours just to make a political point about drug war funding, that was probably a good indication that twenty years of Byrne grants and four decades of drug warring hadn’t really accomplished much.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama criticized Bush and the Republicans for cutting Byrne, a federal police program beloved by his running mate Joe Biden. Despite Tulia, Hearne, a growing pile of bodies from botched drug raids, and the objections of groups as diverse as the ACLU, the Heritage Foundation, La Raza, and the Cato Institute, Obama promised to restore full funding to the program, which, he said, “has been critical to creating the anti-gang and anti-drug task forces our communities need.” He kept his promise. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act resuscitated the Byrne grants with a whopping $2 billion infusion, by far the largest budget in the program’s twenty-year history.

***

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.

 

Radley Balko is a senior writer and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post. 

 
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