Shot to Death by Police for Betting on a Football Game? The Rise of Paramilitary Force in America
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In 2007 a Dallas SWAT team actually raided a Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost for hosting charity poker games. Players said the tactics were terrifying. One woman urinated on herself. When police raided a San Mateo, California, poker game in 2008, card players described cops storming the place “in full riot gear” and “with guns drawn.” The games had buy-ins ranging from $25 to $55. Under California law, the games were legal so long as no one took a “rake,” or a cut of the stakes. No one had, but police claimed the $5 the hosts charged players to buy refreshments qualified as a rake. In March 2007, a small army of local cops, ATF agents, National Guard troops, and a helicopter raided a poker game in Cary, North Carolina. They issued forty-one citations, all of them misdemeanors. A columnist at the Fayetteville Observer remarked, “They were there to play cards, not to foment rebellion. . . . [I] wonder . . . what other minutiae, personal vices and petty crimes are occupying [the National Guard’s] time, and where they’re occupying it. . . . Until we get this sorted out, better not jaywalk. There could be a military helicopter overhead.”
Police have justified this sort of heavy-handedness by claiming that people who run illegal gambling operations tend to be armed, a blanket characterization that absurdly lumps neighborhood Hold ’Em tournaments with Uncle Junior Soprano’s weekly poker game. And in any case, if police know that people inside an establishment are likely to be armed, it makes even less sense to come in with guns blazing. Police have also defended the paramilitary tactics by noting that poker games are usually flush with cash and thus tend to get robbed. That too is an absurd argument, unless the police are afraid they’re going to raid a game at precisely the same moment it’s getting robbed. Under either scenario, the police are acknowledging that the people playing poker when these raids go down have good reason to think that the men storming the place with guns may be criminals, not cops.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened to seventy-two-year-old Aaron Awtry in 2010. Awtry was hosting a poker tournament in his Greenville, South Carolina, home when police began breaking down the door with a battering ram. Awtry had begun carrying a gun after being robbed. Thinking he was about to be robbed again, he fired through the door, wounding Deputy Matthew May in both arms. The other officers opened fire into the building. Miraculously, only Awtry was hit. As he fell back into a hallway, other players reporting him asking, “Why didn’t you tell me it was the cops?” The raid team claimed they knocked and announced several times before putting ram to door, but other players said they heard no knock or announcement. When Awtry recovered, he was charged with attempted murder. As part of an agreement, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison. Police had broken up Awtry’s games in the past. But on those occasions, they had knocked and waited, he had let them in peacefully, and he’d been given a $100 fine.
The poker raids have gotten bad enough that the Poker Players Alliance, an interest group that lobbies to make the game legal, has established a network of attorneys around the country to help players who have been raided and arrested.
But the mission creep hasn’t stopped at poker games. By the end of the 2000s, police departments were sending SWAT teams to enforce regulatory law. In August 2010, for example, a team of heavily armed Orange County, Florida, sheriff’s deputies raided several black-and Hispanic-owned barbershops in the Orlando area. More raids followed in September and October. The Orlando Sentinel reported that police held barbers and customers at gunpoint and put some in handcuffs, while they turned the shops inside out. The police raided a total of nine shops and arrested thirty-seven people.