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SWAT Teams, Flash-Bang Grenades, Shooting the Family Pet: The Shocking Outcomes of Police Militarization in the War on Drugs

There are more than 50,000 police paramilitary raids in the US each year – more than 130 every day. Virtually all are for prosecution of drug warrants.

 In the forty years since Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs,” Americans’ perceptions of that war are finally beginning to shift.

Receding support for Prohibition is happening in large part because of virally circulated news accounts and videos of law enforcement’s disturbingly harsh tactics in the drug war. My former colleagues are making clear that besides causing thousands of deaths worldwide and costing billions of taxpayer dollars, the drug war’s most serious collateral damage has been to undermine the role of civilian law enforcement in our free society.

In one of the most widely viewed videos, a tiny single-family home is descended upon by a Columbia, Missouri Police Department SWAT team. After pounding on the door and announcing themselves, the cops waste no time. They smash open the door and charge into the unsuspecting family’s home.

After what sounds like multiple explosions or gunshots, we hear the sound of a dog yelping sharply, as if in pain.

We then hear several more gunshots or explosions amid the general pandemonium.

The camera follows the heavily armed and armored officers inside. We watch as they order a woman and a small child, still woozy from being suddenly awakened, into their living room.

As they are forced onto the floor, a young male is brought into the room. He is handcuffed and pushed against a wall.

“What did I do? What did I  DO?” he shouts, as the woman and the child cower on the floor nearby.

We then learn the source of the dog’s pained cries.

“You shot my dog, you shot my  DOG!” the man suddenly shouts. “Why did you do that? He was a good dog! He was probably trying to play with you!”

He, the woman and the child all break into pitiful sobs.

As of late October, just five months after it was posted,  the Columbia police raid video has been viewed nearly two million times on YouTube. The clip quickly ricocheted across cyberspace, generating emotionally charged, outraged calls for the officers to be fired and prosecuted. Or subjected to the same kind of treatment that terrorized their fellow citizens.

Public indignation over the incident intensified when it was learned that the Columbia SWAT team was executing an eight-day-old search warrant, and that the only things seized were a pipe containing a small amount of marijuana residue. Since possession of small amounts of pot had long ago been essentially decriminalized in Columbia, the man was charged with simple possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor.

The reaction of Fox Business Network’s Andrew Napolitano was telling. In a segment about the raid that also found its way onto YouTube, the retired New Jersey Superior Court judge says, “This was America – not East Germany, not Nazi Germany, but middle America!”

Yet as former Cato staffer Radley Balko, who wrote about the Columbia video, has noted,  what’s most remarkable about the raid is that it wasn’t remarkable at all. The only thing that made it unusual was that it was videotaped and made public, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the  Columbia Daily Tribune newspaper.

There are more than 50,000 police paramilitary raids in the United States each year – more than 130 every day. Virtually all are for prosecution of drug warrants, the vast majority involving marijuana. Many jurisdictions use SWAT teams for execution of  every search warrant for drugs.

Just like in Columbia, these drug raids are typically staged in the middle of the night by officers equipped similarly to those depicted in the video: Darth Vader–style Kevlar helmets and body armor, black uniforms, military boots, night vision goggles. The officers are armed with automatic weapons and are sometimes deployed from armored personnel carriers or rappelling from helicopters. Doors are smashed open with battering rams or are ripped from their hinges by ropes tied to vehicles. And, to further disorient those inside, officers are trained to use explosives—“flash-bang” grenades—upon entry. The slightest provocation, including any “furtive” moments on the part of the residents, often results in shots fired.