Botched Raids or Boring Warrants? A Decision For SWAT Teams
January 6, 2017 (Fault Lines) – One doesn’t have to look much farther than an internet search bar, or a quick search of Fault Lines, to find a list of botched police drug “raids.” The compilation lists appear so lengthy, even as a police officer who spent over sixteen years on a SWAT team, I have to shake my head and ask, “This often?”
The mistakes and bad outcomes come in many flavors. Teams hitting the wrong address. Flashbangs landing in baby cribs. Shooting the family pet dog. Finding no contraband. Suspects being acquitted on charges for firing on police officers. No one home.
I still vividly recall my first search warrant (or you might call it, a raid) as a brand new SWAT officer. The neighbors were furious with the dysfunctional family whose home had been a magnet for illegal drug activity. Undercover drug detectives built a strong case for a search warrant, and because informants said the family was armed with guns, SWAT was to serve it. We briefed up and caravanned to the house.
We approached the front door, knocked, and announced, “POLICE!” And when no one answered…our breacher smashed the door. In the chaos after the flashbang detonated, I found myself shuffled down a hallway, where I kicked in the padlocked door to grandma’s bedroom. (She wasn’t home…and let’s agree the padlock was a clue to her level of trust in her grandkids.)
By the time we turned the scene over to investigators, they had already found a sizeable stash of drugs and various firearms strategically placed (and illegally possessed) around the home to protect it. In cop parlance, it was a win.
My adrenaline was still flowing when we got back into our raid vans to depart. What I hadn’t realized was that nearly every neighbor down the block had come out of their homes. They lined the sidewalks, curiously talking to each other about the police activity. Then as we drove away, they cheered us. We got thumbs up. Smiles. “Thank yous!” Waves. Claps. Hoorahs. I felt as though I was riding on the prize-winning parade float.
Over the following years, my team learned to slow down. We smashed a lot fewer doors. Even when judges granted “no-knock” warrants (that permit police tactical teams to use battering rams on doors without warning…or knocking), we chose different tactics. Our team began encircling homes and using the telephone and vans’ public address speakers to call the occupants out to us. These “surround-and-callout” tactics got us our illegal guns and wanted criminals in a safer, more controlled manner.
What got us to the point where the surround-and-callout as a default tactic rather than the stereotypical “raid” entry? The research on human decision-making under stress. We learned how our own bodies and minds reacted to compressed time, fear, confusion, smells, noise, anxiety…as I had been affected on my first raid.
But what about the acute stress and fear we caused in those inside the homes we raided? How about waking up a family at 4:30 a.m. from a dead sleep? Could we expect the best decisions (think: compliance) from them? Or were we inadvertently putting them into a state of primal, animalistic, reactive, survival-mode decision-making too?
We connected-the-dots and hypothesized the correlation of stress, on both officer and suspect, to be a factor in so many of the awful warrants we studied nationally. In fact, this shift toward surround-and-callout tactics was a national one. SWAT teams and detectives across the country slowed down and became more deliberate in how they handled warrants.
When our team discarded the raid mentality, the roller-coaster ride adrenaline no longer dumped. I lost cool stories with my family and friends. The exciting tales of run-up-smash-the-door search warrants transitioned to “…our negotiator called inside…and then he came out with his hands up…and that was it.” Though no actual stats were kept, I saw our uses of force drop and our levels of suspect compliance rise. The elderly and children inside were less traumatized. As a trade off, we lost more street drugs and destructible evidence to the city sewer system.
There is a compromise with the maturation towards the surround-and-callout tactic: cops need adequate ballistic protection to stand on the perimeter of a potential standoff. You can’t expect cops to wait outside someone’s home and announce to them they are going to jail without providing those officers with the safety of armor. This means not only heavy bullet-resistant vests and helmets, but, yes, armored trucks like BearCats and military surplus MRAPs.
So here we have the biggest misconception with the militarization of police. We have a national trend of SWAT teams actually slowing down to deescalate and make better decisions, but armoring them up so they can slow down and stand post in the safest, possible manner. Merely “armoring up” is not by itself escalation of force; escalation is about speed and aggression, violence and posturing.
Keep in mind that “raid” tactics still hold their place. We in policing need these fast-paced options for serving warrants. But there is no magical formula or objective threat matrix that can possibly account for the collective factors that justify them.
Not every neighborhood is safe enough for cops to set up a perimeter and wait for occupants to surrender. There is surely an element of vulnerability to staying outside in what the military calls “non-permissive environments.”
The cramped close-quarters of multi-family housing, especially high-rise apartments, do not lend themselves well to surround-and-callout methods.
Sophisticated, coordinated, and simultaneous search warrants at multiple locations are another reason that may justify fast smash-the-door tactics.
And let’s face it – even extreme weather conditions play into the decisions on what tactics to employ. Freezing cold or soaking wet cops may lose their logical decision-making abilities to the elements.
And lastly, the preservation of evidence in some types of criminal cases does take a necessary priority.
However, not all police tactical teams got the memo. There exist units that default to dynamic raid tactics and use them whenever possible. Some teams rely on expediency to cut down on overtime costs, opting for the 60-second option rather than what could be a hour-long standoff. Or how about the team commanders who have testified that rush-hour traffic congestion factored into their rationale for making entry? Or bluntly, teams that still chase-the-dope in a race to the bathroom?
Are we in policing chalking up these mistakes and poor outcomes as acceptable (AKA: “reasonable”) collateral damage? Or are we learning from them and understanding how a shift in our tactics can influence the minimization of errors?
Does the community understand that lack of contraband or wanted “targets” does not mean it was a bad warrant? Or that mistakes will happen in even the best planned circumstances?
As I became a father, the adrenaline rush lost its luster. I realized that my family depended on my return home, and that a change in mindset with search and arrest warrants increased my chances of doing just that. It also decreased the chances of hitting wrong addresses and bad shoots and public criticism.
Before I left our SWAT team, I served two more warrants at that same home where I “popped my cherry.” The tactics we used in subsequent warrants couldn’t look more different than the first. In fact, the second and third stories are quite boring. And I’m quite good with that. So are my wife and kids.