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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Drug War Shock Troops

     American law enforcement has become zero tolerant, more violent, and militarized. Local, state, and federal teams of elite paramilitary special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams regularly patrol big-city streets and break into homes unannounced. Officers on routine patrol carry high-powered semi and fully automatic weapons. Virtually every law enforcement agency in the country either has its own SWAT unit or has officers who are members of a multijurisdictional force. The barrier between the U.S. military and domestic law enforcement has broken down. The police have become soldiers and military personnel now function as civilian law enforcers. Paramilitary police officers wear combat gear, are transported in army-surplus armored personnel carriers, receive special-forces training, and view criminal suspects as enemy combatants. Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies field teams of military-trained snipers. In many jurisdictions, the "public servant" concept of policing has been replaced by the "occupying force" model. The idea of community policing has become outmoded. If one didn't know any better, one would think that the nation is in the grip of an historic crime wave. Today, compared with the 1930s and the late 1960s through the 1970s, the current rate of violent crime is much lower.

     Every year SWAT teams conduct forced entry, no-knock raids into 40,000 to 50,000 homes in search of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia. In many jurisdictions all drug-related search warrant executions involve SWAT team entries. Once a law enforcement agency forms a paramilitary unit, the officers on the team must be kept busy to stay sharp. For this reason, the great majority of SWAT raids in this country involve low-risk police work and are therefore unnecessary.

     The predawn, no-knock SWAT raid into a private home has become the signature of the government's escalating war on drugs. Even when the raids are not in some way botched, as when officers break into the wrong house, innocent bystanders, including children, are injured, manhandled, and/or traumatized. Following these raids, residents are left with broken doors, windows, and furniture as well as ransacked rooms. Occasional the "flashbang" grenades the raiders use to disorient occupants cause injuries and start fires. It is not uncommon for subjects of these raids, thinking that their homes are being invaded by criminals, to pick up guns in self-defense. These people are often shot and killed. If they shoot and kill a police officer, they go to prison. In these cases it doesn't matter that the defendants didn't know who they were shooting at. Some end up on death row.

Minneapolis SWAT

     Acting on information from a narcotics snitch, a Minneapolis SWAT team of eighteen officers, on the night of February 16, 2010, used a battering ram to enter the apartment rented by Rickia Russell. The 30-year-old occupant heard her front door being smashed open followed by the sound of a flashbang grenade rolling into her living room. Upon explosion, the percussion device ignited her sofa and seriously burned her leg. As Russell lay face-down on the floor with her hands cuffed behind her back, she tried to tell the officers about her charred limb. They told her to shut up.

     The officers, armed with a warrant alleging that someone named David Conley was selling drugs out of this apartment, found no narcotics, drug paraphernalia, guns, or any other contriband or evidence of a crime. Rickia Russell did not know a David Conley. The SWAT team had obviously raided the wrong apartment. But instead of apologizing and offering to repair the damage they had caused, the police arrested Russell for the misdemeanor of operating a "disorderly house." The authorities, however, never followed through with a formal charge.

     On December 9, 2011, the Minneapolis City Council offered Russell, who had suffered permanent injuries from the flashbang grenade, a million dollar settlement. This horribly botched police operation was not the first botched paramilitary police raid in Minneapolis

The Vang Khang Raid

     Vang Khang, his wife Yee Moua, and their six children, hill people from Laos, lived in a high-crime neighborhood in northeast Minneapolis. Just before midnight on December 16, 2007, Yee Moua, while watching television, heard window glass shatter. Thinking that criminals were breaking into the house, she bolted up the stairs to where her husband and children were sleeping.

     Awakened by the commotion, Mr. Khang grabbed his shotgun, and hearing heavy footsteps advancing up the stairs, fired a warning shot through his bedroom door. Khang didn't know it, but he had opened fired on officers with the Minneapolis Police Department's Violent Offender Task Force (VOTF). The paramilitary unit had broken into the wrong house in search of street-gang guns and drugs. The exchange of gunfire that erupted after Khang's warning shot included 22 bullets from VOTF officers and two more blasts from Khang's shotgun, pellets that struck the body armor of two of the officers. The moment Khang heard his children yelling, "It's the police!" Khang, who miraculously had not been shot, dropped the shotgun and raised his arms. A few seconds later, he was on the floor with a boot planted in the middle of his back.

     The Minneapolis Police, quickly realizing that their informant had directed them to the wrong house, did not take Khang into custody. VOTF offiers, leaving behind broken windows and bullet holes in the bedroom wall, left the house without apologizing to the family they had endangered and traumatized.

     Seven months after the bungled raid, the Minneapolis police chief awarded the VOTF officers who had raided the wrong house, medals of valor for "bravery in action under fire." In December 2008, the Minneapolis City Council approved a $600,000 settlement for the Khang family.

     Paramilitary policing in Minneapolis has been expensive, and a threat to public safety.


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