SWAT NATION

M. Steindel (CLaw7MAn@webtv.net)
Tue, 24 Nov 1998 19:59:00 -0800 (PST)


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|| * -- SPECIAL -- * November 24, 1998 * -- EDITION -- * || 
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=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 The SFPD used SWAT-style equipment to raid a
Western =A0 =A0 Addition housing project. Does military gear encourage
=A0 =A0 military policing? 
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN
=A0 =A0 November 18, 1998 
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 http://www.sfbg.com/News/33/07/Features/cops.html
=A0 =A0 By Christian Parenti 
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=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 JUST BEFORE DAWN on Oct. 30, 90 law-enforcement
officers wearing black masks and fatigues and armed with assault rifles
stormed the Martin Luther King Jr./Marcus Garvey Cooperative in the
Western Addition. They used special "shock-lock" shotgun rounds to blow
apartment doors off their hinges and cleared people out of rooms by
throwing "flash-bang grenades," which produce nonlethal explosions that
terrify and disorient people. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 At a Nov. 4 police commission meeting, a train
of furious and sobbing residents from the raided housing complex 
-- all of them African American -- 

described how officers slapped them, stepped on their necks, and put
guns to their heads while other officers ransacked their homes. Weeping
and terrified children, some as young as six, were handcuffed and
separated from their parents. Some urinated in their pajamas. (Police
chief Fred Lau told the San Francisco Chronicle that officers wanted to
keep the kids from "running around.") 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Residents of the complex say the raid was a
violation of their civil rights. Scores of people with no charges
against them and no criminal records were put in disposable plastic
"flex- cuffs." Civil servants and grandmothers were held at gunpoint.
One woman was hospitalized after a fit of seizures; other people were so
distraught they couldn't return to work for days. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 And a pit bull named Bosco -- which many
residents described as well liked and friendly -- was shot inside an
apartment, dragged bleeding outside, and shot again. Deputy chief
Richard Holder told police commissioners that, according to police
intelligence gathered during "covert operations," the dog was "known for
its jumping ability and was shot in mid-air." 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 The squad that raided the housing complex
included agents from the San Francisco Police Department's tactical
squad and narcotics division, the District Attorney's office, the FBI,
the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms. According to SFPD narcotics lieutenant Kitt Crenshaw, who
initiated and planned the operation, the action was designed to "to put
fear in the hearts" of a gang called the Knock Out Posse. "The raid went
off, more or less, without a hitch," Crenshaw said. "I feel bad for the
innocent women and children that were there, but in a way they do bear
some responsibility for harboring drug dealers." 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Agents made 11 arrests and netted a pound of
what Crenshaw described as "high-grade" marijuana, almost four ounces of
crack cocaine, seven pistols, and $4,000 cash. Residents say that money
was not drug lucre, that it had been collected to help pay for the
funeral of Germain Brown, a recently deceased friend. Thanks to state
and federal asset forfeiture laws, the SFPD may get to keep and spend 80
percent of the seized money. 

SWAT NATION 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Though the raid on the King/Garvey project was
brutal and audacious, it was not unusual. Paramilitary or tactical
policing -- law enforcement that uses the equipment, training, rhetoric,
and tactics of warfare -- is on the rise nationwide. According to a
study by sociologist Peter Kraska, there are more than 30,000 heavily
armed, militarily trained police units in the United States -- and the
number of paramilitary police "call-outs" quadrupled between 1980 and
1995. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 The tactical buildup has been fueled by fattened
drug-war budgets and a wave of federal largesse. Between 1995 and 1997
the Department of Defense gave local police 1.2 million pieces of
military hardware, including more than 3,800 M16 automatic assault
rifles, 2,185 Rugar M14 semiautomatic rifles, 73 M79 grenade launchers,
and 112 armored personnel carriers (APCs). One tactical outfit calls its
APC "mother"; another, in east Texas, has named its APCs "Bubba One" and
"Bubba Two." 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Military gear given to the SFPD includes two
helicopters, several electrical generators, vehicles, and office
furniture, according to tactical officer Dino Zografos. Several years
ago the department acquired two APCs from the United Kingdom. The
department's 45-officer tac squad buys its own AR 15 and MP53 assault
rifles. Most of the SFPD's tactical training is done in-house, though
SWAT officers have received special instruction from FBI, military, and
private instructors. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Nationwide, tactical units have metastasized
from emergency response teams into a standard part of everyday policing.
SWAT teams that would once have been called in only to handle the
occasional barricaded suspect now conduct routine drug raids like the
one on the King/Garvey co-op. In Fresno, Indianapolis, and San Francisco
they even patrol high-crime areas. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Critics of SWAT-style policing say militarized
training, weaponry, and organization cause cops to overreact and treat
ordinary policing situations as military operations. "The fundamental
problem with the SWAT model is that if police become soldiers, the
community becomes the enemy," says Sacramento State University
sociologist Tony Platt, one of the first scholars to analyze the rise of
tactical policing. "Paramilitary policing erodes the idea of police as
pubic servants subordinate to community needs." 
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 And Kraska says, "The more paramilitary police
units exist, the more all policing will be militarized." Considering
what's happening around the country, those charges don't seem far-
fetched. According to a CBS News survey of SWAT encounters, police use
of deadly force has increased 34 percent in the past three years. 

TACTICAL FUTURE 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 For a look at the future of American law
enforcement, travel south on Highway 99 from San Francisco to Fresno,
and turn off on one of the city's southern exits. On the pocked side
streets of southwest Fresno's sprawling ghetto, among fading stucco
bungalows and dying rail yards, massive paramilitary police operations
take place almost every night. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 It's a cold October night; 30 police officers
(three squads of 10) don black jumpsuits, military helmets, and
bulletproof vests, lock and load their Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine
guns, and fan out for a routine patrol. Meet Fresno's Violent Crime
Suppression Unit (VCSU), the Fresno P.D.'s "special forces" and
America's most aggressive SWAT team. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Since 1994 the VCSU has patrolled the city's
have-not suburbs in full military gear, with automatic assault rifles
(the same model used by Navy SEALs) at the ready. The unit is backed by
two helicopters with infra-red scopes and an army-surplus APC; it's
equipped with attack dogs, flash-bang grenades, smoke bombs, tear gas,
pepper spray, metal clubs, and "blunt trauma ordnances," essentially
beanbags fired from shotguns, designed to daze rather than kill. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 "It's a war," Sgt. Margaret Mims of the Fresno
Sheriff's Department says. In the name of crisis management, the VCSU is
free to use aggressive and unorthodox tactics. Sometimes the unit
quietly deploys troops on foot to surround targeted corners or sweep
through neighborhoods. At other times, like this autumn night, agents
move in a fleet of regular patrol cars "like a wolf pack" looking for
"contact," as a VCSU officer put it. "Contacts" generally involve
swooping onto street corners, forcing pedestrians to the ground,
searching them, running warrant checks, taking photos, and entering all
the new "intelligence" into a state database from computer terminals in
each patrol car. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 The area of operation is a poor and desolate
African American neighborhood Fresno residents call the Dog Pound. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 As the patrol makes a routine traffic stop, a
man is standing on the sidewalk talking to the driver. When the VCSU
pull up, he flees into a nearby house. The VCSU immediately surround the
area. Officers with AR 15s and H&K MP5s "hold the perimeter," some
watching the house, others looking out at the neighborhood. Five
officers rush the door. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 The VCSU are not, technically, in "hot pursuit."
They have no legal right to enter the premises. But the elderly woman
behind the black metal door is confronted with five SWAT-style officers
with submachine guns, and they want to search her house. She consents. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Five big, white cops move into the living room
and grab a young African American man. They demand to know his name;
it's David. "What?" he says. "Man, I didn't do anything!" As he
protests, his voice cracks and a tearful grimace clouds his face. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 With consent from David's trembling grandmother,
three cops search the little bungalow. For all the agents' science
fiction-esque uniforms and state-of-the-art gear, they call up an awful
specter from the past. More than anything else, the robocops of the VCSU
resemble the "patrollers" of the Old South, the slave-catching militias
that spent their nights rousting plantation shacks looking for
contraband, weapons, and signs that slaves were planning to escape
north. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 "Are you on parole, probation? Huh?" a VCSU
officer demands. "Let's go outside, David." The suspect is cuffed,
searched, interrogated, and forced to the ground. His name is fed into a
computer. A flashlight is continuously pointed at his face. No drugs are
found. But David lied, saying he wasn't on parole, and he is. "That's a
violation of parole, David." The white cops send another black man off
to jail. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 For much of the rest of the night, a standoff
occupies 30 cops from three different agencies and two helicopters. The
target is a teenager who hasn't been charged with anything; he's just
wanted for questioning. "If you're 21, male, living in one of these
neighborhoods, and you're not in our computer, then there's definitely
something wrong," VCSU officer Paul Boyer says. 

WIDESPREAD ABUSES 
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Fresno's is the only police department in the
country that deploys its tactical units for routine patrol work. But
big, aggressive SWAT operations like the one at the King/Garvey co-op
are becoming more common. From Albuquerque to Miami, tactical teams have
repeatedly shot and killed unarmed civilians in the course of botched
drug raids. In a recent case in Bethlehem, Pa., a SWAT team killed a
suspect, then burnt his house down. And thanks to confusion and the
overzealous use of flash-bang grenades, tactical officers are
increasingly shooting one another; a case in Oxnard, Calif., is the most
recent example. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 Perhaps the most infamous police tactical
operation took place several years ago in Chapel Hill, N.C. In
"Operation Ready-Rock," police received a blanket warrant allowing them
to search every person and vehicle on the 100 block of Graham Street. 

=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 "We believe that there are no 'innocent' people
at this place," the police department's warrant request stated. "Only
drug sellers and drug buyers are on the described premises." Forty-five
heavily armed commandos from local and state law-enforcement agencies
sealed off the street and made what police would describe as a "dynamic
entrance" into a pool hall by smashing in the front door and holding
occupants at gunpoint. Whites were allowed to leave the area; more than
100 African Americans were searched. Agents found only minor quantities
of drugs. 
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 It's not every municipal agency that can afford
equipment that's too powerful for the task at hand. Elsewhere in North
Carolina, the Greensboro public library's bus-sized "bookmobile" was
recently retired for lack of funds. Shortly thereafter, the police
department bought the bookmobile and converted it into a mobile
command-and-control center for its elite 23-member Special Response
Team. 
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 =A0 The cops were delighted: a six-foot-five SRT
officer had trouble standing up in the previous van. "It's a great piece
of equipment," police spokesperson M.C. Bitner said. "It's really so
much better than what we had." 
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 Parts of this article were adapted from the
author's =A0 =A0 forthcoming book Lockdown America: Police and Prisons
in the =A0 =A0 Age of Crisis (Verso). 
=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0 =A0 Copyright 1998 San Francisco Bay Guardian 
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