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SWAT’s Military Tactics Put Cops at Risk – Article by Daniel J. Bier

SWAT’s Military Tactics Put Cops at Risk – Article by Daniel J. Bier

The New Renaissance Hat
Daniel J. Bier
October 2, 2014

“Democracy means that when there’s a knock on the door at 3 a.m., it’s probably the milkman.”
—Winston Churchill (apocryphal)

On the morning of May 5, 2011, a Pima County, Arizona, SWAT team pulled up to the home of Jose Guerena, a Marine veteran who had served in Iraq. Sheriff’s deputies threw flashbang grenades as a diversionary tactic and broke down the door.

Inside, Guerena told his wife and 4-year-old son to hide in the closet and went into his hallway holding a rifle. Officers let loose, firing 70 rounds in 10 seconds, hitting him over 20 times.

From the time of their arrival to the final shot, it was all over in less than a minute. Guerena’s rifle had the safety on; he never fired a shot. Police found no evidence of criminal activity.

Police organizations sometimes defend the prolific use of military equipment and tactics as necessary precautions against criminals arming themselves before cops can arrest them. But the overuse of tactical raids carries its own risks, and not just to citizens (and their dogs) who are subjected to battering rams, flash grenades, and automatic weapon fire.

Although SWAT teams were originally developed to handle rare and violent events, such as bank heists and hostage situations, they are now increasingly deployed to handle routine law enforcement functions. Paramilitary units are often the first point of contact in any investigation, and there are some places where all warrants—regardless of the suspect, evidence, or crime—are served by SWAT.

St. Louis County, Missouri—home of the city of Ferguson—is one such jurisdiction. As the county government explains the reasons for its SWAT team, “The Tactical Operations Unit … is capable of dealing with hostage situations, armed and barricaded subjects, suicidal persons and executes all search warrants issued in St. Louis County” (emphasis added).

One of these things, you may notice, is not like the others.

St. Louis is not alone. In a typical case in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a SWAT team burst into a man’s home, shot his two black Labradors, and left his family handcuffed on the floor. A drug dealer had mailed a box of drugs to his address, intending to intercept it before it was delivered. The man was Cheye Calvo, the town’s mayor.

A subsequent lawsuit by Calvo revealed that Prince George’s County uses its SWAT team to serve every single search warrant, even when the police don’t know who the suspects are, if they might be dangerous, or if there are children present.

Calvo succeeded in lobbying for the nation’s first law to track the use of SWAT teams. The data soon revealed that 94 percent of tactical deployments in Maryland were for ordinary search warrants, not for the kinds of violent situations that might typically justify such aggressive use of force. In Prince George’s County, more than half the raids were for misdemeanors or non-serious felonies.

Statewide, only 60 percent of tactical raids actually resulted in arrests for any crime, and Maryland is far from exceptional in using SWAT for trivial issues. In Florida, paramilitary teams perform business license inspections on black and Hispanic barbershops. Tactical raids have also been conducted for such “crimes” as hosting unlicensed poker games, defaulting on student loans, violating copyrights, and making fun of a politician on Twitter.

But there is a price to be paid for sending masked men crashing unannounced through windows and doors into people’s homes 45,000 times a year, often in the middle of the night. Using SWAT to serve minor warrants introduces violence into otherwise non-violent situations, creating, rather than defusing, volatile and dangerous conditions—the very opposite of what SWAT teams were originally meant to do.

It is not unusual even for innocent people awoken in such circumstances to believe that the police are thieves or violent criminals breaking into their homes. Like anyone else confronted with such a disorienting and frightening situation, they may reach for guns or other weapons to defend their home and their family, sometimes with tragic results for both citizens and officers.

Consider just a few recent examples:

  • Ryan Frederick was charged with first-degree murder after he fired on someone smashing their way through his door one night in 2008. The intruder turned out to be Detective Jarrod Shivers serving a no-knock warrant for a non-existent cannabis farm.
  • Henry Magee was a small-time marijuana grower who in December 2013 awoke in the middle of a no-knock raid on his trailer and opened fire on the intruders, killing Deputy Adam Sowders. A grand jury refused to indict him for capital murder.
  • Marvin Louis Guy opened fire on someone breaking in through his window before dawn on May 9, 2014; the intruders were police serving a no-knock drug warrant. They found no narcotics, and no drug-related charges have been filed, but Guy faces the death penalty for killing Detective Charles Dinwiddie.
  • Aaron Awtry, a 72-year-old South Carolinian, assumed that the SWAT team members battering down his door were criminals trying to rob his small-stakes poker game. He opened fire through the door, hitting Deputy Matthew May in the arm, while vice officers returned fire. Awtry was wounded and charged with attempted murder; the other players each received a $100 fine.

Cases of disastrous raids abound, and they reveal a serious problem with the assumption that paramilitary tactics are always safer for police. Some crazy or desperate suspects may indeed justify such preemptive force. But in many other cases, the dangerous and volatile conditions put officers at risk who otherwise would not be.

If a policeman in a blue uniform had knocked on Frederick’s door in the middle of the day, what are the chances that the innocent man would have shot a cop? And surely there are many others like Magee: guilty of something, but otherwise non-violent—or at least not suicidal enough to intentionally shoot a cop—who could be frightened into using a weapon in self-defense.

The most serious problem with the overuse of aggressive, militarized raids is one of information: Residents of the home don’t know who is breaking in, and police officers often don’t know who is inside, so both sides assume the worst and act accordingly. From the perspective of a sleeping homeowner, a no-knock SWAT raid is indistinguishable from an armed robbery. And as Guerena’s case shows, these events can escalate to lethal force in the blink of an eye. It is no exaggeration to say that lives have been ruined and ended because of unnecessary and violent tactics for petty and non-violent offenses.

Before we can address such problems as the use of military equipment by local law enforcement, we must first understand what is driving their demand for armored vehicles and high-powered weapons. The overuse of SWAT and the associated overuse of military gear in civilian policing are in part a result of overblown fears about police safety. But they are also based on a false dilemma between keeping cops unsafe and turning them into an army.

Officer safety is a legitimate problem, but that does not mean more force is always a legitimate answer. The best way to keep officers safe is to try to de-escalate conflicts—reserving SWAT for only the worst situations—and to end the War on Drugs that is at the heart of the breakdown of trust in law enforcement. When that’s done, Americans may once again go to sleep knowing that if you hear a bang on your door at 3 a.m., it’s probably just the newspaper.

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian. He writes on issues relating to science, skepticism, and economic freedom, focusing on the role of evolution in social and economic development.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

The Victory of Truth is Never Assured! (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The Victory of Truth is Never Assured! (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published February 4, 2009
as Part of Issue CLXXXVI of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 22, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CLXXXVI of The Rational Argumentator on February 4, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 22, 2014

Many advocates of free markets, reason, and liberty are content to just sit back and let things take their course, thinking that the right ideas will win out, by virtue of being true and therefore in accord with the objective reality. Sooner or later, these people think, the contradictions entailed in false ideas – contradictions obvious to the free-market advocates – will become obvious to everybody. Moreover, false ideas will result in bad consequences that people will rebel against and begin to apply true ideas. While this view is tempting – and I wish it reflected reality – I am afraid that it misrepresents the course that policies and intellectual trends take, as well as the motivations of most human beings.

Why does the truth not always – indeed, virtually never, up until the very recent past – win out in human societies among the majority of people? Indeed, why can one confidently say that most people are wrong about most intellectual matters and matters of policy most of the time? A few reasons will be explored here.

First, the vast majority of people are short-sighted and unaware of secondary effects of their actions. For instance, they see the direct effects of government redistribution of wealth – especially if they are on the receiving end – as positive. They get nice stuff, after all. But the indirect secondary effects – the reduced incentives of the expropriated to produce additional wealth – are not nearly so evident. They require active contemplation, which most people are too busy to engage in at that sophisticated a level.

The second reason why truth rarely wins in human societies – at least in the short-to-intermediate term – is that people’s lifespans are (thus far in our history) finite. While many people do learn from their experiences and from abstract theory and recognize more of the truth as they get older, those people also tend to die at alarming rates and be replaced by newer generations that more often than not make the same mistakes and commit the same fallacies. The prevalence of age-old superstitions – including beliefs in ghosts, faith healing, and socialism – can be explained by the fact that the same tempting fallacies tend to afflict most unprepared minds, and it takes a great deal of time and intellectual training for most people to extricate themselves from them – unless they happened to have particularly enlightened and devoted parents. If all people lived forever, one could expect them to learn from their mistakes and fallacies eventually and for the prevalence of those errors to asymptotically approach zero over time.

The third reason for the difficulty true ideas have in winning is the information problem. No one person has access to all or even a remote fraction of the truth, and certainly no one person can claim to be in possession of all the true ideas required to prevent or even optimally minimize all human folly, aggression, and self-destruction. Moreover, just because a true idea exists somewhere and someone knows it does not mean that many people will be actively seeking it out. Improving information dispersal through such technologies as the Internet certainly helps inform many more people than would have been informed otherwise, but this still requires a fundamental willingness to seek out truth on the part of people. Some have this willingness; others could not care less.

The fourth reason why the truth rarely wins out is that the proponents of false ideas are often persistent, clever, and well organized. They promote their ideas – which they may well believe to be the truth – just as assiduously, if not more so, than the proponents of truth promote their ideas. In fact, how true an idea is might matter when it comes to the long-term viability of the culture and society whose participants adopt it; but it matters little with regard to how persuasive people find the idea. After all, if truth were all that persuaded people, then bizarre beer ads that imply that by drinking beer one will have fancy cars and lots of beautiful women would not persuade anyone. The persistence of advertising that focuses on anything but the actual merits and qualities of the goods and services advertised shows that truth and persuasiveness are two entirely different qualities.

The fifth reason why the truth has a difficult time winning over public opinion is rather unfortunate and may be remedied in time. But many people are, to be polite, intellectually not prepared to understand it. Free-market economics and politics are not easy subjects for everybody to grasp. If a significant fraction of the population in economically advanced countries has trouble remembering basic historical facts or doing basic algebra, how hard must economic and political theory be for such people! I do not believe that any person is incapable of learning these ideas, or any ideas at all. But to teach them takes time that they personally are often unwilling to devote to the task. As economic and technological growth renders more leisure time available to more people, this might change, but for the time being the un-intellectual state of the majority of people is a tremendous obstacle to the spread of true ideas.

It is bad enough that many people are un-intellectual and thus unable to grasp true ideas without a great deal of effort they do not wish to expend. That problem can be remedied with enough material and cultural progress. The greater problem, and the sixth reason why the truth has difficulty taking hold, is that a sizable fraction of the population is also anti-intellectual. They not only cannot or try not to think and learn; they actively despise those who do. Anti-intellectualism is a product of pure envy and malice, much like bullying in the public schools. It led to the genocides of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, Communist China under Mao, and Communist Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. In Western schools today, it leads to many of the best and brightest students – who know more of the truth than virtually anyone else – being relentlessly teased, mocked, suppressed, ostracized, and even physically attacked by their jealous and lazy peers as well as by some egalitarian-minded teachers.

But enough about why most people are unreceptive to true ideas. Even those who are receptive have substantial problems that need to be overcome – and most often are not overcome – in order for the truth to win. The seventh reason why the truth rarely wins is that most of the people who do understand it are content to merely contemplate it instead of actively promoting it. They might think that they are powerless to affect the actual course of affairs, and their sole recourse is simply the satisfaction of knowing that they are right while the world keeps senselessly punishing itself – or the satisfaction that at least they are not an active or enthusiastic part of “the system” that leads to bad outcomes. This, I regret to say, is not enough. Knowing that one is right without doing anything about it leads to the field of ideas and actions being wholly open to and dominated by the people who are wrong and whose ideas have dangerous consequences.

Everyone who knows even a shred of the truth wants to be a theorist and expound grand systems about what is or is not right. I know that I certainly do. I also know that theoretical work and continual refinement of theories are essential to any thriving movement for cultural and intellectual change. But while theory is necessary, it is not sufficient. Someone needs to do the often monotonous, often frustrating, often exhausting grunt work of implementing the theories in whatever manner his or her abilities and societal position allow. The free-market movement needs government officials who are willing to engage in pro-liberty reforms. But it also needs ordinary citizens who are willing to write, speak, and attempt to reach out to other people in innovative ways that might just be effective at persuading someone. To promote the truth effectively, a tremendously high premium needs to put on the people who actually apply the true ideas, as opposed to simply contemplating them.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CLXXXVI.