Operation Overkill

Radley Balko’s report on police paramilitary raids has finally come out at the Cato Institute. It is pretty chilling, in my view. We are treated to all the anecdotes that Balko has been digging up over the past several months. For example,

The Diotaiuto case is far from unusual. Just a few months before the raid in Sunrise, in March 2005, police on a drug raid in Omao, Kauai, Hawaii, broke into the home of Sharon and William McCulley, at home at the time with their grandchildren. Police were tracking a box that allegedly contained marijuana, and believed it to be in the McCulleys’ possession. After breaking down the elderly McCulleys’ door, police threw the couple to the ground. They handcuffed Sharon McCulley and held her to the floor with a gun to her head—her grandchild lying next to her. William McCulley—who uses a walker and has an implanted device that delivers electrical shocks to his spine to relieve pain—began flopping around the floor when the device malfunctioned from the trauma of being violently thrown to the ground.11

Police had the wrong address. In fact, they conducted a second “wrong door” raid before finally tracking down the package.12

So much for those highly trained SWAT boys. Sheesh, two wrong door raids before they got it right. Maybe these guys need to spend less time shooting their guns on the firing range and spend some more time in a remedial reading course.

Going to back to the Diotaiuto case, for example, one might ask why the town of Sunrise, Florida, a town with a population of just 90,000 and which reported only a single murder for all of 2003, would need a SWAT team in the first place. And why would the town use that SWAT team, first thing in the morning, to break into the home of a young man with no history of violence?

Because they have really cool guns and flash-bang grenades and in the black uniforms with kevlar vests and helmets they look really, really cool?

There is also the issue of the effectiveness of the raids. The basic argument is that with a procedure where the police knock, wait for the resident to answer the door then serve the warrant, the criminals could have time to destroy evidence and thus escape conviction. The reality however is that no-knock raids are not nearly so effective.

The public scrutiny that followed the botched no-knock raid in Denver that killed immigrant Ismael Mena in 2000, for example, enabled Denver’s Rocky Mountain News to get access to warrants and court records for all of the no-knock raids conducted in the city in 1999. The paper’s findings were alarming: Of 146 no-knock raids conducted in the city that year, only 49 produced charges of any kind. And of those, just 2 resulted in prison time for the targets of the raids.200


A 1997 investigation by the Palm Beach Post found that in a sampling of 50 of the 309 arrests made by Palm Beach County’s 12 SWAT teams, the longest jail sentence meted out from any of the raids was five years. The vast majority produced sentences of less than six months, parole, or no sentence at all.202

Reporters found similar results in Orange County, Florida. A 1998 Orlando Weekly investigation found that SWAT raids resulted in actual arrests in just 47 percent of callouts. A broader review of teams in Orange, Osceola, Orlando, and Maitland, Florida, found that they’re typically called out to serve warrants for crimes that are misdemeanors, resulting in only small fines, or no charges at all.203


After the New York City raid that killed Alberta Spruill, Police Chief Raymond Kelly estimated that at least 10 percent of the city’s 450+ monthly no-knock drug raids were served on the wrong address, under bad information, or otherwise didn’t produce enough evidence for an arrest. Kelly conceded, however, that NYPD didn’t keep careful track of botched raids, leading one city council member to speculate the problem could be even worse.204

Of course, when you are raiding the wrong house, you aren’t going to get a conviction at all. Hell, you’d be “lucky” with just an arrest. And calling out SWAT for crimes that are misdemeanors is the very definition of overkill. And a 10% failure rate is totally unacceptable when it comes to something like this. What would happen if a vehicle had a 10% failure rate with one of its parts? Firestone and Ford Explorer ring any bells? We are talking gross incompetence here.

Read the whole thing if you can. Or just read some chunks of it. For example, if you want to argue that SWAT is needed because of the “arms race” between police and drug users, there is a section on that. And one last closing excerpt,

The Heflin Family. In 1996, a SWAT team in La Plata County, Colorado, descended on a ranch owned by Samuel Heflin. They were looking for evidence related to a bar brawl—a cowboy hat, shirt, and a pack of cigarettes. On the way in to Heflin’s home, police forced two children to the ground at gunpoint. They then trained a laser-sighted assault weapon on Heflin’s four-year-old daughter as she ran screaming into the house. Upon asking to see a search warrant, Heflin was told by SWAT officers to “shut the fuck up.”519

To protect and serve indeed.

FILED UNDER: Guns and Gun Control, Law and the Courts, Policing, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. Anderson says:

    Terrorism seems to be alive and well in American police departments. Maybe somebody should call Michael Chertoff?

  2. madmatt says:

    Thank god for those higher standards that police are held to according to Scalia in his last ruling on no knocks…where he went against all his “The constitution is not a living thing” rhetoric….hope you enjoy your new gestapo

  3. Steven Plunk says:

    Rank and file cops don’t make purchasing decisions about swat gear and automatic weapons. The fault lies clearly with the bureaucratic upper management in our police departments. Bigger budgets and more to brag about when you fund a swat team. Not to mention you get to pad your resume with creating a swat force, looks good when you go for that next job.

    This is the logical progression of the modern public sector. Bigger, bigger, bigger. From public works to the police department small town hacks want power in ways that we can only imagine.

    The real threat to our civil liberties is not the Bush administration but our own city governments.

  4. DaveD says:

    It is chilling to read the specific botched raids cited in this report. I get the impression that just surviving one of these is a stroke of luck. I can’t come up with any excuse in my mind for a botched raid on a wrong address. One could probably come up with additional checks on the misuse of these paramilitary tactics but it would ultimately still come back to law enforcement policing itself which obviously does not work. I guess once you have a SWAT team you tend to want to use it.

  5. Gollum says:

    Overkill? Bah! With a 10% failure rate, it seems to me that what the jackboots need is more practice at serving these no-knock/quick-knock warrants, not less.

    Ever see a flashbang go off inside a car? When SWAT takes over parking enforcement, you will.

  6. floyd says:

    “police protection” no longer exists. it is now called “LAW ENFORCEMENT” with a whole ‘nuther attitude. citizens are now subjects in their eyes.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Any you guys want to give the government more power…

  8. Oldcrow says:

    No knock is a well armed home owners worst nightmare, there are two people sitting on death row because of this BS and all they were doing was defending themselves. I blame the policy makers not the police however, all they have to do is make a policy that no knock and swat are only called out for violent offenses not non-violent drug offenses.