SWAT Nation

By Christian Parenti

FOR A SNEAK PREVIEW of a future American police state, travel south from the comfortable illusions of the San Francisco Bay Area into the dirty air of California’s Central Valley on Interstate 99 to Fresno, a sprawling, poorly planned city of 350,000. Pass the forest of pole-perched McDonald’s, Best Western, and Motel 6 signs and turn off on one of the city’s southern exits into the ghetto of the southwest side. There, on the dim side streets, among the little bungalows and dying rail yards, massive paramilitary police operations are under way on almost any night.

On one such evening, three squads of 10 police officers in combat boots, black jumpsuits, military helmets, and bulletproof vests lock and load their Heckler & Koch MP-54 submachine guns (the same weapons used by the elite Navy SEALs) and fan out through the neighborhood. Meet Fresno’s Violent Crime Suppression Unit, local law enforcement’s “special forces” and America’s most aggressive SWAT team. Since 1994 the VCSU has patrolled this city’s have-not suburbs in full military gear, with automatic assault rifles at the ready. Backed by two helicopters with infrared scopes and an Army-surplus armored personnel carrier, the unit is also equipped with attack dogs, smoke bombs, tear gas, pepper spray, metal clubs, and less-than-lethal “blunt trauma” projectiles.

“It’s a war,” explains a law enforcement spokeswoman.

In the name of crisis management, the VCSU is free to utilize aggressive and unorthodox tactics. At times the unit deploys troops on foot to surround “hot spot” corners or sweep through neighborhoods. At other times, it rolls in a fleet of new Crown Victorias “like a wolf pack” looking for “contact” (as a VCSU officer put it). Tonight the area of operation is a desolate African-American neighborhood known on the street as the Dog Pound. Most “contacts” involve swooping down on corners and forcing pedestrians to the ground, searching them, running warrant checks, taking photos, and entering all the new “intelligence” into a state database from the high-tech “mobile computer terminals” in each patrol car. All the suspects are black, all the cops are white, and every encounter is scored to the furious growling and barking of the VCSU’s tightly leashed Alsatians.

“If you’re 21, male, living in one of these neighborhoods and you’re not in our computer, then there’s definitely something wrong,” says VCSU officer Paul Boyer as he enters information into his onboard laptop.

This little piece of apartheid-era Soweto stranded in California isn’t as unusual as one might think. Throughout the nation, paramilitary, SWAT, or tactical policing–that is, law enforcement that uses the equipment, training, rhetoric, and group tactics of war–are on the rise. According to a study by sociologist Peter Kraska, the nation now has more than 30,000 such heavily armed, militarily trained police units.

First developed in 1966 by a young LAPD commander named Daryl Gates, SWAT teams were conceived of as an urban counterinsurgency bulwark. One early SWAT officer explained, “Those people out there–the radicals, the revolutionaries, and the cop haters–are damned good at using shotguns [and] bombs or setting ambushes, so we’ve got to be better at what we do.”

Even the etymology of L.A.’s initial paramilitary unit reveals a political subtext: Gates started with the acronym SWAT and then filled it in with the name Special Weapons Attack Team. His superiors liked the acronym but found the name a bit too provocative, so it was toned down to the more technical sounding Special Weapons and Tactics.

As the ’60s and early ’70s rolled on, most large metropolitan police departments set up tactical units of their own. Since the mid-’80s, there has been a second wave of SWAT growth. Fueled by state and federal drug-war pork, tactical units have now metastasized from big-city emergency response specialists into standard parts of everyday policing. Even medium-sized towns now have SWAT teams. And instead of only handling emergencies like the occasional barricaded suspect, SWAT teams now conduct routine drug raids and sometimes even patrol high-crime areas in place of regular beat cops.

Nationally, activity by paramilitary police units–as measured by the total number of “callouts,” or SWAT team mobilizations–quadrupled between 1980 and 1995, according to Kraska’s study. And a CBS News survey of SWAT encounters showed a 34 percent rise in police use of deadly force between 1995 and 1998. Increasingly, the Defense Department is supplying the gear for this SWAT buildup. Between 1995 and 1997, the Department of Defense gave local police departments more than 3,800 M-16 automatic assault rifles, 2,185 M-14 semiautomatic rifles, 73 M-79 grenade launchers, and 112 armored personnel carriers–1.2 million pieces of military hardware in 1997 alone.

One tactical outfit calls its APC “Mother,” while another in east Texas has named its APCs “Bubba One” and “Bubba Two.”

CRITICS OF SWAT say that this militarized training, weaponry, and organization is leading to an ever more bellicose police culture. “The fundamental problem with the SWAT model is that if police become soldiers, the community becomes the enemy,” says criminologist Tony Platt, one of the first scholars to study SWAT. Also, the more paramilitary police units there are, the more policing in general is militarized. For instance, Portland, Ore., has already given some of its regular cops AR-15s (a version of the M-16), as has Orlando, Fla. Numerous smaller towns, such as Pinole, are even replacing standard police shotguns with H&K MP-54s.

The SWAT culture of militarism is also promulgated by the weapons industry, professional associations, and a slew of magazines, books, and videos. Foremost among these is the National Tactical Officers Association and its publication Tactical Edge, which is marketed exclusively to police officers. (Civilians are prohibited from subscribing or even logging on to the NTOA website.) Less secretive and very widely read is SWAT, the subtitle of which reads, “Special Weapons and Tactics for the Prepared American.” Published by Larry Flynt of Hustler fame, SWAT reads like pornography for gun nuts: “During penetration, the prestressed Quik-Shok projectile expands rapidly and then splits into three even sections. These segments or fragments penetrate in separate directions in an ever-widening pattern inside a soft target. Fragmentation is the main cause of tissue disruption.”

There are literally dozens of similar publications, all of which push products and a scary worldview. Articles in Tactical Edge and SWAT routinely invoke the specter of “better-armed criminals–bigger and more violent street gangs–increased numbers of extremists [and] increased violent crime.”

BACK in the Dog Pound, the VCSU is trawling for “bad guys.” The night’s first bit of excitement starts at a routine traffic stop when a person flees on foot into a nearby house. The VCSU surrounds the area; officers with AR-15s and H&K MP-54s “hold the perimeter,” as a line of five cops rushes the door.

Technically, the police are not in “hot pursuit” and have no right to storm the house, but the VCSU looks mad and their guns make it seem serious, so the elderly woman behind the black metal gate quickly consents to a search. Five big, white cops move into the blue cathode-ray-lit room and grab a young African-American man named David.

“Come on. What? Man, I didn’t do anything!” protests the suspect, his voice momentarily breaking. As David is cuffed, the cops begin opening drawers and lifting cushions in search of drugs. For all the sci-fi gear and military jargon, the VCSU robocops call up an awful piece of the past: More than anything else, they resemble the “patrollers” of the old South, the white slave-catcher militias that spent their nights rousting people living in plantation shacks in search of contraband, weapons, and signs of escape.

“Are you on parole? Probation? Huh?” demands a VCSU officer. “Let’s go outside, David.”

The captive is searched, interrogated, and forced to the ground, while flashlights are continually shined in his face. No drugs are found. But David has lied in saying he isn’t on parole–he is. “That’s a violation of parole, David,” an officer says.

Another black man packed off to jail.

The next two hours are consumed by a standoff involving 30 cops from three different agencies, two helicopters, and, on the other side, one teenager who is merely wanted for questioning about brandishing a gun. Then it’s back to storming the “hot spot” corners, forcing “bad guys” to the ground, doing “field interviews,” and booking the occasional parole violator or petty drug dealer.

Windsor brings in the heavy artillery.

FROM ALBUQUERQUE to Miami, tactical units not only have harassed innocent people but time and again have shot and killed unarmed civilians. In a recent case in Bethlehem, Penn., a man was killed when a SWAT team shot him and then burned his house down. And increasingly, tactical officers are shooting each other because of confusion and overzealousness, as was recently the case in Oxnard, where Sgt. Daniel Christian dispatched his comrade Officer James Jensen with three shotgun blasts.

Perhaps the most infamous of the big tactical operations was Operation Ready-Rock, launched several years ago in Chapel Hill, N.C., in which police received a “blanket” warrant allowing them to search every person and vehicle on the 100 block of North Graham Street. The police department’s warrant request explained, “We believe that there are no ‘innocent’ people at this place. Only drug sellers and drug buyers are on the described premises.”

The 45 heavily armed raiders sealed off the street and made a “dynamic entrance” into a pool hall by smashing in the front door. Holding the occupants at gunpoint, they ransacked the bar for contraband while one terrified patron urinated in his pants.

But even amid this paramilitary overkill, Southern courtesy prevailed: Whites were allowed to leave the area, while more than 100 African-Americans were searched. Only minor quantities of drugs were found.

A more recent example of an overly aggressive SWAT raid occurred late last year in San Francisco. On Oct. 30, a masked tactical police force of 90 officers, armed with assault rifles and dressed in black fatigues, launched a predawn raid on 13 apartments in the resident-owned Martin Luther King and Marcus Garvey housing cooperatives. The police commandos blew doors off their hinges and cleared rooms in which children were sleeping by tossing in non-lethal “flash-bang grenades,” designed to terrify and disorient suspects. Police said the operation–intended to “put fear in the hearts” of a gang called the Knock Out Posse–went off, more or less, without a hitch.

Residents of the complex disagree.

At a police commission meeting after the raid, furious and sobbing African-American victims recounted in scabrous detail how police officers slapped them, stepped on their necks, and pressed pistol and machine-gun muzzles to their heads as other officers ransacked their homes, upturned beds, and ripped open closets. For dramatic effect, 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. A straight-faced 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 midair.”

Among those held at gunpoint were city employees and grandmothers. Scores of people with no charges against them and clear records, including weeping and terrified children as young as 6, were cuffed and forced to sit half-dressed in the cold dawn. According to Police Chief Fred Lau, this last touch–cuffing the kids–was to keep the youngsters from “running around.” One raid victim was hospitalized after a series of seizures, while others were so distraught they couldn’t return to work for days.

All in all, the raid netted a pound of what narcotics Lieut. Kitt Crenshaw described as “high-grade” marijuana, almost four ounces of crack cocaine, seven pistols, and $4,000 in cash (80 percent of which the SFPD may get to keep and spend thanks to state and federal asset-forfeiture laws). Residents say the money wasn’t drug lucre; rather, it had been collected from a circle of friends to help pay for the funeral of a recently deceased resident, Germain Brown.

A few cities with robust police accountability movements or progressive leadership have kept their local tactical units in check. One such department is that of New Haven, Conn. In 1990 the city elected its first African-American mayor, John Daniels, who appointed maverick reformer Nicholas Pastore as his police chief. “At that point, SWAT was going out several times a week. We were in a full military mode–worst type of policing in the world,” recalls Pastore. “The whole city was suffering trauma. We had politicians saying, ‘the streets are a war zone, the police have taken over,’ and the police were driven by fear and adventure. SWAT was a big part of that.”

Pastore began a radical restructuring of the police department, dividing the city into 10 small police districts, forcing officers to walk beats, and creating community management teams that work with police, social services, and other parts of government to address the root causes of violence. “The community policing broke down the anonymity between the people and the police. That creates accountability and cuts down on brutality. Brutality thrives on anonymity,” says Pastore. “Why do you think SWAT teams wear these ninja suits, cover their badges, and wear executioner masks?”

Pastore has since moved on–he is now a research fellow at the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in New Haven–but his reforms remain. “We only had four tactical callouts all of last year,” says Lt. Gerald Atunes, who heads New Haven’s Emergency Response Team.

IN BERKELEY, a similar ethos of restraint is reflected even in its SWAT team’s name: the Barricaded Suspect, Hostage, and Negotiation Team (or HNT for short). Although the HNT trains once a month, the unit is not deployed as a group. Instead, officers convene only for emergencies such as big shootouts, hostage takings, and riots, or when high-profile visiting politicians require added protection.

Since the HNT was founded in 1976, it has only assembled 79 times. Berkeley’s approach to SWAT is not simply the result of enlightened leadership. Since the late ’60s, when the Black Panthers conducted counterpolice patrols, Berkeley has seen a series of vigorous grassroots police-accountability movements.

The latest is CopWatch, which runs an office, trains citizens in filing complaints and lawsuits, publishes a quarterly report, and agitates before the City Council and Police Review Commission. One of the outfit’s tactics is “cop watching.” During these routine patrols, activists armed with camcorders and a basic knowledge of the law observe and videotape the police as the latter conduct stops, searches, and arrests. “We are always very respectful and stay within the law. But we let the cops know that we won’t be intimidated and that we will exercise our right to observe,” explains Danielle Storer, who helped found the group in 1990.

However, Berkeley and New Haven are rare exceptions. More typical is the situation in Greensboro, N.C., where eight years ago the public library’s bus-sized “bookmobile”–2,000 titles and two librarians–was retired for lack of funds. Shortly thereafter, the bookmobile was bought by the police department and converted into a mobile command-and-control center for its tactical Special Response Team.

“It’s a great piece of equipment,” says police spokesman M. C. Bitner. “It’s really so much better than what we had.”

In the previous van, one 6-foot-5-inch SRT officer had trouble standing up.

This article is part of an ongoing series on the impact of guns in our communities. It originally appeared in The Nation.

From the July 1-7, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

Sonoma County Library