Kick in My Door, Get Shot.

Recently, incidents in which police raids target the wrong house and result in the death of an occupant or an officer have begun to receive more attention. Paramilitary tactics developed to surprise, disorient and rapidly subdue heavily armed and violent drug suspects backfire horribly when employed against the law abiding.

These incidents hit home for me because I’ve actually come very close to experiencing such a raid.

We live in a duplex in an upscale suburban neighborhood. One afternoon, a neighbor knocked on my door and ask if I knew the police were outside. I went outside to see a small army of cops, accompanied by a fire truck, ambulance and hazmat truck jamming up my cul de sac. I had been expecting some cops to show up but not in such force.

A few months before. A middle-aged woman and her teenage son moved in next door. A family emergency forced the woman to have to leave town for a few months, so she had her 21-year-old son come stay to look after his brother. Turned out, however, that both brothers had a meth addiction.

I soon figured out they were cooking meth as well, after the elder brother asked if I could take him to Costco to buy matches in bulk. A lot of people came to “visit” and the brothers began to fight and tear things up. The entire situation became very surreal.

Deciding what to do about the situation proved more difficult than I had imagined beforehand. I had always assumed that I would pursue a zero tolerance policy but when confronted with the real human tragedy, hesitated. The boys were not monsters. The elder was obviously struggling with his addiction and when sober was a gifted mechanic and a helpful neighbor. We didn’t have any problems with theft and we didn’t worry too much about our physical safety. (One advantage in being from rural Texas: people absolutely believe that you will kill them if they threaten your loved ones. No posturing needed.) We worried that we would destroy any chance he might have of recovery by sending him to prison.

(I’m leaving out a lot of the nuance in the story for the sake of brevity.)

We did what we could to see that the boys had food, basic first aid, provided odd jobs, broke up fights, etc. The boys continued to deteriorate and we were about to be forced to do something just to keep them alive when they had a falling out with one of their “friends” and the individual turned them in to the police.

Fortunately, the police showed good sense and simply showed up in force and knocked. The elder brother, who wasn’t a thug, let them in without incident. The boys got hauled off and then evicted and I never saw them again.

Looking back, I realize that things might have gone very badly if the police had made a mistake. I did worry at the time that the various conflicts inherent in the meth “lifestyle” would spill over onto us. I specifically worried that a methhead might attack or invade our side of the duplex by mistake. I am absolutely convinced that if someone had suddenly invaded my house, I would have assumed that they were criminals, not police, and that I would have responded violently.

I don’t think I am unique in this regard. Law abiding people without guilty consciouses don’t expect the police to assault them and when faced with such an event assume that the invaders are in fact criminals. Given the ease of impersonating police in the situation, basically by shouting “police”, it would seem the obvious tactic for a home invader to use. A reasonable person will have no solid information to base a decision on in the 2-3 seconds they have to make a life or death decision. If they guess wrong, they or their loved ones could die horribly.

Police paramilitary tactics exacerbate the problem. Designed to surprise and disorient heavily armed and violent criminals, the tactics also surprise and disorient the mistakenly targeted innocent civilians and greatly raise the probability that the disoriented civilian will respond mistakenly.

I really don’t know what to do about the situation short term. The war on drugs isn’t going away anytime soon. Sometimes, surprise raids are needed both to preserve evidence and to protect everyone involved. Fire fights with hyped up druggies also present a risk to innocent bystanders. Yet, I do think that the police have come to do so many of these raids that they have grown careless with their application. Once-extraordinary tactics have become ordinary and the risk of mistakes increased in tandem.

Perhaps we’ve reached a tipping point in the War on Drug Users whereat the inevitable unintentional harm caused in enforcing the drug laws begins to outweigh the good they bring. When someone as relentlessly bourgeois as myself begins to worry about mistakenly killing police or being killed by them, we have crossed a line.

13 thoughts on “Kick in My Door, Get Shot.”

  1. I think the drug-war tipping point of costs vs. benefits was passed a long time ago, and that the Internet is now gradually making those costs visible to everyone. But it seems true also that the militarization of police tactics continues to advance.

  2. Here’s what gets me about cases like this one, and the Cory Maye case. By all appearances Ryan Frederick (the shooter) was justified, but since the man he killed turned out to be an on-duty cop carrying out his duty in good faith, he will have a very tough time finding a jury willing to acquit. A “not guilty” verdict would be tantamount to saying Jarrod Shivers (the fallen officer) somehow brought his death upon himself – which obviously isn’t what the verdict should hinge upon, but jurors being human, it will be very hard for them to get past that nonetheless.

  3. Excellent post, Shannon.

    Decriminalization and treating addiction as a health problem is the best,though highly imperfect answer. The black market in drugs is financing organized crime, terrorism and guerilla armies worldwide and our attempt at law enforcement/prohibition has wasted billions of dollars while eroding our basic liberties and corrupting our police departments.

    If someone wants to addle their brains but isn’t harming anyone else, it is, in my view, a problem for his or her family and friends to deal with to secure medical/mental health intervention, not the justice system.

  4. Decriminalizing possession while the usual addicts still turn to crime to feed their habits [as though they’re stable enough for a good 9 to 5 job] is nice three card monte game of shifting the issue and problem. It is the individual who has chosen a known life style. This is coming back as the classical liberal victimhood mantra. You don’t have to be poor to destroy yourself, there are enough names in the news to show that.

    The specific problem is that the tool [heavily armed SWAT] is being misused by departments who are demonstrating they lack adult supervision. We got a toy, we need to use it. There is an obvious lack of accountability and real authority in verifying when and where the application of that tool happens. Whether its storming a house in Colorado to seize a child that some paramedic thinks should be taken to an emergency room to the acceptance of repeated perjuries to get a piece of paper to misidentifying the target home [think CIA Belgrade Chinese Embassy] where were the checks and balances in the process? Too many jurisdictions have armed themselves with very powerful equipment and weapons without the adult command and protocols that is need to be in place to insure safety in implementation and execution. Some departments need the stuff, some departments need to be under ‘weapons tight’, some departments shouldn’t be allowed the stuff.

  5. Don,

    The specific problem is that the tool [heavily armed SWAT] is being misused by departments who are demonstrating they lack adult supervision.

    I don’t think that is the real problem. The real problem is that we have given the police an near impossible task in enforcing drug laws. When you try to nail jello to the wall, your solutions inevitably grow increasingly baroque and destructive as each new attempt proves unsatisfactory.

    Enforcing the laws means catching people with the drugs red handed. Given the compact nature of the drugs and the ease by which they can be destroyed, catching people red handed requires a blitzkrieg raid that subdues everyone in a location within 30 seconds or less. That reality in turn mandates no-knock warrant raids which lead to tragedy when the inevitable mistakes occur.

    It’s easy to say that in hindsight that paramilitary tactics should not have been used in a particular situation but, as in most areas of modern life, we create incentives for police decision makers to always err on the side of caution. In the case of serving warrants, that usually means employing tactics which prevent officers, suspects or bystanders from being killed if the worse case scenario develops. If they don’t take such precautions, we castigate them in hindsight for not doing so.

    I wish the problem was as simple as better oversight, training and protocols but I think fundamental problem lays in the impossible task we have set for the police.

  6. “Decriminalizing possession while the usual addicts still turn to crime to feed their habits [as though they’re stable enough for a good 9 to 5 job] is nice three card monte game of shifting the issue and problem”

    Not really Don, it’s a policy option with trade-offs in terms of costs and benefits like the current one.

    Even if secondary crime remains static ( a large assumption but let’s grant it) decriminalization frees up immense police and prosecutorial resources and penitentiary space for muggers, purse snatchers and burglars who currently are treated with leniency for lack of prison beds taken up by drug offenders.

  7. I have long thought that we should totally legalize marijuana. Let the cigarette makers and the beer brewers come up with brands and packaging, with various grades. (My dope smoking friends tell me they cannot get pot that is weak enough anymore, a consequence of the drug war). Sell it in liquor stores. Regulate time, place and manner of use, like tobacco. Have nannyish TV adds telling people not to drive stoned. Tax it.

    Give it five years. See what happens.

    If it is a disaster, don’t try it with harder drugs.

    If it has a net-positive impact, such as fewer people in jail, fewer wasted law enforcement resources, increased tax revenue, medicalizing rather than criminalizing destructive use of the stuff — as I suspect — then we can look at how to handle the harder stuff.

    But middle class voters won’t go for it. Protecting their kids is the concern 100% of the time. The point is to keep all drugs out of the mainstream of acceptability. The social costs are “worth it” to middle class suburbanites, and always have been, and will continue to be so, for whatever reason.

    Expect no changes.

  8. I would legalize everything but Lex’s plan seems like a good start. My one quibble is that we should be hesitant to tax the stuff. It would be tempting to pols to slap heavy taxes on now-licit narcotics, but doing so would probably maintain some of the illicit market and crime that now exist, because the illegal stuff isn’t taxed and can be sold cheaper. You see something like this now with cigarettes: cigarette smuggling is a big business for organized crime in places where cigarette excise taxes are high.

    But I agree that legalization is politically unlikely now. Perhaps the Internet’s increased publicity about SWAT-team debacles will eventually change enough people’s minds to produce reform.

    The old truism is that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged and a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested. Perhaps we should add that a pro-drug-legalization person is someone who has seen people’s lives ruined by the police or legal system over minor drug offenses.

  9. I am middle class. I have children. I recently had to have a deprogramming session with my second grader so he doesn’t have an idiotic idea about drugs, what they are, and how you should approach them.

    No, middle class parents are perfectly able to think things through and come out pro-legalization. I am not alone.

  10. I haven’t had Shannon’s experience, but close. Living in a house previously owned by a drug dealer and that remained between two pushers in Austin was not charming. Stuff disappeared regularly (I had nothing that made much difference if it was gone or not – but when one sheet and a blanket disappeared and the other sheet and quilt remained I felt a bit uneasy). Legalizing marijuana seemed a reasonable argument topic, but I never received a paper that was well-argued or even, really, coherent.

    Okay, in theory I think legalizing drugs is a good idea. Sure, I don’t think most of the people I know who do drugs are really harming anyone – in fact, since most of the people I know very well just smoke dope I don’t think they are even harming themselves. But the fact that my husband’s friends who do seem to have arrested development in many other ways and since the kids who wrote those papers apparently needed all the concentration and brain cells at their command to lead reasonable lives, don’t expect people like me to be very enthusiastic about your position, Jonathan. I’ll grant that what’s happening is pretty lousy (and I haven’t even begun with the guys I taught in a prison where almost everyone was in for drugs), so I’d probably vote for legalizing. But I’m sure not going to be carrying a placard & marching for it.

  11. “Living in a house previously owned by a drug dealer and that remained between two pushers in Austin was not charming.”

    I’d have a hard time sleeping at night. I admit being a tad on the paranoid side though.

  12. Does anyone remember that quaint notion that our Founding Fathers had? It was called “inalienable rights.” There has never been a legal definition of what an inalienable right is, but I believe that any and all behavior that is non-violent, non-coerced, non-larcenous, consensual adult behavior that does not physically harm others or the property of others, that does not present an immediate and direct threat to others or the property of others, that does not disturb the peace or create a public nuisance, is the inalienable right of all adults, whether it harms the person who behaves in that manner or not.

    We don’t arrest people for drinking alcohol, which is a true narcotic drug. We only arrest them when they harm or threaten to harm others. The present, so-called, war on drugs is actually a war on the inalienable right of all adult citizens and it stems from personal/religious moral standards that I, among many others, do not accept. Basically, the drug laws force other peoples personal moral and religious beliefs down my throat . . . and I don’t even belong to that church.

    It is not well known that prior to the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, all of the presently illegal drugs (that existed then) were legally available and inexpensive and there was no, I repest, no criminal justice problem associated with their use. Go ask Joseph McNamara, former Chief of Police of San Jose, Californa, with 35 years of police experience, and now a Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Standford University if you don’t believe me.

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