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.