Friday, August 11, 2006

An epidemic of isolated events

Mark Kleiman from The Reality-Based Community links to a study from the right-wing Cato Institute (no tree-hugging touchy-feely lefties there!) about the paramilitary and SWAT aspects of drug-law enforcement. In particular the euphemistic "dynamic entry" and "no-knock" (that is, smash the door down and burst in with guns drawn) raids on people's homes. In 2001, there were forty thousand paramilitary raids across the USA, mainly on drug raids, but also for everything down to domestic disputes and complaints about noisy dogs. The Cato study shows that in a depressingly large number of cases the raids are based on incorrect information and innocent people are terrorised, threatened, shot and even killed by the police who are supposed to protect them.

And not just poor blacks either: incredibly, one major target of paramilitary policing is doctors who are suspected of prescribing "too many" painkillers. Heaven forbid that people should have relief from chronic pain. (Who should decide how many painkillers are "too many" -- the doctor who knows his patients, or some faceless bureacrat in the DEA? Why, the guy with the heavily armed paramilitary SWAT team of course.)

The detailed study, with more than thirty-five pages of case studies and fifteen pages of references, can be downloaded for free here, or a hard copy purchased from here.

There is a dynamic map available on-line [note: requires Javascript] which clearly shows what the author of the study calls "an epidemic of 'isolated incidents'". In most cases, no-one on the law enforcement side was held accountable for their actions, and there is no effort to learn from these 'isolated incidents'.

Not only are police almost never disciplined or held accountable for shooting innocent people, but homeowners who have shot police thinking they were home intruders have been treated with the full fury of the law, up to and including the death penalty. Despite having their houses broken into at 3am, often with no warning at all, and being woken from deep sleep by masked gunmen, homeowners are expected to have superhuman levels of composure and good judgement. Meanwhile, the SWAT teams themselves are encouraged to have a culture of macho, swaggering cruelty: in one botched raid on an innocent household, police accidently set fire to the house, then in front of the owner, Andrea Baker, chased her dog back into the burning house with fire extinguishers. The dog was burnt to death, and the house burnt to the ground, putting neighbouring houses at risk. And the result? One person was arrested for outstanding traffic fines. Another day at work by America's Finest, keeping the streets safe.

One of the clear motives of these paramilitary raids is outright theft by city governments under forfeiture laws: under American law, if you are raided by the police under suspicion of drug crimes, your money and property can be seized by the government, even if you are never convicted of any crime. The money stolen in this way is not insignificant: in just one small American town, El Monte in California, the police force gained $4.5 million in ten years from forfeited property. Not small change however you look at it, and a huge incentive for chronically underfunded police forces with expensive SWAT forces to support. Why raise taxes when you can just steal the money you need? Everybody hates tax increases, but only criminals poor blacks white trash the working class white collar families the living need fear the police.

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