The militarization of our police and raids gone wrong

Picture 1-97

(Click image above or here for Google mashup of botched paramilitary police raids.) Dan says:

A sagacious fellow by the name of Radley Balko, whose chief journalistic endeavor has been exposing the excesses of the War on Drugs, has compiled an impressive list of botched raids conducted by hyper-agressive police units acroos the country.

The militarization of our police forces, with SWAT units armed with weapons designed for warfare against foreign enemies, has been spreading from the inner city to the suburbs, and from small towns to farm country.

All across America, local police units are arming and training officers to bust down doors, destroy personal property and mercilessly manhandle all living creatures in their path. Dogs, children and even elderly women have been shot by rampaging SWAT teams, usually in the hunt for trivial amounts of drug contraband.

Here's a recent example:
Williams said he believes the team was supposed to be raiding a parolee’s home Aug. 24 when they inadvertently hit the wrong door. Officers ended up at the home of David and Lillian Scott, just off Rancho California Road.

Lillian Scott said she and her husband were in the living room discussing family plans, their 15-year-old daughter was in the garage with two friends and their 16-year-old son was in another room feeding the Scotts’ 5-month-old baby.

That all changed at 9:35 p.m. she said, when Temecula police officers –- four or five, she’s not sure –– carrying rifles charged though the unlocked front screen door and ordered the couple to the floor.

“Two of them came over and put handcuffs on the two of us,” Lillian Scott said. “We asked what we had done wrong and didn’t get an answer.”

Elsewhere in the house other officers handcuffed their daughter and her two friends.

“(The officers) told them to get down on the f–ing floor,” she said.

Her 16-year-old son, who was feeding the baby, was also ordered to the floor and handcuffed, Scott said.

From the other room, Scott heard her infant crying.

“I asked if my baby was OK and the officer told me if I moved he was going to put a bullet in my head,” Scott said.”



Radley Balko of Reason says: I think I sent a copy of my [Cato Institute] paper on the rise of paramilitary police forces last year, but if you didn't get it, you can download it for free here.

I recommend sipping a glass of something stiff while reading.

We also did a Google Maps mashup of about 300 botched raids to go with the paper. But it's already out of date. There have been a couple of dozen more botched SWAT raids since I left Cato for Reason magazine last November.


  1. Clearly there’s a problem here with the militarization of our police forces, but there’s also a problem with the reporting here. I followed up on about 2 dozen of the links related to that story and did a little more searching.

    There’s no mention on this site or as part of this post that this group was (at least temporarily) disbanded, and there’s an active investigation.

    Why wasn’t the fact that the Temecula mayor at least *seems* to be trying to do the right thing not mentioned at all? And that the victims are involved and not being ignored like in most other cases?

    In fact, the North County Times news story that part of this was pasted (without attribution) from started with:

    HEADLINE: Team of Temecula officers disbanded, under investigation

    By: JOHN HALL and JOHN HUNNEMAN – Staff Writers

    TEMECULA —- A special team of police officers who are supposed to target the more serious crimes and criminals in the city has been temporarily disbanded and an internal investigation into their actions is under way, Police Chief Jerry Williams confirmed Friday.

    There’s clearly a widespread problem that needs to be addressed, but let’s not lose the high ground by incompletely or incorrectly reporting the story. That just dilutes the message and gives “them” ammo about “media bias”.

  2. “The militarization of our police forces, with SWAT units armed with weapons designed for warfare against foreign enemies, has been spreading from the inner city to the suburbs, and from small towns to farm country.”
    This paragraph really hurts to read. It pushes the xenophobic idea that these weapons are ok to use on foreigners, but not on U.S. Americans. It also seems to say that it’s ok that this was happening in inner cities- but now that it’s reaching the suburbs, small towns and farm country, it now is something to worry about. Why is the harassment of a farmer worse than the harassment of an inner city worker?

  3. I did a google search of Temecula “david scott”;

    The first two articles are from the North County Times / The Californian.
    Lillian Scott is citied in both articles, so it not just a coincidence by David’s name. Their 18 year old daughter was murdered along with her friend back in 2003. The second artcle is her obituary. Does this couple have horrible luck or is someone making up news?

  4. Wow. I wonder how the officer would explain his shooting a handcuffed suspect in the head while they laid on the ground?

    Sadly, I’m afraid that in this new, post-9/11 America, he never would have to…

  5. The threat to shoot in the head was probably to intimidate rather than follow through. Plus, it doesn’t have to be post 9-11 for a cop to pull the trigger, release the cuffs, and then have his buddies claim, “they were coming right for us!”

  6. Typcl nnsns rprtng. Dg dpr nt th mtvtn bhnd “nws” lk ths nd y fnd tht th “rprtr” hs nvr bn vctm f crm nd slly hs bn rrstd n th pst.

  7. Why shouldn’t SWAT teams be heavily armed? What does that have to do with police officers using excessive force? He’s talking about two separate issues.

  8. Anonymous #10:

    Why shouldn’t SWAT teams be heavily armed? What does that have to do with police officers using excessive force? He’s talking about two separate issues.

    Anon 10, some of that SWAT gear is beyond the scope of almost any imaginable police action. If they’re carrying it, they’ll use it. Going in armed for hyper-violent low-probability events means they’re more likely to overreact. The odds of this overreaction occurring are far in excess of the odds that they’ll actually need that much firepower.

  9. Where is the map of successful police raids that resulted in the arrest/capture of a person who was a real threat to society? Or would that color things differently?

    If you actually read the map, you see an awful lot of hyperbole instead of actual facts. A mention of the time period the map encompasses would be great – 10 years? Really? Is that even useful?

    I’m a card carrying liberal, but lame arguments like this hurt the cause.

  10. It bothers me that every time there is a post on BoingBoing with political implications there is some kind of follow up that tries to spin the issue. They are usually added without comment. I’d like to see some discussion of how people are apparently successful in inserting their own political agenda into BoingBoing posts.

    I would also appreciate it if BoingBoing discussed the politicization of blog comments. Not just here but everywhere as far as I can tell. For instance, is “BTPearcy” really a liberal? Maybe, but increasingly comments like his (I am a liberal but…) show up all over. Or take the first “Anonymous” above, does he have a political agenda and is he a paid concern troll?

    Not much one can do about comments but I am bothered by the first issue. You’re getting p’wnd Mark. Maybe you could add a note that said: “Here is the nutcase libertarian view from the Cato Institute.” or “Here is the corporate sociopath multi-billionaire spin”. It would help.

  11. Just to address a few of the concerns, here.

    As for the “nutcase libertarian view from the Cato Institute,” well, I suppose that’s one ad hominem way of characterizing my work, from someone who hasn’t read the paper. I’d add that I’ve written on this issue for Slate, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, National Review, and about a dozen other outlets. All were checked and approved by editors. My research on this issue has also been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    I point this out only to suggest that my concern over and research into this issue has been accepted by some pretty mainstream outlets, not fringe, nutcase, publications.

    As for contrasting botched raids with how many raids end successfully, that’s beside the point. SWAT raids were originally intended for violent, emergency situations such as hostage takings, bank robberies, or escaped fugitives. They’re now overwhelmingly used to serve drug warrants on suspects with no history of violence, and who certainly pose no imminent threat. In this sense, SWAT raids aren’t defusing violent situations, they’re creating them. Imagine waking in the middle of the night to armed intruders in your home. Naturally, many targets’ first instinct is to defend themselves.

    This in itself is troubling. There were 3,000 or so SWAT raids per year in the early 1980s. By the early 2000s, there were around 15,000. So well more than 1,000 times a month in this country, a police unit armed with better gear than many of our troops in Iraq kick down a citizen’s door and raid, throw him to the floor at gunpoint, and rifle through his belongings.

    That once or twice a week they get the wrong home only exacerbates the problem.

    Put another way, we could start using SWAT raids to collect from parking ticket scofflaws, and I’ll bet the vast majority of the raids hit the right suspect, and do not end with someone dead. That doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate use of paramilitary tactics. I’d argue the same point applies to your average drug user. I’ve reviewed hundreds of these raids. The vast majority hit low-level dealers and recreational users, not major suppliers. Most don’t produce weapons of any kind, and don’t result in jail time for the suspects.

    There’s also the problem of what constitutes a “success.” If police say in affidavits they need a no-knock warrant because they believe the suspect is an armed-to-the-teeth drug kingpin ,and after the raid find only a couple of bags of marijuana for personal use, does that count as a “success” or a mistake?

    Radley Balko

  12. Sorry, the 15,000 above should say “40,000.”

    Estimate comes from criminologist Peter Kraska of the University of Eastern Kentucky, who has been surveying police department use of SWAT teams since the early 1980s.

    Radley Balko

  13. I’m not as interested in the map as I am in Balko’s report. We (the US) have made the effort to consider people innocent until proven guilty to avoid the conviction of even one innocent person – despite the fact that some guilty people may get off the hook. Yet, SWAT teams are not held responsible for the killing (or terrorizing) of innocent people in botched raids?

  14. Wow, thanks for perpetuating an over-reaction to a nonissue, BoingBoing. Sms pr fr th crs wth th nw st “rdsgn”.

    I wonder how many here would complain about the “militarization” of SWAT departments if they were in a situation like the North Hollywood bank robbery (you know, the one where the robbers had body armor and AKs) or any of the numerous school shootings?

    The fact is that SWAT was formed as a reaction to criminals who have easy access to military-grade hardware. I’m not nuts about the War On Drugs but do we really need to paint with such a wide brush? It would be great if they weren’t needed but SWAT serves a necessary duty.

  15. It’s not just SWAT teams. Every day, I see fresh news stories and YouTube videos of police beating or executing non-violent citizens on Reddit and other online news aggregators.

    Last time I watched the TV show Cops, I was astonished to see two segments in a row where traffic cops pulled their guns on un-armed, non-violent drivers and actually shot them. I was astounded. Meanwhile, the narrator thought it was all cool how bad-ass and brave the cops were. I changed the channel.

    Today’s state police: assholes with guns, spending your money to do whatever the hell they want.

  16. Noen, I’m keeping an eye on it.

    Anonymous #17, I knew it was only a matter of time until someone mentioned the North Hollywood shootout. It’s a real standout case. I suspect a lot of the militarization of police departments has been a reaction to it.

    Is heavy armament justified if you’re going up against guys like Phillips and Matasareanu? Sure. But how often does that happen? It’s like that case where a guy went bonkers, stole an M-60 Patton tank, and went on a spree. Nobody could stop him, either, but we’re not giving our PDs anti-tank guns.

    Nobody’s arguing the police don’t need military-grade gear when they’re up against criminals who have it too. The thing is, what you train for is what you’ll wind up doing in the field. Legit occasions for SWAT tactics don’t turn up all that often, so they’re getting used on inappropriate targets. Unfortunately SWAT tactics are more error-prone than normal police procedures, and when something goes wrong, it gets real expensive real fast.

  17. Ain’t sure where to put it put I have a suggestion for the site:
    Could you put rss-feeds for the individual comment-threads in there so people can keep track of those without having to manually check them?

  18. anonymous #2: War on Terror, War on Drugs…

    Perhaps next time we can have a War on Someone who Deserves it For a Change

    What, like Saddam Hussein?

  19. To all the people defending the police depts and saying botched raids are uncommon: I have been a victim of such a raid and it is the single most traumatic experience I have had. My wife and I now suffer from PTSD and have frequent nightmares related to the incident, even though it’s been more than 3 years since it happened. I now have panic attacks whenever someone knocks on my door.

    Perhaps the worst part of it is that there is no recourse for such an event. They left after a few terrifying hours and said “stay out of trouble.”

    All of you who think only violent criminals are treated this way are sorely mistaken. I pity you and your blithe ignorance.

  20. Anonymous #23, if you’d be willing to email me (, I’d love to chat with you about your experience.

  21. On Friday, February 16, at 1:00pm, there was a frightening incident at our home, involving police. My husband Bradford, one of our freelancers, Wade, and I were working in our living room when the doorbell rang. Thinking it was the mailman, I answered the door to find two strange men, whom I didn’t know. They did not immediately identify themselves. They were fighting on my front step over money, and one of them stated that the other one was looking to buy drugs from me. I was shocked, and called Bradford to the door for assistance.

    Once he got to the landing, he spoke the guys for a second, and then called for Wade, and told me to call 911. Bradford and Wade went outside to restrain the two strangers. I went inside to call 911, and as I closed the door to our house, I heard Bradford telling the two strangers that the cops were on the way, and this would be settled when they arrived.

    A very short time passed after I made the 911 call from our home phone, and I heard a bunch of abrasive yelling outside, so I opened the door to see what was happening. When I opened the door I was met by a guy with a gun in my face, saying, “GET THE F*** ON THE GROUND!!” Needless to say, I was terrified, and immediately complied. I did NOT know if he was a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. I thought we were being robbed. AFTER I was on the ground he said, “STAY ON THE GROUND! I’LL SHOOT YOU IN THE F***ING HEAD!!!” I stayed on the ground, hearing commotion, yelling and footsteps. Then I heard another voice saying, “GET UP! GET UP!! GET OUT OF THE WAY!!!” Afraid to move, I didn’t even realize they were talking to me, until I felt a hand on my arm (which left bruises), pulling me to my feet. I was led to the lower level of our home, where I was again ordered to the ground at gunpoint, and put in handcuffs. I was then led upstairs, and when we reached the landing, I asked the female officer escorting me, “Can someone please tell me what’s going on here?” She, very rudely said, “Yeah, we got a call from this house.” I answered, “I know, I’m the one who called you.” She appeared surprised to hear that.

    As I was escorted to the upper level of our home, I realized that Bradford and Wade were also in handcuffs. They had been ordered to the ground, and handcuffed outside. As they were lead into our house behind me, a man yelled, “NOBODY TALK TO EACH OTHER! WE’RE BRINGING YOU ALL UPSTAIRS. DO NOT TALK TO EACH OTHER!”

    (Later, Bradford and Wade told me of their experience outside, prior to coming in the house. While they were holding the two strangers on the front step, the officers ran up the house, with guns drawn saying, “ALL YOU F***ERS ARE UNDER ARREST!! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!! YOU’RE ALL UNDER ARREST!” Wade, not knowing who these guys were or that they were talking to him, did not immediately comply. He was grabbed by the hair, and forcefully pulled to the ground.)

    I was brought into our kitchen and requested to use the bathroom, to which the female officer rudely replied, “Well THAT’S not gonna happen!” We were all detained in our kitchen while 10 officers searched our home. Then, the female officer searched me, without asking for my consent. Here’s the embarrassing part. Despite my need to use the bathroom, the female officer forced me to spread my legs to be searched, which caused me to wet my pants. This was and is very embarrassing and humiliating.

    We were all detained in handcuffs for about 45 minutes while about 10 officers searched our house, without a search warrant. They found nothing. The officers finally checked our identifications, and sorted out that we are NOT drug dealers, and we did not even know the two strangers that suddenly appeared on our doorstep.

    Then the three of us were all interviewed separately. Afterwards, the officers left our home as quickly as they invaded it, smiling and saying, “It’s Miller time!”, on their way out.

    I can only thank God that our four children were not at home with this happened.

    Nicole Thompson

  22. Generally, I can’t stand anything the Cato Institue says or has to do with. However, that doesn’t mean from time to time they’re not going to hit something on target either. This is definitely one of those rare cases……..The Constitution has been under fire from “both” so-called conservatives and liberals for years now. Both seem to have no problem upserting such, if it furthers their plans, whatever that maybe………I wonder if there was ever a much deserved apology given to that “extremely innocent” family “victimized” in Temecula, Calif. For what they had to suffer through and endure. Sadly, I’ll bet they never were and most likely the damn District Attourney’s Office probably tried to defend the offending officers wrongful actions……..Oh and yes. I agree the article was written as if the Inner-City Worker was somehow “less deserving” of Constitutional Protection than the Suburbanite or Country Boy were. And that “Good Law-Abiding” Foreign Tourists and National’s were also somehow less deserving of “Human Decency”, than American Citizen’s were. Hope to see more on this subject!!

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