It’s been amusing to watch Congress fret over the FBI’s decision to raid the office of their colleague, Rep. William Jefferson. Current Speaker Dennis Hastert called it “the wrong path,” and has demanded a return of the documents seized. An unnamed member told the Washington Post that the tactics was “unduly aggressive.” Rep. John Conyers called the raid “an act of tremendous violence.” On Tuesday, Rep. James Sensenbrenner held hearings titled, “Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?” At those hearings, Sensenbrenner announced his intention to introduce legislation protecting Congress from future, similar police searches.
Funny. Congress–especially GOP leaders like Hastert and Sensenbrenner–don’t seem nearly as concerned when much more violent, confrontational raids happen to their own constituents.
In fact, last week, just as Rep. Sensenbrenner was scheduling this week’s hearings, a SWAT team in Dodgeville, Wisconsin broke open a window, rolled in a diversionary grenade, and raided an innocent couple’s home in full battle gear. The terrified occupants were handcuffed at gunpoint before police realized they had struck the wrong apartment. Last December, a Pewaukee, Wisconsin SWAT team made a similar mistake, violently breaking into the home of retired lawyer H. Victor Buerosse. That’s Sensenbrenner’s home district. Bueorosse grew understandably furious when he learned that the real target of the raid, his neighbor, was suspected of no more than the recreational use of marijuana.
In October 2000, a black-clad SWAT team mistakenly raided the home of Wendy and Jesus Olveda and their three-year-old daughter Zena. Agents forced their way into the family’s home, and pushed the couple down to the floor at gunpoint with boots to their necks while the terrified little girl looked on. When police realized they had the wrong address, they left without explanation. That raid came five years after another botched raid in which police shot and killed Wisconsin resident Scott Bryant in front of his eight-year-old son.
In Speaker Hastert’s home state of Illinois, a SWAT team forcibly entered the Chicago home of 73-year-old widow Earline Jackson early in the morning of September 2003. They too were on a no-knock drug raid. Unfortunately, they had mistaken the woman’s apartment for an apartment one block to the south. In April 2000, Chicago police broke into the home of Brandon and Richelle Savage, also on a no-knock drug raid. The couple was roused from their sleep and handcuffed at gunpoint before police once again realized they’d entered the wrong home. Chicago police then refused to pay for the damage they’d done to the innocent couple’s home until a local newspaper columnist publicized the incident.
These are merely a handful of examples from Hastert and Sensenbrenner’s home states. In the course of researching a forthcoming paper for the Cato Institute on the overuse of SWAT teams, I’ve found hundreds of similar examples of botched, paramilitary-style drug raids. It’s difficult to estimate just how often it happens–many times, victims are too frightened or intimidated to alert the media when they’ve been wrongly targeted. But it’s easily dozens of times per year, perhaps hundreds.
Is it fair to blame Congress for these types of mistakes?
I think so. Here’s why: Since the late 1980s, Congress has made a bounty of surplus military gear available to local police departments, either at steeply discounted prices, or for free. Millions of pieces of equipment have been transferred this way. Once stocked with military-grade weaponry, local police departments look for ways to put their new equipment to use. So they form SWAT teams. More drug-war incentives from Congress–this time in the form of grants for drug arrests–then induce those departments to send the SWAT team out for routine warrant service of nonviolent drug suspects.
The result? An explosion in the number of “no-knock,” forced-entry type raids in the U.S. One criminologist who’s studied the phenomenon estimates that the number of SWAT “call-outs” in the U.S. has increased from about 3,000 per year in the 1980s to more than 40,000 per year today. It’s of no coincidence that this dramatic rise began in the early 1980s, just as we began ratcheting up the War on Drugs.
Given that many of these raids are carried out based on tips from shady informants, bad information, and miscommunication, they too frequently result in SWAT teams storming the wrong home. Of course, even when everything goes according to plan, there’s still the question of whether sending police officers dressed like soldiers on midnight raids of homes of people suspected of no more than recreational drug use is something we ought to tolerate in a free society.
Both Hastert and Sensenbrenner are staunch supporters of not only the drug war, but of the increasingly militaristic way the government has gone about fighting it. Sensenbrenner, for example, recently introduced a bill that would have sent parents to jail for two years or more for not reporting drug activity involving their own children within 24 hours of learning of it.
Given these two political leaders continued support for overly aggressive drug policing, it’s hard to take them all that seriously when they get up in arms about FBI agents dressed in suits raiding a colleague’s office.
–Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute. His forthcoming paper is “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”