Alberta Spruill was a 57-year-old devout churchgoer; a hardworking city employee who had never been in trouble with the law. At 6 a.m. on a May morning, Spriull was preparing to leave her Harlem apartment for work when a group of police officers broke down her door and threw a concussion grenade into her home.
The officers had received a tip from a confidential informant who told them that a convicted felon was selling drugs and guns from Spriull's apartment. The tip, it turned out, was a lie. Spruill suffered a heart attack during the traumatic police raid of her home and died two hours later.
Raiding the wrong home was nothing unusual for the NYPD. In 2003, the department admitted to 540 no-knock drug raids on the wrong address.
As Radley Balko, a Tennessee resident who serves as a senior writer and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post, points out in his troubling new book, "Rise of the Warrior Cop," botched law enforcement raids -- and the death and destruction so frequently associated with them -- have become commonplace. (Disclosure: Balko is a personal friend of Free Press opinion page editor Drew Johnson.)
In recent years, according to Balko, America's police forces have become increasingly militarized, "the result of a generation of politicians and public officials fanning and exploiting public fears by declaring wars on abstractions like crime, drug use and terrorism."
The trampling of the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure by lawmakers and courts, as well as the flood of military-grade equipment into local police departments, means that police are more powerful -- and citizens are less protected -- than ever before.
Over 100 SWAT raids take place every day in America. Most of them, as Balko notes, are to enforce laws against consensual crimes. Small-scale drug possession, underage drinking, prostitution rings and gambling are common excuses for SWAT teams to smash into homes and businesses with their guns drawn.
The SWAT raids frequently involve flash grenades and pepper spray, officers routinely shoot dogs and force children and innocent bystanders to the ground -- often erroneously or without a proper warrant.
"Rise of the Warrior Cop" recounts a raid on the home of Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md. A Prince George's County SWAT team blew Calvo's front door down with explosives and filled his home with gunfire. They held a gun to his mother-in-law's head, who had been cooking pasta sauce when the invasion began. The SWAT officers then shot and killed Calvo's two black labs, Payton and Chase, and tracked the dogs' blood throughout the home as they dumped Calvo's drawers and scoured his belongings.
Calvo had been targeted, wrongly, in the SWAT raid because drug traffickers were mailing packages of marijuana to Berwyn Heights addresses, including his, so a FedEx driver could intercept the packages and sell the drugs.
The degree to which the militarization of police forces has taken place is evident in how SWAT teams and police departments dress and in the weapons and vehicles they use.
"In many cities," Balko writes, "police departments have given up the traditional blue uniforms for 'battle dress uniforms' modeled after soldier attire. Police departments across the country now sport armored personnel carriers designed for use on a battlefield. Some have helicopters, tanks and Humvees. They carry military-grade weapons."
Federal giveaways of retired military equipment are putting weapons and vehicles that simply don't belong in the hands of local police officers in cities and towns throughout America.
Balko discloses that the Chattanooga Police Department has a .50-caliber machine gun. Even small-town police forces are getting in on the act. The East Ridge SWAT unit has an armored personnel carrier and a military-grade Hummer.
That heavy duty equipment is often misused. For example, Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," allowed actor and wannabe lawman Steven Seagal to drive a tank into the living room of a suspected chicken fighter. Seagal claimed the extreme force was justified because, "animal cruelty is one of my pet peeves."
A dog was killed in the raid and the suspect's chickens were subsequently euthanized.
"Rise of the Warrior Cop" offers several solutions to turn the tide away from police militarization and toward more reasonable policing policies.
Stopping the assault on those involved in consensual crimes, increasing the filming of cops and eliminating policies that make firing police officers almost impossible in certain areas are all steps that should be taken.
Ultimately, however, the most effective way to curb the use of military tactics by police officers is to put a stop to bad legislation that encourages police militarization.
Voters need to elect public officials who refuse to allow police officers to, as Balko notes, drive tanks on American streets, break into homes, kill dogs and engage in "commando raids" for white collar and even regulatory offenses.
Principled governors, mayors and members of Congress must be willing to protect the rights of Americans and restrain the excessive and unnecessary militarization of police in our country.
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