As policing has militarized to fight a faltering war on drugs, few tactics have proved as dangerous as the use of forcible-entry raids to serve narcotics search warrants, which regularly introduce staggering levels of violence into missions that might be accomplished through patient stakeouts or simple knocks at the door.
Thousands of times a year, these “dynamic entry” raids exploit the element of surprise to effect seizures and arrests of neighborhood drug dealers. But they have also led time and again to avoidable deaths, gruesome injuries, demolished property, enduring trauma, blackened reputations and multimillion-dollar legal settlements at taxpayer expense, an investigation by The New York Times found.
For the most part, governments at all levels have chosen not to quantify the toll by requiring reporting on SWAT operations. But The Times’s investigation, which relied on dozens of open-record requests and thousands of pages from police and court files, found that at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers died in such raids from 2010 through 2016. Scores of others were maimed or wounded.
The casualties have occurred in the execution of no-knock warrants, which give the police prior judicial authority to force entry without notice, as well as warrants that require the police to knock and announce themselves before breaking down doors. Often, there is little difference.
Some SWAT veterans find it confounding that many police agencies remain so devoted to dynamic entry. The tactic is far from universally embraced, and a number of departments have retired or restricted its use over the years, often after a bad experience.
The National Tactical Officers Association, which might be expected to mount the most ardent defense, has long called for using dynamic entry sparingly. Robert Chabali, the group’s chairman from 2012 to 2015, goes so far as to recommend that it never be used to serve narcotics warrants.
“It just makes no sense,” said Mr. Chabali, a SWAT veteran who retired as assistant chief of the Dayton, Ohio, Police Department in 2015. “Why would you run into a gunfight? If we are going to risk our lives, we risk them for a hostage, for a citizen, for a fellow officer. You definitely don’t go in and risk your life for drugs.”
Another former chairman of the association, Phil Hansen, said SWAT teams tended to use dynamic entry as “a one-size-fits-all solution to tactical problems.” As commander of the Police Department in Santa Maria, Calif., and before that a longtime SWAT leader for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, he said it seemed foolhardy to move so aggressively in a state that voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana.
“Why am I risking people’s lives to save an ounce of something that they’re bringing in by the freighter every year?” he asked.
“If you want to take the position that narcotics laws in this country should not be enforced, then O.K., yeah,” said Sheriff Greg Champagne of St. Charles Parish in Louisiana, the president of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “That’s not the position of the law enforcement people around the country that I know. If you’re going to make narcotics cases you need to have evidence, and search warrants are how you get it.”
Sheriff Champagne said his deputies looked for opportunities to detain suspects on the street or in cars. Even so, he said, “there are times we just have to go in.”
“There’s an argument that no-knock warrants can actually be safer for residents and officers because a well-trained SWAT team can neutralize a situation in seconds and minimize the chance for hostage-takings and standoffs,” he added. “You can always point to the one bad case, but look at the thousands of cases where a no-knock warrant was executed without injury and heroin is seized. How many lives are saved because we got it off the street?”
Clearly there are other factors that contribute to the tactic’s staying power. Some of it, according to long-term observers, derives from the adrenalized, hypermasculine, militaristic ethos of SWAT.
“It’s culturally intoxicating, a rush,” said Dr. Kraska, the criminologist. “It involves dressing up in body armor and provocative face coverings and enhanced-hearing sets, a cyborg 21st-century kind of appeal. And instead of sitting around and waiting for something to happen twice or three times a year, you can go out and generate it.”
That culture is reinforced by a cottage industry of tactical training contractors, many of them veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, who are hired by police departments to keep SWAT teams up to date.
“For them, collateral damage is something you try to avoid but it’s not a deal breaker,” Commander Hansen said. “That doesn’t translate well for police work. If you’re in the military and told to clear a block of houses in a half-hour, you’re going to do it quickly by kicking in doors and throwing grenades. It’s a whole different theater of operations.”
Another potential factor is the incentive sometimes provided by asset forfeiture laws when contraband or drug proceeds are found in a residence. Revenue generated by those seizures typically reverts back to law enforcement agencies.