The after-shocks of a SWAT raid that claimed the life of a seven-year-old Detroit resident Aiyana Stanley-Jones continue to reverberate. This morning, the Stanley-Jones’ brief disputed the police version of events. “Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger said today that a Detroit Police Officer shot Aiyana Stanley-Jones through the top of the head,” the Detroit Free Press reports. “Not through the neck as previously reported.” The official word on the cause of death came from the city coroner; it will impact the reconstruction of the exact events surrounding the negligent discharge. Meanwhile, the tragedy has inspired constitutional lawyer John W. Whitehead to write a thing or two about SWAT raids in general. None of them particularly complimentary . . .
According to Radley Balko’s Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America(2006), over 40,000 SWAT team raids are carried out annually in this country, striking at the very core of our constitutional freedoms. As Balko writes, “There’s an old Cold War saying commonly attributed to Winston Churchill…that goes, ‘Democracy means that when there’s a knock on the door at 3 a.m., it’s probably the milkman.’ The idea is that free societies don’t send armed government agents dressed in black to raid the private homes of citizens for political crimes.”
Yes, well, the SWAT raid in question was designed to serve an arrest warrant on Chauncey Owens, charged for the murderer of 17-year-old Jerean Blake. The SWAT team apprehended Owens in the upper floor of the house. Anyway . . .
Deeply concerned about preserving personal liberty and property rights, the Framers believed those rights to be of paramount importance—even over public safety. In such an environment, citizens were seen as equals with law enforcement officials, and authorities were almost never permitted to enter one’s home without permission. Modern SWAT team raids where the police crash into the homes of Americans would have been seen as the essence of tyranny. Indeed, it was not uncommon for police officers to be held personally liable for trespass when they wrongfully invaded a citizen’s home. And unlike today, early Americans could resist arrest when a police officer tried to restrain them without a proper justification or warrant—which they had a right to read before being arrested.
I’m not seeing a public outcry over SWAT raids into the homes of suspected criminals, or people suspected of harboring suspected criminals, especially when that crime involves murder. (Again, in this case, there was a warrant.) Apparently, the public’s laissez-faire attitude towards constitutional rights has something to do with the Sony Playstation.
Distracted by their gadgets and caught up in their virtual communities, many Americans have failed to notice what’s happening in their own backyards—with the transformation of law enforcement officials into paramilitary police forces being one of the most alarming developments in recent years. As Balko points out, “Today, every decent-sized city has a SWAT team, and most have several. Even absurdly small towns like Eufaula, Ala., (population 13,463) have them… Where their purpose once was to defuse an already violent situation, today they break into homes to look for illicit drugs, creating violence and confrontation where there was none before.”
And so on. Look: there are plenty of lessons to be learned here. Should TV crews films SWAT raids? Should SWAT teams use different techniques to serve warrants? Was the team’s training adequate to prevent negligent discharge? And more. But the cops as the enemy within ain’t it.