Law enforcement officials justify the frequent use of heavily-armed SWAT teams and no-knock warrants -- police do about 50,000 SWAT raids per year -- as protecting officer safety. The dramatic deaths of two officers, Chesapeake, Virginia's Jarrod Shivers and the FBI's Samuel Hicks, both caused by the choice to use SWAT tactics, suggests the opposite interpretation. So does the small number of officer fatalities relative to the large number of drug arrests across the country each year -- with 1.8 million drug arrests in the US during 2008, a total of seven police officers were killed while doing drug enforcement, according to statistics on police line of duty deaths compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page. Three of the seven were killed doing drug raids. An eighth officer was killed following a traffic chase, not initiated as part of drug enforcement, of a suspect (a former police officer) who was on bail facing a drug possession charge.
[Ed: We originally included a ninth officer in this list, Timothy Scott Abernethy, as a second example of a case in which the drug war appeared to have played a role, despite it not having started as a drug investigation. A colleague of Officer Abernethy criticized our inclusion of his case as having too tenuous of a relation to the drug war if any, and after reviewing it we concluded that our decision to include Officer Abernethy in the listing was erroneous, and we have edited this article accordingly. If you would like to read more about this, click here.]
drug raids -- not as dangerous as they make them
"In the last 10 or 11 years, traffic accidents killed more officers than anything else," said Kevin Morison of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund
, which also compiles a list of line of duty deaths. "When it comes to being killed enforcing the laws, traffic stops and domestic violence seem to be the top two. Serving warrants can also be dangerous," he said.
According to the foundation, 140 officers died in the line of duty last year, 71 of them in traffic accidents. Only 41 officers died of gunshot wounds, the lowest figure since 1956. One police officer was stabbed, one beaten to death, one drowned, one was electrocuted, one died in a train accident, two were blown up by a bomb, three died in aircraft crashes, and 17 died of job-related illnesses. Seventeen officers were struck and killed by other vehicles, typically while directing traffic.
According to historical data provided to the Chronicle by the foundation, last year's low death toll among officers enforcing the drug laws is not a fluke. In the decade between 1978 and 1988, an average of 6.5 officers were killed each year; in the following decade, the number was 6.2; and in the last 10 years, an average of 4.3 officers were killed each year enforcing the drug laws. The single bloodiest year for drug law enforcement was 1988, when 12 officers died.
There are slight differences between figures provided by the foundation and those provided by Officer Down, most likely related to the way each death is coded. The numbers below are based on Officer Down's count, as well as additional investigation done by the Chronicle.
Here is the list of those who gave their lives maintaining drug prohibition:
- Chesapeake, Virginia, Police Detective Jarrod Brent Shivers was shot and killed while battering down the door of Ryan Frederick on January 17, 2008. Although Frederick was supposedly running a marijuana grow, no grow was found. Frederick was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
- Senior Border Patrol Agent Luis Alberto Aguilar was run over and killed by Mexican drug smugglers near San Diego on January 19, 2008.
- Harris County, Texas, Constable's Office Corporal Harry Theilepape died January 26, 2008 of gunshot wounds suffered nearly a month earlier when he arrested a suspect for possessing drugs and illegally possessing a handgun.
- Grundy County, Tennessee, Sheriff's Deputy Sheriff Anthony Shane was shot and killed June 5, 2008, serving a probation violation arrest warrant for a man on a drug charge. The shooter shot himself as more police closed in, saying, "God just let me die. I don't want to live in this hell anymore."
- Virginia Beach, Virginia, Police Detective Michael Smith Phillips was shot and killed while conducting an undercover drug buy on August 7, 2008.
- Chicago Police Officer Nathaniel Taylor Jr. was shot and killed while executing a search warrant as part of the gangs and drug squad on September 28, 2008. The shooter had a history of violent and drug offenses.
- FBI Special Agent Samuel Steele Hicks was shot and killed by a suspect's wife during a no-knock search of a Pennsylvania home on November 19, 2008. The shooter, who claimed she fired in fear for her life, now faces murder charges.
- Another officer, Texas Highway Patrol Trooper James Scott Burns, was shot and killed following a traffic stop and brief car chase on April 29, 2008. The killer was a former police officer turned drug offender and manufacturer, who was out on bail facing a drug possession charge at the time and who eventually committed suicide. Whether Burns belongs on this list is open to interpretation -- he was not doing drug enforcement, so far as we know, when initiating this traffic stop, but appearances suggest that past drug charges and fear of more may have played a role.
These officers died in a year where there were more than 1.8 million drug arrests, as noted above, meaning police can expect to do 200,000 drug busts for each officer killed. In addition to the three who were killed on drug raids, two died after stopping drivers who had been arrested and imprisoned before on drug charges and were apparently not ready to return to prison, one was killed doing undercover work, one was killed in an encounter with smugglers, one was killed arresting a drug suspect, and one was killed attempting to bring in a probation-violating drug offender.
SWAT raids seem no less hazardous for the occupants of the homes being hit than they are for the police conducting them. (The following information is taken from the police militarization archives at Radley Balko's The Agitator blog. Readers with the stomach for it can find much, much more there as well.)
On January 6, 2008, police in Lima, Ohio, shot and killed a 26-year-old mother of six, Tarika Wilson, during a raid aimed at her boyfriend. The police shooter was eventually found not guilty for killing her.
The following day in North Little Rock, Arkansas, a police SWAT team raided the home of Tracy Ingle. Awakened by a ram battering his door and thinking he was under attack by armed robbers, Ingle grabbed a broken pistol to scare them off. Officers fired multiple shots, wounding him five times. He spent a more than a week in intensive care before police removed him, took him to the police station, and questioned him for five hours. He was charged with running a drug enterprise even though no drugs were found.
In May, Connecticut police raiding an apartment after being informed that people were smoking crack there, shot and killed Gonzalo Guizan, who was unarmed. Police said he charged at them. All they found was a crack pipe.
It's not just people. Dogs also seem to be a favorite target of drug-raiding police. In what is only one case out of the dozens that seem to occur every year, Cheye Calvo, the mayor of the Washington, DC, suburb of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, saw his two dogs shot and killed by a Prince George's County SWAT team that burst into his home after his mother-in-law accepted delivery of a package containing marijuana. Calvo and his family were twice victimized, once by the pot traders who used his address to have their dope sent to, and again by the gung-ho, itchy trigger finger police.
It is unclear how many people were killed by police enforcing the drug laws in general or conducting drug raids in particular. Although in 1999 Congress authorized legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to submit such data, it neglected to fund the program. The incidents mentioned above are only some of the most egregious and well-publicized, but they suggest that even if doing drug raids isn't particularly dangerous for police, it is for their victims.
"Tactically, those SWAT units are quite impressive, but they're vastly overused," said Peter Moskos, an assistant professor of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, former Baltimore police officer, and author of "Cop in the Hood." "The problem is once you've got those units, you're going to use them. Their goal is to have overwhelming force and have all the cops live, but innocent people die," he said.
Law enforcement can have it both ways, said Balko, author of Overkill: the Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America. "If not many police are being killed in drug raids, they can say these tactics are working," he said. "If more are being killed, they can say this is why they need to be more aggressive."
Drug squad cops are a special breed, said Moskos. "Many cops never would want to work in one of those units," he said. "Even though the raids are pretty safe, they do more dangerous things like undercover operations. These guys tend to be whiter, more conservative, and guys who like breaking down six doors a day. In the drug squads in particular, they really tear it up. There is a certain vindictiveness; they think 'these people are assholes, they deserve it.'"
"Nobody has to be killed at all if they would just legalize the stuff," said David Doddridge, a 21-year veteran of the LAPD who rose to the rank of narcotics detective before he retired in 1994. "When I first started, we used to go to roll call, and they would tell us who has warrants, and we would drive out there and knock on the door. Then we went to a narcotics bureau, and we worked in teams, with battering rams," he recalled. "More citizens died than police," Doddridge said.
"I spent several years down in South Central kicking in doors and raiding homes, and probably served 50 search warrants," said Doddridge. "We weren't SWAT, just a couple of narcotics detectives with our vests on, and none of us got seriously injured. There was seldom any resistance."
Narcotics could be dangerous, Doddridge said, but not because of the raids. "The raids themselves are not very dangerous, more a danger to civilians," he said. "Doing plain clothes by yourself and buying drugs when nobody knows you're a cop is when it gets dangerous. We had a couple of our officers get beaten up buying drugs undercover on the street."
Things began to change with the introduction of the federal Byrne grant program to state and local law enforcement in the late 1980s, said Doddridge. "Then, with Byrne, we got Velcro vests and holsters, we got Kevlar helmets, all that stuff. Now, there are thousands of SWAT teams across the country. They don't have a lot to do, so they end serving drug warrants now."
It's a fool's errand, said Doddridge, who has, since his retirement, joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "After a year or so of doing those drug busts, I thought it was crazy. We weren't doing any good. And I thought about the looks of the faces on those families, the children crying when we're dragging their Dad or their brother out. I thought to myself what are we doing? -- these weren't real criminals out robbing and attacking people. I started feeling really bad about all that."
Short of legalizing drug use and the drug trade, which would be his preferred option, Moskos said, there are a couple of things that could be done. "One thing we could do is just turn back the clock," he said. "It wasn't until the 1970s that we got all obsessed about drugs. I think we should just treat it like other minor crimes, like back in the 1950s. One problem is the productivity of drug squads is measured by how many doors they knock down. They need to knock down fewer doors."
Eliminating outdoor drug markets would help, too, Moskos said. "If you're worried about the violence there, you have to push it indoors, off the street. Fear of arrest and raids on their homes push dealers into the street, but maybe we could call a truce. Close your blinds, keep the music down, act like a good neighbor, then we could leave you alone."