Date: Sun, 29 Nov 1998 00:38:39 -0600 (CST)
From: Sid Shniad <email@example.com>
Subject: SF: WAR ON CRIME, MILITARY STYLE
The SFPD used SWAT-style equipment to raid a Western Addition housing project. Does military gear encourage military policing?
JUST BEFORE DAWN on Oct. 30, 90 law-enforcement officers wearing black
masks and fatigues and armed with assault rifles stormed the Martin
Luther King Jr./Marcus Garvey Cooperative in the Western
Addition. They used special
shock-lock shotgun rounds to blow
apartment doors off their hinges and cleared people out of rooms by
flash-bang grenades, which produce nonlethal
explosions that terrify and disorient people.
At a Nov. 4 police commission meeting, a train of furious and sobbing
residents from the raided housing complex—all of them African
American—described how officers slapped them, stepped on their
necks, and put guns to their heads while other officers ransacked
their homes. Weeping and terrified children, some as young as six,
were handcuffed and separated from their parents. Some urinated in
their pajamas. (Police chief Fred Lau told the San Francisco Chronicle
that officers wanted to keep the kids from
Residents of the complex say the raid was a violation of their civil
rights. Scores of people with no charges against them and no criminal
records were put in disposable plastic
flex- cuffs. Civil
servants and grandmothers were held at gunpoint. One woman was
hospitalized after a fit of seizures; other people were so distraught
they couldn’t return to work for days.
And a pit bull named Bosco—which many residents described as
well liked and friendly—was shot inside an apartment, dragged
bleeding outside, and shot again. Deputy chief Richard Holder told
police commissioners that, according to police intelligence gathered
covert operations, the dog was
known for its jumping
ability and was shot in mid-air.
The squad that raided the housing complex included agents from the San
Francisco Police Department’s tactical squad and narcotics
division, the District Attorney’s office, the FBI, the Drug
Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms. According to SFPD narcotics lieutenant Kitt Crenshaw, who
initiated and planned the operation, the action was designed to
put fear in the hearts of a gang called the Knock Out
The raid went off, more or less, without a hitch,
I feel bad for the innocent women and children that
were there, but in a way they do bear some responsibility for
harboring drug dealers.
Agents made 11 arrests and netted a pound of what Crenshaw described
high-grade marijuana, almost four ounces of crack cocaine,
seven pistols, and $4,000 cash. Residents say that money was not drug
lucre, that it had been collected to help pay for the funeral of
Germain Brown, a recently deceased friend. Thanks to state and federal
asset forfeiture laws, the SFPD may get to keep and spend 80 percent
of the seized money.
Though the raid on the King/Garvey project was brutal and audacious,
it was not unusual. Paramilitary or tactical policing —law
enforcement that uses the equipment, training, rhetoric, and tactics
of warfare—is on the rise nationwide. According to a study by
sociologist Peter Kraska, there are more than 30,000 heavily armed,
militarily trained police units in the United States—and the
number of paramilitary police
call-outs quadrupled between 1980
The tactical buildup has been fueled by fattened drug-war budgets and
a wave of federal largesse. Between 1995 and 1997 the Department of
Defense gave local police 1.2 million pieces of military hardware,
including more than 3,800 M16 automatic assault rifles, 2,185 Rugar
M14 semiautomatic rifles, 73 M79 grenade launchers, and 112 armored
personnel carriers (APCs). One tactical outfit calls its APC
mother; another, in east Texas, has named its APCs
Military gear given to the SFPD includes two helicopters, several electrical generators, vehicles, and office furniture, according to tactical officer Dino Zografos. Several years ago the department acquired two APCs from the United Kingdom. The department’s 45-officer tac squad buys its own AR 15 and MP53 assault rifles. Most of the SFPD’s tactical training is done in-house, though SWAT officers have received special instruction from FBI, military, and private instructors.
Nationwide, tactical units have metastasized from emergency response teams into a standard part of everyday policing. SWAT teams that would once have been called in only to handle the occasional barricaded suspect now conduct routine drug raids like the one on the King/Garvey co-op. In Fresno, Indianapolis, and San Francisco they even patrol high-crime areas.
Critics of SWAT-style policing say militarized training, weaponry, and
organization cause cops to overreact and treat ordinary policing
situations as military operations.
The fundamental problem with the
SWAT model is that if police become soldiers, the community becomes
the enemy, says Sacramento State University sociologist Tony
Platt, one of the first scholars to analyze the rise of tactical
Paramilitary policing erodes the idea of police as pubic
servants subordinate to community needs.
And Kraska says,
The more paramilitary police units exist, the more
all policing will be militarized. Considering what’s
happening around the country, those charges don’t seem far-
fetched. According to a CBS News survey of SWAT encounters, police use
of deadly force has increased 34 percent in the past three years.
For a look at the future of American law enforcement, travel south on Highway 99 from San Francisco to Fresno, and turn off on one of the city’s southern exits. On the pocked side streets of southwest Fresno’s sprawling ghetto, among fading stucco bungalows and dying rail yards, massive paramilitary police operations take place almost every night.
It’s a cold October night; 30 police officers (three squads of
10) don black jumpsuits, military helmets, and bulletproof vests, lock
and load their Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns, and fan out for a
routine patrol. Meet Fresno’s Violent Crime Suppression Unit
(VCSU), the Fresno P.D.’s
special forces and
America’s most aggressive SWAT team.
Since 1994 the VCSU has patrolled the city’s have-not suburbs in
full military gear, with automatic assault rifles (the same model used
by Navy SEALs) at the ready. The unit is backed by two helicopters
with infra-red scopes and an army-surplus APC; it’s equipped
with attack dogs, flash-bang grenades, smoke bombs, tear gas, pepper
spray, metal clubs, and
blunt trauma ordnances, essentially
beanbags fired from shotguns, designed to daze rather than kill.
It’s a war, Sgt. Margaret Mims of the Fresno
Sheriff’s Department says. In the name of crisis management, the
VCSU is free to use aggressive and unorthodox tactics. Sometimes the
unit quietly deploys troops on foot to surround targeted corners or
sweep through neighborhoods. At other times, like this autumn night,
agents move in a fleet of regular patrol cars
like a wolf pack
contact, as a VCSU officer put it.
generally involve swooping onto street corners, forcing pedestrians to
the ground, searching them, running warrant checks, taking photos, and
entering all the new
intelligence into a state database from
computer terminals in each patrol car.
The area of operation is a poor and desolate African American neighborhood Fresno residents call the Dog Pound.
As the patrol makes a routine traffic stop, a man is standing on the
sidewalk talking to the driver. When the VCSU pull up, he flees into a
nearby house. The VCSU immediately surround the area. Officers with AR
15s and H&K MP5s
hold the perimeter, some watching the
house, others looking out at the neighborhood. Five officers rush the
The VCSU are not, technically, in
hot pursuit. They have no
legal right to enter the premises. But the elderly woman behind the
black metal door is confronted with five SWAT-style officers with
submachine guns, and they want to search her house. She consents.
Five big, white cops move into the living room and grab a young
African American man. They demand to know his name; it’s
What? he says.
Man, I didn’t do anything!
As he protests, his voice cracks and a tearful grimace clouds his
With consent from David’s trembling grandmother, three cops
search the little bungalow. For all the agents’ science
fiction-esque uniforms and state-of-the-art gear, they call up an
awful specter from the past. More than anything else, the robocops of
the VCSU resemble the
patrollers of the Old South, the
slave-catching militias that spent their nights rousting plantation
shacks looking for contraband, weapons, and signs that slaves were
planning to escape north.
Are you on parole, probation? Huh? a VCSU officer demands.
Let’s go outside, David. The suspect is cuffed, searched,
interrogated, and forced to the ground. His name is fed into a
computer. A flashlight is continuously pointed at his face. No drugs
are found. But David lied, saying he wasn’t on parole, and he
That’s a violation of parole, David. The white cops
send another black man off to jail.
For much of the rest of the night, a standoff occupies 30 cops from
three different agencies and two helicopters. The target is a teenager
who hasn’t been charged with anything; he’s just wanted
If you’re 21, male, living in one of these
neighborhoods, and you’re not in our computer, then
there’s definitely something wrong, VCSU officer Paul Boyer
Fresno’s is the only police department in the country that deploys its tactical units for routine patrol work. But big, aggressive SWAT operations like the one at the King/Garvey co-op are becoming more common. From Albuquerque to Miami, tactical teams have repeatedly shot and killed unarmed civilians in the course of botched drug raids. In a recent case in Bethlehem, Pa., a SWAT team killed a suspect, then burnt his house down. And thanks to confusion and the overzealous use of flash-bang grenades, tactical officers are increasingly shooting one another; a case in Oxnard, Calif., is the most recent example.
Perhaps the most infamous police tactical operation took place several
years ago in Chapel Hill, N.C. In
Operation Ready-Rock, police
received a blanket warrant allowing them to search every person and
vehicle on the 100 block of Graham Street.
We believe that there are no ’innocent’ people at this
place, the police department’s warrant request
Only drug sellers and drug buyers are on the described
premises. Forty-five heavily armed commandos from local and state
law-enforcement agencies sealed off the street and made what police
would describe as a
dynamic entrance into a pool hall by
smashing in the front door and holding occupants at gunpoint. Whites
were allowed to leave the area; more than 100 African Americans were
searched. Agents found only minor quantities of drugs.
It’s not every municipal agency that can afford equipment
that’s too powerful for the task at hand. Elsewhere in North
Carolina, the Greensboro public library’s bus-sized
bookmobile was recently retired for lack of funds. Shortly
thereafter, the police department bought the bookmobile and converted
it into a mobile command-and-control center for its elite 23-member
Special Response Team.
The cops were delighted: a six-foot-five SRT officer had trouble
standing up in the previous van.
It’s a great piece of
equipment, police spokesperson M.C. Bitner said.
really so much better than what we had.