Date: Sun, 29 Nov 1998 00:38:39 -0600 (CST)
From: Sid Shniad <>
Article: 48830
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <>

War on crime

By Christian Parenti, San Francisco Bay Guardian, 18 November 1998

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 throwing 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 running around.)

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 during 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 to put fear in the hearts of a gang called the Knock Out Posse. The raid went off, more or less, without a hitch, Crenshaw said. 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 as 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 and 1995.

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 Bubba One and Bubba Two.

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 policing. 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 looking for contact, as a VCSU officer put it. Contacts 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 door.

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 David. What? he says. Man, I didn’t do anything! As he protests, his voice cracks and a tearful grimace clouds his face.

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 is. 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 for questioning. 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 says.


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 stated. 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. It’s really so much better than what we had.