Thursday, December 28, 2006

Searching for SWAT

It's three in the morning. You are soundly asleep in your bed, lost to the world and happily dreaming. Tucked in beside you is your significant other, and just down the hall are your 2.5 kids.

Then a flash grenade comes sailing through your window as at the same time your door breaks down, while several armored men, toting assault rifles come pouring through the now broken entry way.

If you're lucky, they don't shoot you.

If you're lucky, the flash grenade doesn't land on a bed, or other flammable object, burning down your house.

If you're lucky, you're not kicked or beaten enough to send you to the hospital.

Sound like a bad dream or maybe the plot to a movie? Could it be a scene from the latest episode of Law & Order? What it is is a short description of what happens during a SWAT raid.

Where once, the SWAT team was used for special circumstances, such things as hostage situations or serving warrants against known felons with a history of extreme violence, more and more they are being used to serve every warrant. The police are breaking into homes to serve search warrants at the early morning, and too often not finding anything, or worse –killing those they do find.

Over the past few weeks, I've come across more and more stories dealing with SWAT teams being used against non-violent criminals, or worse going into the wrong houses to serve the search warrants.

Occasionally these things don't meet with problems.

But what we're seeing more and more of are innocent people - you know those folks that the police are supposed to be serving and protecting – being hit, shot and having their homes destroyed. In fact, just a few days ago, the SWAT team raided the home of Salvador Celaya, a 73 year old suffering from Alzheimer's. He is one of the lucky ones in that he, his 69 year old wife, nor his daughter or her child were shot or injured in some other way during the course of the raid. But he does suffer as the flash grenade they tossed into his bedroom window burned down his house, causing $150,000 in damages (Source).

Just another report in the growing list of problems that widespread use of SWAT teams has caused. Take this small sampling from Florida for the years 2004, 2005 & 2006:

SWAT Team Raids Student Film Crew.
March 20, 2006—FL
A SWAT team in Fernandina Beach, Florida storms a post office building after a bar patron reports a hostage situation. The SWAT team draws its guns and points them at the door of the building. Inside, a high school class is filming a movie. They had sought and gained permission from the local postmaster to shoot the film. The students are ordered to the ground at gunpoint by the raiding officers before they realize their mistake.

Source:
"SWAT Team Called to High School Film Shoot," North Country Gazette, March 26, 2006.
Anthony Diotaiuto.
August 5, 2005—FL
23-year-old Anthony Diotaiuto is shot ten times by police in Sunrise, Florida on a paramilitary drug raid of his home. Diotaiuto was suspected of dealing small amounts of marijuana. Police found about two ounces in his home.

Police say Diotaiuto confronted them with a gun, though his body was found in a closet in his bedroom. Police said the fact that Diotaiuto had a licensed firearm gave them cause to believe he might be dangerous, and necessitated the use of a SWAT team. Diotaiuto had one prior conviction for marijuana possession as a minor, but otherwise had no criminal record, and no history of violent behavior.

Police also say they knocked and announced themselves before entering, though neighbors say they never heard an announcement.

Diotaiuto's family is now suing for the release of police records relating to the raid.

Sources:
Janette Neuwahl, "Relatives, friends criticize death of man in Sunrise police raid," Miami Herald, August 10, 2005.
Brian Haas, "Relatives of Slain Man Hire Lawyer," Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, August 11, 2005, p. B1.
Michael Mayo, "An Ounce of Pot, 10 Bullets, and One Failed Drug War," Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, August 16, 2005, p. B1.

Michael Meluzzi.

July 8, 2005—FL
In July 2005, a Sarasota, Florida SWAT team conducts a drug raid on a home where several children are playing in the front yard.

The SWAT team descends from a van, deploys flashbang grenades, then swarms the home. 44-year-old Michael Meluzzi, who had a criminal record, begins to flee as he sees the armed agents exit the van. Police chase Meluzzi down and fire a Taser gun at him, partially hitting him.

According to Officer Alan Devaney, Meluzzi then reached into his waistband, leading Devaney to believe he was armed. Devaney opened fire, killing Meluzzi.

Police would find no weapon on or near Meluzzi's body.

Sources:
"Suspect is stunned, then fatally shot, " Associated Press, July 11, 2005.
Latisha R. Gray, "Fatal drug raid raises questions; Residents ask why a SWAT team came in with children present," Sarasota Herald-Tribune, July 31, 2005, p. BS1.

Jarrell Walker.
April 12, 2005—FL

After deploying a flashbang grenade and entering the home of 19-year-old Jarrell Walker, police shoot Walker twice in the back, killing him. Walker is lying prone on the ground when he is shot.

The officer who shot Walker was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a ballistics shield. The officer has been involved in four shootings in his seven-year career, says he thought Walker was reaching for a gun. Walker was unarmed, though police did find a gun on the other side of the room. They also found a substantial amount of drugs in Walker's home.

Walker was shot dead in front of his three-year-old son, also home at the time of the raid.

The shooting was only the latest of several questionable use-of-force incidents involving area police. On the same day the FBI announced it would investigate the Walker shooting, Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said he would review his department's deadly force policy. Remarkably, Coats' changes to that policy, announced in October 2005, broadened the number of situations in which his deputies could use deadly force.

Source:
Steven Thompson, "Pinellas Sheriff Revises Deadly Force Policy," Tampa Tribune, October 19, 2005.
Graham Brink, "Deputy Mayor Responds to Critic," St. Petersburg Times, May 26, 2005.
Alex Leary, "'Exciteable' Tag Haunts Deputy,'" St. Petersburg Times, May 6, 2005.
When are we going to wake up and realize that there's a problem with the wide spread use of SWAT teams and tactics. As our police become more militarized and we, the normal citizen, becomes more prone to the abuses which the use of paramilitary tactics lead to, some of the essential and fundamental concepts that our country was founded upon are falling under the iron jack boot of our own government.
If a widespread pattern of [knock-and-announce] violations were shown . . . there would be reason for grave concern."
—Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in Hudson v. Michigan, June 15, 2006.

Especially when it's a search warrant being executed based upon information from a confidential informant concerning drug purchases.

I think it is high time that the citizens stand up and demand a return to sanity on the part of SWAT tactics. Remember, when the SWAT team goes in, they firmly believe that it is a life-or-death situation. Humans hopped up on that much adrenaline and then armed to the teeth begs for abuses and escalation of situations which lead to the death of those without the kelvar armor.

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