From: Jim Bovard <email@example.com>
Subject: SWATs as Public Menaces
The American Spectator
SECTION: The Public Policy
LENGTH: 1872 words
HEADLINE: They Couldn't SWAT a Fly
But police commando teams are still a menace to society.
BYLINE: by James Bovard. ;
James Bovard is the author of Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the
Demise of the Citizen (St. Martin's Press). http://www.jamesbovard.com
Federal and Colorado ofï¿½cials have transformed the April 20 killings at
Columbine High School into a law enforcement triumph. Attorney General
Janet Reno praised the local police response as "extraordinary," "a
textbook" example of "how to do it the right way." President Clinton
declared on the Saturday after the shooting that "we look with admiration
at?the police officers who rushed to the scene to save lives."
In fact, the excruciatingly slow response by Special Weapons and Tactics
(SWAT) teams and other lawmen to the killings in progress turned a multiple
homicide into a historic massacre. And federal aid to local law
enforcement, by spawning the proliferation of heavily armed but often
ï¿½at-footed SWAT teams, may actually undermine public safety.
In Littleton, the sheriff's department has shifted official explanations
more often than the Clinton legal defense team. Eric Harris and Dylan
Klebold began their rampage around 11:20 a.m. on April 20. Jefferson County
sheriff's spokesmen initially claimed the killers had committed suicide at
around 12:30 p.m. After the police came under harsh criticism for the
slowness of their response, spokesmen announced that the killers may have
committed suicide much earlier-though no precise information has yet been
released. Local officials at ï¿½rst also greatly exaggerated the number of
fatalities-thus causing the story
to have a greater initial impact.
For the first four days after the shooting, the sheriff's department claimed
that, as the Rocky Mountain News reported, once the boys' attack began,
Deputy Neil Gardner "ran into a (school) hallway and faced off with one of
the two gun-toting teenagers. Gardner and the gunman shot it out before the
County deputy retreated to call for help." Law enforcement was criticized
by Denver radio hosts and others for the failure of the deputy to stand his
ground. Five days after the shooting stopped, Gardner went on "Dateline
NBC" and revealed that he had been outside in his patrol car-had driven up
when he heard shooting-and that he stopped 50 yards away and fired several
shots at Harris, but missed. When I asked him about this discrepancy, Steve
Davis, spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, attributed
it to the initial confusion just after the shooting.
Much of the press is treating the lawmen as heroes, or at least failing to
challenge their more bizarre claims. For instance, Gardner said on
"Dateline": "I think with exchanging fire, it did allow some-some people
that are-that were ï¿½eeing the scene to get out of the building. I always
will have to live with the fact that, maybe if I could have dropped him,
maybe it would have saved one or two more lives." Yet, at the time of this
gunï¿½re exchange, the teens had killed only two people. If Gardner had hit
Harris, Klebold (described as a follower of Harris) might have been
unnerved and surrendered, and thus saved up
to eleven lives. Two other officers arrived, fired at one of the teens, and
Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone later explained: "We had initial people
there right away, but we couldn't get in. We were way outgunned." Jefferson
County SWAT Commander Terry Manwaring, whose team entered the school but
proceeded at a glacial pace, said: "I just knew (the killers) were armed
and were better equipped than we were." SWAT team members had ï¿½ak jackets,
submachine guns, and fully automatic M-16s-rather more formidable
protection and weaponry than the teenagers' shotguns, semiautomatic riï¿½e,
and shoddy TEC-9 handgun (which Clinton ludicrously described as an
SWAT teams made no effort to confront the killers in action, but devoted
their efforts to repeatedly frisking students and marching them out of the
building with their hands on their heads. Jefferson County Undersheriff
John Dunaway bragged to the Denver Post that the evacuation of students
"was about as close to perfect under the circumstances as it could be."
Even though none of the SWAT teams came under hostile ï¿½re, Denver SWAT
officer Jamie Smith claimed: "I don't know how you could have thrown in
another factor that would have made things more difï¿½cult for us."
Television cameras captured a SWAT team creeping toward the school behind a
firetruck, each ofï¿½cer taking one small step after another, with the group
hunched together as if expecting an attack at any moment. This maneuver
occurred long after the perpetrators were dead.
SWAT team members did not reach the room where the killers lay until at
least three hours after the shooting stopped. Wounded teacher Dave Sanders
died, perhaps because the team took four hours to reach the room he was in,
even though students had placed a large sign announcing "1 Bleeding to
Death" in the
Many local SWAT teams descended on the high school parking lot and vicinity
after the shooting started. Police spokesmen said most of the SWAT teams
were not sent in "for fear that they might set off a new gunï¿½ght," as the
New York Times reported. Sheriff Stone justiï¿½ed the non-response: "We
didn't want to have one SWAT team shooting another SWAT team."
The police response was paralyzed by concerns for "ofï¿½cer safety."
Sheriff's spokesman Davis said, "We had no idea who was a victim and who
was a suspect. And a dead police ofï¿½cer would not be able to help anyone."
Donn Kraemer of the Lakewood SWAT team explained: "If we went in and tried
to take them and got shot, we would be part of the problem. We're supposed
to bring order to chaos, not add to the chaos." A former law enforcement
ofï¿½cer who now helps train Colorado police observed: "Everything the SWAT
teams did that day was geared around fear. A great ï¿½aw in the training for
SWAT teams is that they're so worried about officer safety that they've lost
their ability to ï¿½ght."
Law enforcement spokesmen worked overtime to turn the debacle into a
triumph. Sheriff Stone proclaimed that "early intervention" by the cops who
shot at the killers and missed "saved one heck of a lot of kids' lives, by
pinning these guys down (Harris and Klebold spent most of their time in the
library, where they killed ten people), by putting them on the defensive,
instead of the offensive (except for the 13 murder victims), and
subsequently probably led to their suicide." But one of the youths had left
a suicide note before the carnage began.
Were any students directly harmed by police action? At 12:20 p.m. on the
day of the shooting, police on the scene radioed that they needed to be
resupplied with ammunition. This is peculiar because, according to official
accounts, Harris and Klebold fired only a handful of volleys at lawmen. SWAT
teams laid down "cover fire" as they advanced towards the building.
Spokesman Davis could not estimate how many shots were ï¿½red by the SWAT
teams. Denver attorney Jack Beam stated that the sheriff's department may
be a target of lawsuits because of possible "friendly ï¿½re"
casualties.(Jefferson County Coroner Nancy Bodelson persuaded a Colorado
judge to seal the autopsy reports on the victims-thus making it much more
difï¿½cult to determine who shot whom. ) Said Beam: "Public officials want to
make it like you are anti-victim if you want to get to the facts."
The Colorado debacle is ironic in that SWAT teams are routinely criticized
for excessive violence against unarmed civilians. Peter Kraska of Eastern
Kentucky University estimated that the use of police SWAT teams has "
increased by 538 percent" since 1980. Ninety percent of police departments
responding to a
1995 survey by Kraska reported having an active paramilitary unit. Kraska
told the Washington Post: "We have never seen this kind of policing, where
SWAT teams routinely break through a door, subdue all the occupants and
search the premises for drugs, cash, and weapons." (Before being sanitized
the SWAT acronym originally stood for "Special Weapons Attack Team.")
SWAT teams are most often used for no-knock raids in drug cases. But now
hardware may be driving policy; so many cities have police dressed up for
war, it is often easier to rely on massive intimidation rather than old-
fashioned police work. No-knock raids have become so common that thieves in
some places routinely kick down doors and claim to be police. No-knock
raids at wrong addresses have become a national scandal. Naturally, some
police departments have responded to the problem by seeking to define it out
of existence. New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir insists that
his officers have not wrongfully raided someone's house unless they go to a
different address than that typed on the search warrant-regardless of
whether they have any justification for busting down doors.
SWAT teams are routinely called to deal with people threatening to take
their own lives, often with catastrophic results. As the San Antonio
Express- News reported on May 23, "A 48-year-old armed man was killed in a
hail of gunfire early Saturday by a special operations police squad during
what police said was an attempt to stop him from committing suicide."
A Fitchburg, Massachusetts SWAT team attacked an apartment building in
December 1996, seeking to arrest a drug dealer. However, one of its stun
grenades (similar to those the FBI used at Waco) set fire to the building
and left 24 people homeless.
Once local governments militarize the police, they ï¿½nd more and more
pretexts to send in the troops, if for nothing else than to keep people in
place. How else to explain the practice of St. Petersburg, Florida, in
deploying SWAT teams to keep order along a parade route? Or of the
SWAT deployment for crowd control any time lottery jackpots exceed $1
million, as the New York Times reported? Palm Beach County in Florida has
twelve separate such teams; weapons were found in fewer than 20 percent of
the locations they raided in 1996.
Massive federal aid is fueling this militarization of local police. Since
1995, the Pentagon has deluged local law enforcement with thousands of
machine guns, over a hundred armored personnel carriers, scores of grenade
launchers, and over a million other pieces of military hardware. The police
arms buildup has also been fueled by federal drug-war aid. Instead of
relying on street smarts, police departments are resorting to high-tech
weaponry, courtesy of Uncle Sam. This is the same mentality that led to
zero American combat casualties during the Kosovo bombing but left the land
to be protected a shambles.
SWAT teams are becoming an impediment to public safety. There were probably
plenty of policemen with the courage to enter Columbine High School and go
after the shooters while the killings continued. But the SWAT teams'
military- style command structure and their take-no-casualties mindset led
to police dallying while civilians died.
Citizens pay taxes so government will guard their rights and safety, not
bully them into submission when they go to a parade or buy a lottery
ticket, nor kick down their door every time a neighbor accuses them of drug
possession. It is time to remember what peace ofï¿½cers were hired for, and
end the military build-up on Main Street.