Home Invasion: Racial Disparities in SWAT Raids

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On Sunday, June 10, a square block surrounding
the Champaign County Courthouse
was evacuated and closed off to
conduct what Sheriff Dan Walsh called
“police training.” Walsh stood at the corner
of Main and Elm Street talking to
news reporters, telling them to make sure and point cameras
at the front doors of the courthouse to get the best
view of the SWAT operation they were about to conduct.
Throughout the afternoon, police ran between buildings
with guns drawn, snipers took position from a nearby
parking garage, and “tanks” rolled down the streets. The
Sheriff’s SWAT team had taken over downtown Urbana.
Several reality shows on TV now depict the dangerous
work of SWAT teams in major cities across the country.
They show video footage of police negotiating hostage situations,
busting drug kingpins, or thwarting bomb
threats. Since 9-11, federal grants from Homeland Security
have provided money for local police departments to
buy additional equipment, claiming they are fighting terrorism.
We have created a culture of fear that has justified
the massive spending of public money to build SWAT
teams, which the police themselves regard as elite paramilitary
forces, with an array of high-powered weaponry, specialized
equipment, and armored vehicles.
For this study, I requested police reports through the
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from our two local
police departments and the Sheriff’s Department regarding
SWAT raids. I gathered information on 63 SWAT raids and
compiled the statistics. In looking at the results, I found
that SWAT raids are nearly always for drugs, warrants are
usually granted through the use of informants, and almost
all raids are conducted on African American households.
Since the Reagan era, we have seen a proliferation of specialized
SWAT teams, although their origin goes back to
the 1960s when the LAPD formed a SWAT team after the
Watts riots and first used it in a 1968 shoot out with the
Black Panthers. Today, these raids have become so common
that they have even raised the ire of right-wing
groups. A study by Radley Balko titled, Overkill: The Rise
of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, was funded by the
Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Balko reports that
an astonishing 40,000 such police raids are carried out
each year in the United States.
There are past cases in Urbana-Champaign where the
use of SWAT teams has ended in tragedy. On December
11, 1998, the News-Gazette covered the story of an 81
year-old African American woman who claimed she was
grabbed by the neck and thrown to the floor by Champaign’s
SWAT team and had to go to the hospital for
injuries. The Champaign SWAT team was there to serve an
outstanding warrant from Wisconsin to the woman’s
grandson, who was not even in the house at the time.
Last year, on May 11, 2006, Champaign police received a
call from Garden Hills, about Carl “Dennis” Stewart, a suicidal
black man alone in his car with a gun. The Champaign
police called out the SWAT team and rolled out their prized
Armored Personnel Carrier. After a four-hour standoff,
Stewart was chased down the street by the APC. Cornered
by police, he put the gun to his head and killed himself.
According to one study, in cities with a population of at
least 50,000, 90 percent have at least one SWAT team.
This figure has doubled since the mid-1980s. In Champaign
County, with a population of around 100,000, we
have two SWAT teams, Champaign’s and the County’s.
The first SWAT team in this area goes back to 1985,
when the University of Illinois and the Champaign County
Sheriff’s Office formed the Tactical Response Unit. In
1991, the Urbana Police Department joined and the name
was changed to the Metropolitan Emergency Tactical
Response Operations (METRO) team. Today, METRO is a
multi-jurisdictional operation that also includes police
from Rantoul, Mahomet, and Champaign.
The Champaign Police Department has the resources to
maintain its own SWAT team, information on which is
hard to find. After 9-11, Champaign purchased an
Armored Personnel Carrier with funds provided by Homeland
Security. It is essentially an armored truck converted
for police use. Although it is not marked as a police vehicle,
it can be identified by the gun slots in the doors.
Champaign has recently purchased a second armored
vehicle, innocuously called a “Rescue Vehicle,” as if it were
the same as a fire truck or ambulance.
The Sheriff’s METRO team is the most encompassing
SWAT force. They receive training at the Police Training
Institute at the University of Illinois (which has recently
been affiliating itself with the private security forces Blackwater
and Triple Canopy, increasingly under scrutiny for
their involvement in Iraq.) When the METRO team conducts
raids, they arrive in the Armored Personnel Carrier.
These officers look like stormtroopers when in full gear.
They wear green camouflage clothing, black flak jackets
with “police” written on the back, ballistic helmets, and
face shields. They usually conduct raids in the early morning
hours, around five or six a.m. Breaking down doors
with a “ram” device, they often find the suspect in bed,
naked and unaware. Officers carry AR 15 assault rifles. At
least two snipers are assigned. If there is, for example, a pit
bull at the suspect’s residence, police may carry a rifle that
shoots non-lethal bean-bags (at $2 a bag). The police also
have their own drug dogs. The intent is to apply
the maximum use of force to surprise and overwhelm
the suspect.
For this study, I looked at the police reports for
63 separate SWAT raids. The data collection is
somewhat flawed, because many names were not
included, cases were still pending, or basic information
was blacked out in the police reports.
After collecting all the information, I was
interested in finding out: 1) The race of the suspect,
2) How many raids were for drugs 3) How
many warrants were gained through the use of
confidential informants. Some very clear patterns
were evident in my findings.
I found that in 49 incidents where race was
indicated, 44 were black. That means that 90%
of SWAT raids were conducted on African
American homes. The concentration of raids were in
black neighborhoods north of University and on Lierman
Street in southeast Urbana.
Despite the media propaganda of bomb scares and terrorist
attacks, the wide majority of SWAT raids were for
drugs. There was an occasional suicide case, warrant for a
murder suspect, or a call for an “armed barricaded subject.”
In 52 SWAT raids where the cause of the warrant could
be determined, 45 were for drug searches. This indicates
that 87% of SWAT raids were for drugs.
I was able to collect the complete records for the raids
conducted by the Sheriff’s METRO team in 2006, which
are representative of the trends in Champaign County. Of
the 12 raids conducted by METRO in 2006, all were for
drugs. African Americans made up 11 of the 12 individuals
whose homes were raided. Only two people had a large
amount of drugs.
Many of the warrants obtained for SWAT raids are
gained through the use of informants. In one study conducted
in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, it was found
that 87% of warrants were secured with the help of informants.
These are individuals who may be drug addicts, are
stopped by police, threatened with felony charges, and
then coerced into being snitches for the police.
Recently, a man arrested during a SWAT raid was
acquitted of drug charges after a jury heard questionable
testimony from an informant, a felon with multiple convictions,
who said she hoped to get a break on her own
pending charges in exchange for her testimony (News-
Gazette, 9/15/2007).
In 2006, all but one of the searches conducted by the
Sheriff’s METRO unit were gained through the use of informants.
Surpassing the example of Raleigh-Durham, 92% of
raids conducted by the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office
were conducted through the use of informants. The only
exception was a case where Khat, a plant grown in the Middle
East and Africa with psychedelic effects, was intercepted
when sent through Fed Ex. It is impossible to know
from court documents the name of the confidential sources
or to find out if they were given a lighter sentence. They
only appear in police reports under ridiculous aliases like,
“William Love,” “Pancho Sanchez,” or “Brenda Coker.”
The one deviation from the METRO unit’s targeting of
blacks in 2006 was a raid conducted on two white males
who were found to be neo-Nazis. The police secured a
warrant after a coordinated cocaine purchase, but they
found much more than drugs. The photographs taken by
police show Nazi posters on the walls with swastikas and
images of marching SS stormtroopers. The police discovered
a loaded AK-47 and a cache of weapons in the apartment.
They found a total of five rifles: an AMK-ARA KKale
old military style rifle, a loaded Colt AR-15 .223 caliber
rifle, a loaded Remington .22 caliber rifle, a WARDS
Western Field .22 caliber rifle, and a Remington Super
Magnum 12 gauge shotgun. They also found 2 handguns:
a Smith and Wesson revolver in the house, and a loaded
.45 caliber pistol in one of the man’s car. Police also came
across a stockpile of ammunition.
Additionally, police found the explosives potassium
perchlorate, Stearic Acid powder, and Titanium Dioxide.
But these two neo-Nazis were not prosecuted under new
federal anti-terrorism laws, nor were they characterized by
police as “gang members.” According to the police report
authored by Sgt. Brian Mennenga, these explosive items
were only believed to be used for “entertainment purposes.”
There is no mention in the police reports of these two
being neo-Nazis. Yet they were evidently preparing for a
full-scale race war.
Of the two neo-Nazis, one was given a 12 month conditional
discharge for not having a registered FOID card
for the AK-47 (Remember, Bush lifted the ban on assault
weapons in 2004). The other neo-Nazi, charged with
delivery of large amounts of cannabis and powder cocaine,
has received eight continuances to date and his case is still
pending (Case nos. 06-CF-1561/06-CF-1562).
When I asked Sheriff Dan Walsh what the ratio of black to
white suspects involved in SWAT raids is, he said, “I do
not know the answer to that. We don’t keep statistics
based on that.”
Authorities often say there is more crime in black
neighborhoods. They say this is where all the service calls
come from. Yet in the case of drug raids, police are selectively
pursuing individuals. Studies have shown that
blacks and whites use and sell drugs at equal rates. Still, it
is commonly believed that only blacks are drug dealers.
The targeting of blacks by SWAT teams is unequal enforcement
of the law, plain and simple. What would happen if a
SWAT team targeted a fraternity house on campus or a
suburban home in Cherry Hills?
An on-line version of Radley Balko’s Overkill can be
found at: http://www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/balko_
whitepaper_2006.pdf. For the full version of this article
see ucimc.org.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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