Just after midnight on Jan. 5, 2011, Framingham police smashed through two doors of Eurie Stamps’ home, threw a flash-bang grenade through a broken window and invaded. Stamps, a 68-year-old grandfather, was in his bedroom in his pajamas, watching sports on TV.
The assault on the modest home played out like a military raid. Within seconds, an officer had Stamps face-down on the floor, his M4 assault carbine inches away from Stamps' back, the safety switch turned off. Investigators later concluded that the officer stumbled over Stamps and his gun went off. Within seconds, the elderly man was dead.
Stamps was suspected of no crime; no guns were found in the home. Framingham police were serving a search warrant related to a non-violent drug offense. They captured their target, Stamps’ stepson, on the street outside the home before the raid was launched. They launched it anyway.
Friends called the retired transit worker a "gentle giant" and "a stand-up guy." He left behind a large family, including 12 grandchildren.
The killing of Eurie Stamps Sr. wasn’t a mistake, and it wasn’t a tragedy. It was a symptom of what has happened to America’s police forces since government started declaring war on domestic crimes.
There are as many as 50,000 SWAT raids like that every year, according to academic studies, and very few of them involve hostage situations or violent threats for which SWAT teams were supposedly created. The vast majority of SWAT deployments are for serving warrants in non-violent drug cases, though the military tactics have also been used to break up charity poker and to bust bars for underage drinking.
Stamps is one of at least 50 innocent people killed in SWAT raids targeting non-violent consensual crimes like drugs and gambling, journalist Radley Balko says. All were killed when police, who are supposed to prevent violence, instead applied lethal force to situations where no violence was threatened.
We’ve become so used to these raids that it’s easy to forget that, not long ago, the idea of local police smashing down the door of a quiet house in the middle of the night was unthinkable. The principle that a citizen’s home was his castle, safe from unannounced raids by government agents, predates the Declaration of Independence.
Before Richard Nixon declared "war on crime," followed by presidential declarations of war on drugs and war on terror, there was a clear distinction drawn between cops and soldiers. Police dressed in blue, with badge numbers or name tags identifying individual officers. They carried billy clubs and revolvers, weapons appropriate for walking beats on neighborhood streets.
SWAT teams today dress in black, with body armor and sometimes masks. It’s no wonder that when they crash into homes in the middle of the night, yelling obscenities and pointing guns at people – and often shooting family dogs, Balko reports – they are sometimes assumed to be criminal gangs.
Page 2 of 2 - Framingham’s SWAT team, like many, dresses in jungle camouflage, matching the camo paint on their military-issue armored personnel carrier. It’s a uniform I’ve never understood. Do they plan to hide out in the jungles of Massachusetts? Who would they be hiding from?
These fashion statements come with new laws, new tactics and a new attitude. Goodbye Officer Friendly. Hello "Warrior Cop."
In his new book, "The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces," Balko shows how this transformation took place. A procession of politicians exploited fears sparked by rising crime in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Compliant judges upheld new laws authorizing "no-knock raids" and forced entry warrants. Federal grants encouraged the flow of military hardware to local police departments. Asset forfeiture laws giving a portion of assets seized from criminal suspects to local police made it more profitable to spend police resources chasing drug dealers than those who commit violence or property crimes.
There were no paramilitary police units before 1969, when the first SWAT team was created in Los Angeles. Now they are everywhere. Balko estimates that 80 percent of communities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 have SWAT teams.
And if you’ve got a SWAT team, and a warehouse full of military equipment – local police now get grants to purchase helicopters, tanks, even bayonets – you might as well use them. So the Framingham SWAT team showed up at the Stamps house in full battle gear, nearly two dozen officers, with paramedics and firefighters to back them up. They smashed the doors with government-issue battering rams. They threw a flash-bang grenade into the apartment to scare every living thing into submission.
Winding back the policies encouraging militarization will be tough, Balko writes, but even more troubling is the mindset that has come with it. Police recruitment videos and popular culture celebrate breaking down doors and blowing things up. Police policies and rhetoric give force protection a higher priority than citizens’ rights.
Crime rates have fallen dramatically in the last 20 years, not because of aggressive police tactics – drug use, the main target of those tactics, has not noticeably declined – but in spite of them. But the militarization continues, and it is now being pushed by defense contractors and what Balko calls a growing "police-industrial complex."
But there is hope. A new generation of political leaders is challenging the war on drugs and the mass incarceration model for criminal justice. They should all read Balko’s book, and begin an overdue discussion of the difference between a civilian police force and an army of occupation.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.