While there are plenty of exceptions, it’s so common to see mainstream media outlets produce shoddy journalism on police technology and tactics. There are so many lazy reporters who, when they cover some controversial issue in policing or some new technology being developed or utilized by police, simply talk to some police officers or representatives of the company developing the new technology, and uncritically regurgitate whatever it is they happen to say.
I reviewed an article like this earlier this week. This front-page puff piece in The MetroWest Daily News, which was was filled with colorful pictures of six police dogs and featured little bios for each them, was based entirely on interviews with the police officers who worked with the dogs. Not a single person who was critical of the use of police dogs was interviewed.
While I was doing some research, I stumbled upon another sloppy, one-sided article about new “SWAT robots” which are being developed by a company in Maine and tested by the Massachusetts State Police (“‘SWAT robots’ soon to protect US first responders,” Associated Press, April 18, 2013). Although the article is over a month old by now, I still thought it was worth discussing especially considering it was written by the Associated Press and has been published in newspapers across the United States.
According to the article:
Sanford Police Chief Thomas Connolly, who heads a regional tactical police squad that has trained with the device, said the robot can be a valuable tool for police in dangerous situations.
“It can provide police with a huge tactical advantage,” he said.
Police nationwide regularly find themselves dealing with standoffs and kidnappings.
Last week, a heavily armed man held firefighters hostage for hours in his suburban Atlanta home before the Gwinnett County Police SWAT team stormed the house and killed the gunman. No firefighters were hurt.
Gwinnett County Cpl. Jake Smith said the SWAT robot looks like it would be useful as a safe way to approach a barricaded person. But he didn’t know how cost-effective the $98,000 price tag would be.
Robots are nothing new in law enforcement.
Bomb squads use remote-controlled robots to locate and defuse explosive devices. Camera-equipped robots are used for surveillance to keep officers out of harm’s way.
Police have been known to use robots with articulated arms to lift police shields in front of windows of houses to shield officers from gunshots fired from inside the home, said Corey Luby, of the National Tactical Officers Association, a Doylestown, Pa., organization representing patrol and special operations officers. Police also use armored vehicles as shields to get close when hostages are being held or a suspect is barricaded inside a structure, he said.
But the SWAT robot, dubbed the “SWAT Bot,” is the first robotic device Luby has seen that’s designed for specifically for ballistic shield purposes.
“It’s another life-saving tool,” Luby said. “I’d rather see a robot get hurt than a person.”
A team of officers from the Southern Maine Response Team tactical squad demonstrated in a mock drill Thursday how the robot works, with six officers walking behind the mobile bulletproof shield while approaching someone playing the role of an armed suspect.
The machine also has attachments that allow it to knock down doors or drag away cars.
So, according to the Associated Press, who only bothered to speak with representatives of the company that developed these “SWAT Bots” and police officers who have tested them, the only reason police would want these $98,000 robots which are capable of smashing down doors and dragging away cars is to keep police officers safe when they are trying to apprehend dangerous criminals.
But why should we believe that?
Whenever police adopt a new tactic or technology, they always give reasons that seem impossible to object to. The new tactic or gadget will enhance “officer safety,” it will make it easier for police to apprehend violent criminals, to prevent terrorist attacks, etc., yet police always end up using that technique or technology for purposes other than they were originally intended for.
One of the best examples is the SWAT team itself. SWAT teams were first developed in the 1960’s in order to respond to high-stakes crisis situations involving armed perpetrators who were very likely to put up violent resistance — hostage situations and bank robberies being two examples. However, SWAT teams quickly became widespread. According to a recent USA Today interview with Peter Kraska, a criminologist whose work focuses on police militarization, SWAT teams were deployed only about 2,000 to 3,000 times per year in the early to mid 80′s. That number has shot up to about 70,000 and 80,000 per year in the present.
When a SWAT team is deployed, they generally rely on a frightening tactic known as the “no-knock” raid. The purpose of a no-knock search is to surprise the occupants of a building and subdue them with an overwhelming show of force before they have an opportunity to react. Police converge on a building — usually in the middle of the night — then smash the door in with a battering ram or explosives. They either announce their presence only a few seconds before breaking the door down or do not announce it at all (hence “no-knock”). After breaking in the door, police will sometimes throw potentially lethal explosive devices called flashbang grenades into the home with the ostensible purpose of confusing and disorienting the occupants. They then storm the building and force everyone to the ground at gunpoint, handcuff them, and search the premises.
The main reason for the dramatic increase in SWAT deployment is that SWAT teams are used to serve routine search or arrest warrants especially for drug suspects. SWAT teams have even been used to investigate things as mundane as suspected underage drinking and unlicensed barber shops. Although data on this is hard to come by, it appears that a huge percentage of people targeted in these raids are not guilty of anything. According to a government study about SWAT teams in Maryland, more than one third of SWAT raids conducted in the state during 2010 failed to end with even a single arrest. SWAT teams are now seen by many police as part of normal, routine police work — not something to resort to in emergencies.
The journalist Radley Balko, who has tirelessly written about SWAT teams and no-knock raids, concludes that police
are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers. These raids bring unnecessary violence and provocation to nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom were guilty of only misdemeanors. The raids terrorize innocents when police mistakenly target the wrong residence. And they have resulted in dozens of needless deaths and injuries, not only of drug offenders, but also of police officers, children, bystanders, and innocent suspects.
— Radley Balko, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America,” Cato Institute, 2006, pg. 1
In Massachusetts, there have been numerous completely avoidable tragedies associated with the use of these paramilitary police units. In a recent column about the drug war in Boston, Radley Balko summarizes several of these cases:
In 1988, Boston Det. Sherman Griffiths was shot and killed during a police raid on a residence they suspected was occupied by Jamaican drug dealers. The suspected shooter, 34-year-old Albert Lewin was acquitted three years later after a series of investigations revealed widespread corruption and perjury within the department. In the raid that ended one of their colleague’s life, one BPD sergeant admitted in testimony that he had fabricated the informant whose alleged tip led to the raid in the first place. Waiting to establish probable cause — in other words, respecting Lewin’s constitutional rights — was too time consuming. Sources in BPD told the Globe that “enormous public pressure on police to arrest drug dealers . . . has led some detectives to find ‘workable’ solutions to what police see as unworkable constitutional requirements for warrants.”
The Lewin/Griffiths case also brought to light that Boston narcotics cops were routinely falsifying search warrants in drug cases — which means they were routinely raiding homes without probable cause. A Boston Globe review of 350 drug warrants found that fabrication of informants, exaggeration of probable cause, and boilerplate language was common. By one estimate, the number of drug warrants served by Boston police jumped from around 300 in 1985 to more than 3,000 by 1990.
The problem wasn’t just in Boston. In a federal trial held at about the same time, a Philadelphia narcotics cop admitted that he and his colleagues fabricated informants on hundreds of search warrants. These warrants then authorized violent forced-entry raids on private homes.
City officials, judges, and prosecutors had little interest in holding them accountable. One former high-ranking BPD officer had at one point hired an attorney to look into the growing problem of falsification of drug warrants, and to discipline officers found to have lied or used boilerplate language on such warrants, but his efforts were thwarted by the police union.
As the Boston Globe noted in a 1990 article, the residents of the city didn’t seem particularly concerned either — these raids on innocent were being conducted in mostly poor, mostly minority neighborhoods. “I don’t think the electorate is too concerned with the rights of drug dealers,” one criminologist told the paper.
And so the raids went on. In 1995, the Rev. Accleyne Williams, a 75-year-old retired minister, died of a heart attack after struggling with 13 members of a masked, heavily armed Boston SWAT team that stormed his apartment on such a raid. The police later revealed that an informant had given them incorrect information.
Doctors later concluded that Williams had literally been scared to death. One BPD source told the Boston Globe that was entirely the point. The raid team, for example, wore black ski mask hats to terrify their suspects. “The psychological impact of confronting a masked face with a shotgun pointed at you can be devastating,” the source said.
According to the Boston Herald, “a warrant authorizing the raid was approved by Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Mary Lou Moran, even though the application supporting the warrant did not specify which apartment on the building’s second floor was to be targeted. It also failed to provide corroboration of the confidential informant’s tip that a Jamaican drug posse operated out of the building.” In fact, the police officer who signed the affidavit for the warrant swore that the informant was trustworthy, even though he had previously falsely implicated a friend in a shooting three years earlier.
Another police source told the Herald: “You’d be surprised at how easily this can happen. An informant can tell you it is the apartment on the left at the top of the stairs and there could be two apartments on the left at the top of the stairs . . . You are supposed to verify it, and I’m not making excuses, but mistakes can be made.”
Another Boston Herald investigation later discovered that three of the officers involved in the Williams raid had been accused in a 1989 civil rights suit of using nonexistent informants to secure drug warrants. The city had in fact just settled a suit stemming from a mistaken raid five years earlier. According to witnesses, one of the officers in that raid apologized as he left, telling the home’s terrified occupants, “This happens all the time.”
–Radley Balko, “Boston And Militarism: The Modern Drug War,” The Huffington Post, May 3, 2013
We could also point to the police in Fitchburg who, in December, 1996, conducted a drug raid at the apartment of a suspected cocaine dealer. During the raid, officers tossed two “flashbang” grenades into the apartment. The grenades landed on a couch and started a fire that destroyed the entire apartment complex, placing the two dozen residents in mortal danger and leaving them displaced from their homes for the holiday season. None of the officers responsible for the fire were ever criminally charged. In fact, three of them were given “Community Service Awards” by the Massachusetts Police Association for the courage they supposedly showed during the fire (see Ric Kahn and Zachary R. Dowdy, “‘Iron fist’ of policing SWAT team use questioned,” The Boston Globe, May 11, 1998).
We also have the example of the Framingham Police Department, who conducted a deadly drug raid in 2011. During the raid, one officer shot and killed Eurie Stamps, a 68-year old man, while he submissively lay on the ground, waiting to be handcuffed. Stamps was not the target of the raid and was not suspected by the police of committing any crimes at all. The police and district attorney labeled the shooting as an “accident,” no charges were pressed against the officer who was responsible, and he was allowed to return to his job.
Given that SWAT teams and tactics themselves have been wildly abused, should we expect to start seeing “SWAT Bots” used in completely inappropriate situations? Will these robots supposedly created for violent standoffs be used for routine police work? Will they be used to smash down the doors of people suspected only of nonviolent, victimless offenses? The officers interviewed by the Associated Press didn’t indicate that they would, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be comforted by that.
Are there any state laws or department policies regulating how these robots may be used by police to ensure that they’re not deployed in inappropriate situations? If not, will police refrain from purchasing these robots until these laws and policies have been put in place? Will police departments be transparent about how often these robots are deployed and why? It would’ve been nice if the Associated Press had asked questions like these.
We might also consider that when there is a large protest, police frequently bring all kinds of high-tech gadgets and weaponry to issue extrajudicial punishment against anyone and everyone attending the protest. One example is the “Long Range Acoustic Devices” (or “LRAD”), a sound-based weapon that is capable of indiscriminately inflicting permanent hearing-loss. The Boston Police Department actually deployed an LRAD at Occupy Boston. The device was never used to attack demonstrators, but many felt BPD was intentionally displaying it as an intimidation tactic. Another example would be so-called “rubber bullets” which are actually metal bullets that have been coated with rubber. These bullets are often depicted by police and the media as being “non-lethal” weapons which are suitable for “crowd control” despite that fact that there have been numerous documented cases of people being killed by them.
Even when police are using these types of “crowd control” weapons to respond to actual violence, they cannot necessarily be trusted to use them appropriately. In Massachusetts, we have the example of Victoria Snelgrove, a 21-year old student who was shot to death with a pepper-pellet gun (another supposedly “non-lethal” weapon) by a Boston police officer who was firing indiscriminately at crowds of revelers after the Red Sox pennant victory in 2004.
After Snelgrove’s death, a commission was formed to investigate what had happened. The Boston Globe summarized the commission’s findings as follows:
The failures that led to Snelgrove’s death began with planning. Claiborne and his team did not examine possible scenarios for the night or issue guidelines for the use of force when preparing for the event, the Stern panel said. Both were recommended after James Grabowski was killed during the 2004 Super Bowl celebrations and for the Democratic National Convention.
The planning team also ignored advance intelligence that revelers would probably gather on Lansdowne Street and did not place specially trained riot police there, instead stationing them at Kenmore Square and near Northeastern University.
When Lansdowne Street flooded ”wall to wall” with celebrants after the game ended about midnight, officers not adequately trained in crowd control became “outnumbered and outflanked,” the report said. The commander in charge of police operations around the ballpark, Deputy Superintendent O’Toole, then incorrectly issued pepper-pellet guns to officers he knew were not certified to use the gun and took one himself, even though he, too, was not certified, the report said.
O’Toole, no relation to the commissioner; Patrolman Samil Silta, and Officer Rochefort Milien, the only officer certified to use the gun, started firing at fans on the back of the Green Monster.
The report cites one witness account that Robert O’Toole fired as if hoping the pellets hit intended targets. The two other officers fired their weapons indiscriminately, continuing even as people were climbing down.
Two people were shot in the face, 24-year-old Cambridge resident Paul Gately and Boston College student Kapila Bhamidipati. The injuries were not reported to headquarters, which could have alerted police to problems with the FN303, the report says.
Robert O’Toole, meanwhile, tried to hand his gun to Officer Steven Gil, saying, ”Stevie, are you certified on this?” Gil said no and refused to take the weapon. The commander then gave the gun to another officer, who said he was also uncertified. O’Toole replied, ”Just pull the trigger,” the report said. That officer did not fire the weapon and is not facing discipline.
A short time later, after officers had cleared much of the crowd from a section of Lansdowne Street, Milien fired two quick shots at a man he said had been throwing bottles. One of the pellets struck Snelgrove in the eye. The panel concluded that Milien fired so quickly he probably did not have time to aim properly.
An officer at the weapons supply truck on Brookline Avenue, Patrolman Thomas Gallagher, failed to treat the returned weapons as evidence, not tracking who had fired which weapon.
— Donovan Slack, “Snelgrove panel rips police,” The Boston Globe, May 26, 2005
To truly appreciate the unbelievable negligence displayed by numerous officers in the Boston Police Department, all of which contributed to Snelgrove’s death, you’d have to read the entire report yourself.
Although Snelgrove’s family was paid $10 million in a settlement with the manufacturer of the weapon police used to kill her, none of the officers responsible for her death were criminally prosecuted.
So, will these “SWAT Bots” be used for “crowd control” at the next major protest in Massachusetts? Once again, we have no indication that they will be, but it’s still important to ask questions like this in advance because we need to set limits on what kinds of weapons police have access to, when they use them, and how they use them.
The fact is, police in Massachusetts and the rest of the country have been responsible for many horrific tragedies and they are frequently not held accountable for them. Whenever police say that they need new weapons to protect themselves from dangerous criminals, this is the context that we should view every single one of their claims in. We can’t allow police to constantly stockpile new, dangerous weapons without considering the danger they pose to the public nor should we tolerate it when the mainstream media enables them by publishing poorly-researched propaganda pieces.