Breonna Taylor’s death does not call for a SWAT solution

The longer I live, the more I’m convinced that this era will be remembered for two things: First, for our newfound capability to instantaneously analyze zettabytes of data to find ready solutions to the common problems of humankind. Second, for the stunning capacity of our leaders to implement the opposite of whatever the data suggest the solution ought to be.

Take, for example, last week’s Courier Journal report that the outgoing Louisville Metro police chief believes that the no-knock warrant that led to Breonna Taylor’s murder should have been handled by a SWAT team. The reasoning is that “the SWAT team requires a very thorough briefing before acting on a warrant,” which I suppose is true, in the way that the troops of Pyrrhus of Epirus were likely given a thorough briefing before being slaughtered by the Romans.

Sure, use SWAT to serve more warrants. This must seem like a great idea if you’re the kind of person who thinks arming teachers is going to stop school shootings, using plasticware in a crowded restaurant is going to prevent the spread of COVID-19, or the solution to global warming is for everyone to start building boats. Future anthropologists will marvel at our ability to examine a situation like this, in which the last few decades teach us painful lessons about the dumb shit we’re doing and conclude that we need to do more of the same dumb shit.

Did you have to look up Pyrrhus of Epirus, referenced in the second paragraph above? Me too. I only knew the term “pyrrhic victory.” But from that, it took me about fifteen seconds to figure out its origin and work it into this inconsequential column. Now imagine being in charge of any one of the umpteen police departments in the region and enjoying the power to affect the lives of thousands of people with a single policy decision. Imagine you have a platoon of heavily armed masked men at your disposal. Further imagine you have access to all the information about how effective such platoons are (or rather aren’t). When faced with the question of “should we send these guys out to wage war on American citizens in their own homes more often,” you’d want to spend a few minutes doing your homework.

And if you did, you’d find out a lot. You’d know that SWAT teams were a creation of a notoriously racist, former Los Angeles police chief named Daryl Gates in the 1960s and were originally established to combat threats that local police departments were ill-equipped to handle: hostage situations, hijackings, terrorism, paramilitary groups, The Black Panthers, the Chavez farmworker uprisings, etc. Throughout the subsequent five decades, SWAT activity expanded exponentially thanks to increased federal funding for a poorly fought war on drugs and easier access to inexpensive surplus military equipment. You’d know that they are now used in tens of thousands of raids every year, for everything from stolen Xanax to suicide calls to dangerous dogs, just for the hell of it.

You’d also know after a minute or two of research that SWAT teams, just like no-knock warrants, are a terrible idea that has caused incalculable suffering over the last 50 years. You’d read stories of people like Ismael Mena, who was killed after he pulled a gun to defend himself from home invaders who turned out to be Denver SWAT. Or Jose Guerena, an Iraq war veteran killed by Arizona SWAT in an unnanounced search for drugs that weren’t there. 

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Or, Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old Georgia woman who was shot six times by police after trying to protect herself, with a rusty .38, from whoever was on the other end of a battering ram smashing through her front door. 

If you were unmoved by those stories, you might also see that numerous cops have been needlessly killed or injured in these types of raids, too, like James Pittman, a SWAT officer who was shot in a no-knock narcotics raid of a family home in Texas, or Chuck Dinwiddie, a detective killed in a no-knock raid that produced a new capital murder charge, but no drugs.

You might also dig deep, engaging in as much as, say, twenty minutes of research, and come to the conclusion that kicking someone’s doors down to get a bag of weed is a shitty way to do law enforcement, even though the Supreme Court says it’s perfectly constitutional. You might start to think that there’s a subtle variation between what you can do with your power, and what you should do. If you had done this research, you might not be quite so hot on making the point that “we did too knock and announce” in a situation like the Breonna Taylor murder, because it just doesn’t matter; you’d know that knock or no-knock, SWAT or no SWAT, ransacking private homes in the middle of the night to find drugs leads to disastrous results.

Then again, it’s possible that all of this research has been done by Louisville’s police chief and nearly every other department in the country and summarily disregarded. Or worse, served as inspiration to make policy decisions that are calculated to lead to the worst possible outcomes. But that’s the absurd beauty of our era, I guess. Perhaps all policing will soon be done by SWAT, with no-knock raids the norm, for reasons as varied as nabbing a shoplifting suspect, seizing a mattress tag or delivering a parking ticket. I’d expect nothing less from this shockingly smart, shockingly stupid epoch. •

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.

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