Commentary

Death by SWAT Raid

Collateral raid damage

In January 2007, a SWAT team in Lima, Ohio, shot and killed Tarika Wilson, a 26-year-old mother, during a drug raid at the home of her boyfriend, Anthony Terry. When the unarmed Wilson was shot, she was kneeling on the ground, complying with police orders. She was holding her 1-year-old son, Sincere, who was also shot, losing his left hand. A subsequent investigation revealed that Officer Joseph Chavalia heard another officer shooting Terry’s two dogs, mistook the noise for hostile gunfire, panicked, and fired blindly into the room where Wilson was kneeling. Chavalia was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but acquitted.

As reckless and violent as the raid was, the police did at least find a substantial supply of illegal drugs inside the house, and Anthony Terry later pleaded guilty to felony drug distribution. A subsequent investigation by the Lima News showed that despite the inherent danger and small margin for error, SWAT raids conducted by the Lima Police Department frequently turned up no drugs or weapons at all. The paper found that in one-third of the 198 raids the SWAT team conducted from 2001 to 2008, no contraband was found.

Similar reviews in other cities have produced similar results: A surprisingly high percentage of raids produce neither drugs nor weapons. And the weapons that are found tend to be small, concealable handguns, with few raids resulting in felony convictions.

A Denver Post investigation found that in 80 percent of no-knock raids conducted in Denver in 1999, police assertions that there would be weapons in the targeted home turned out to be wrong. A separate investigation by the Rocky Mountain News found that of the 146 no-knock warrants served in Denver in 1999, just 49 resulted in criminal charges, and only two resulted in prison time. Media investigations produced similar results after high-profile mistaken raids in New York City in 2003, in Atlanta in 2007, and in Orlando and Palm Beach, Florida, in 1998. When the results of the Denver investigation were revealed, former prosecutor Craig Silverman said, “When you have that violent intrusion on people’s homes with so little results, you have to ask why.”

Lima police apparently aren’t as concerned. When told of the Lima News investigation, police spokesman Kevin Martin said, “That means 68 percent of the time, we’re getting guns or drugs off the street. We’re not looking at it as a win-loss record like a football team does.”

Radley Balko is senior editor at Reason magazine, where this article first appeared.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine and Reason.com.

Previously, Balko was a policy analyst for the Cato Institute specializing in civil liberties issues, where he published a paper on alcohol policy and a groundbreaking study on paramilitary police raids.

He is a columnist for FoxNews.com and has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Time, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Slate, Forbes, National Post, Worth and numerous other publications. Balko has also appeared on the BBC, CNN, CNBC, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and NPR.

Balko's work on paramilitary raids and the overuse of SWAT teams was featured by John Tierney in The New York Times, has been praised by outlets ranging from Human Events to the Daily Kos, and was cited by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent in the case Hudson v. Michigan.

Balko is also credited with bringing national attention to the case of Cory Maye, a black man who prior to Balko's work was on death row in Mississippi for shooting and killing a white police officer during a raid on Maye's home. Balko's Reason feature on Maye was also cited in an opinion by the Mississippi State Supreme Court. National Journal also profiled Balko's coverage of the case.

Balko publishes the personal blog, TheAgitator.com. He graduated from Indiana University in 1997 with a degree in journalism and political science.