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Home Invasion: Racial Disparities in SWAT Raids
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 911, 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 police raids are carried out each year in the United States.
Balko notes that many of these raids are conducted in search of drugs, although his greatest concern is not for non-violent offenders. His interest is in the numerous cases where police raid the wrong home and innocent civilians are treated like criminals, some of them even shot and killed. A man’s home is his castle, so the saying goes, and to libertarians the rise of paramilitary police raids is an alarming example of the government infringing upon individual rights.
Of course, race played no part in Balko’s analysis, suggesting that conducting raids on the homes of African Americans is acceptable, as they are the true criminals. My study of SWAT raids in Champaign County exposes how it is most always African Americans whose homes are invaded.
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 a 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-Urbana, with a population of around 100,000, we have two SWAT teams, Champaign’s and the County’s.
The first SWAT team in Urbana-Champaign 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 tank, innocuously called a “Rescue Vehicle,” as if it were the same as a fire truck or ambulance.
There are also specialized drug units that collect information on suspects and utilize SWAT teams to serve warrants. The Sheriff’s Department has a Street Crimes Unit (SCU). Urbana also has a Street Crimes Unit, which was re-instated in 2006 by Police Chief Mike Bily, after lapsing for a year due to budget constraints. In Champaign they have a Narcotics Unit to investigate drugs.
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 being 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.
In filing my FOIA requests, I found that the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office and the Urbana Police Department were the most forthcoming with information. The Champaign County Sheriff’s Office provided me with all police reports for three years, 2004, 2005, and 2006, and sent them to me within two weeks. I requested only the 2006 reports from Urbana, as it usually relies on the Sheriff’s multi-jurisdictional METRO team to conduct raids. Yet the Champaign Police Department, whose SWAT team is very well-funded and heavily-armed, was unwilling to hand over information.
In Champaign, I had to schedule a meeting with Police Chief R.T. Finney and city attorney Trisha Crowley, who put me through a rigorous screening process and narrowed my search to only 2006. It took six weeks to get the information and when I received it many of the documents were heavily blacked out. The level of secrecy in the Champaign Police Department is a reflection of their unwillingness to undergo any kind of oversight, as witnessed by the Champaign city council’s voting down of a Citizen Police Review Board despite the recommendations by their own Police-Community Relations Committee.
After finally 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.
In regards to race, we already know that of the 4,845 felony and misdemeanor charges filed by the State’s Attorney’s office in 2006, 3,868 were against African Americans. That comes to 79% of all charges. A courtwatching study done by U of I law professor Steve Beckett showed that 70% of defendants are African American.
In my FOIA of SWAT raids, 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 the black neighborhoods north of University and on Lierman Street in southeast Urbana [See map].
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.
The argument for specialized drug teams and SWAT raids is that they are cutting down on drug trafficking, and also reduce other crimes that result from drugs. Yet often it is only low-level dealers who are caught. Drug users will find a new dealer, and there are too many who find it easier to deal drugs than to find well-paying work. Drugs are still relatively easy to get and usage has not gone down in over 25 years of the “war on drugs.” We only have more people being prosecuted and imprisoned for non-violent offenses. They make up over half of the 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons. In Illinois, 66% of those who are in prison for drugs are black, and the state’s rate of blacks incarcerated for drug possession is the highest in the country.
Urbana Police Chief Mike Bily told the News-Gazette that his Street Crimes Unit, which had been revived in 2006 after being suspended the previous year for lack of funds, has had “a significant impact on reducing our drug crimes, which affects other crimes, like burglary” (2/26/2007). Indeed, the SCU busted over 100 more people in 2006. Police data showed that there were 341 drug crimes in 2005 and 452 in 2006. Yet the number of burglaries had also increased, from 341 in 2005 to 452 in 2006, disproving Bily’s theory.
Of the seven raids conducted by the Urbana Street Crimes Unit in 2006, all were for drugs. There was no indication that stolen property was found in any of the raids, despite Chief Bily’s linkage of drugs and burglary. In what is known by locals as the People’s Republic of Urbana, three of the seven police raids only turned up small amounts of marijuana, all under an ounce.
Just a few number of raids netted a large amount of drugs. Most individuals were low-level dealers who were only found in possession of small amounts. In one Urbana case, only 0.3 grams of crack cocaine was discovered after ten Urbana police invaded the house of a black woman. She was convicted on a felony charge of selling drugs to an informant. In another case, no drugs were found and a single 12 gage shotgun shell was used to revoke the probation of an earlier obstruction of justice charge (which was the result of racial profiling), and the individual was sentenced to a year in prison.
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). This pernicious practice is under attack by activists who have started the “stop snitching” campaign, which has been endorsed by several hip hop artists.
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 source 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.”
For Entertainment Purposes
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 when they raided the house 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 K-Kale 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 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 found a veritable 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 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.
In contrast, there is an incident on August 25, 2004 where the Sheriff’s METRO unit was called out for a group of black youth who had snuck into the county fair without paying entry fees. Police described them as members of a “teenage street gang” who all wore white T-shirts. The youth were stopped, patted down, and one of them was found with a toy gun.
Or compare the example of these two neo-Nazis with another case from 2006 in which the METRO unit invaded an African American home after two alleged drug sales and then found no drugs at the household. A stolen gun found at the residence (which although police reports claim it was touched by the suspect, lab tests showed the gun had no fingerprints) was used to revoke the individual’s probation from a burglary case four years previous. This man now sits indefinitely in the state penitentiary.
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).
Million Dollar Question
Local officials wash their hands of any blame when asked about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. At a public event on March 13, 2007 audience members were allowed to present questions to their elected officials. When asked why blacks are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said:
“Well, isn’t that the million dollar question. That’s the question that is asked of all of us sitting here, in social services, in government, in our churches, in our schools. I’m certainly not going to stand up here and tell you that I, Julia Rietz, State’s Attorney for Champaign County, has the answer to that question. Because I don’t. Because none of you sitting here do either. It’s a combination of things. It’s a societal issue. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Where did it come from first? Where did it start? I can’t tell you why it is.”
When I asked Sheriff Dan Walsh what the ratio of black to white suspects involved in SWAT raids, 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