Are Police Becoming Too Militarized?

Image by Kim Herbst

Image by Kim Herbst

This investigative work, written by yours truly, originally ran in the Aug. 13, 2015 issue of Isthmus, one of the best alt-weeklies in America.

Gregory Humphrey was mowing his lawn on June 16, when, just after noon, four police officers wearing military khaki and armed with assault rifles cut purposefully across his yard.

“It happened extremely quick,” recalls Humphrey. “I swung the lawn mower around when I reached the edge of the property…and there they were.”

As Humphrey, 53, tried to make sense of it, more heavily armed officers began to spill out of the rear of an unmarked van on Paterson Street.

They moved into the residential backyards between Spaight and Jenifer streets, falling into position with the tactical precision of Army commandos, as an armored vehicle resembling a small tank stopped in front of the Jenifer Street house where many in the neighborhood suspected drugs were sold.

Over a loudspeaker, police ordered anyone inside to exit with their hands up, as a SWAT entry team prepared to storm the residence.

Neighborhood resident Bill Scanlon, 68, who lives a few blocks away, worries that these types of raids unnecessarily escalate the threat of violence. Humphrey, on the other hand, was impressed by the professional show of force.

“It’s a different climate out there for police these days,” he says. “They have a right to return home from work safely, like we all do.”

No-knock raids, where a warrant is obtained but police do not announce themselves, have become a primary function of SWAT teams.

Journalist Radley Balko is a critic of the approach.

“Today in America SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than 100 times per day,” writes Balko in Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. “The vast majority of these raids are to enforce laws against consensual crimes.”

According to an Isthmus investigation of Madison SWAT activation reports from Jan. 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2014, the city’s SWAT team conducted more than 30 “no-knock raids” during that time period in residential neighborhoods in and around the city.

Obtained through an open records request filed with Madison Police Department last fall, these reports illuminate incidents in which police commanders felt it was necessary to call in a higher level of force.

Isthmus also obtained reports from Jan. 1, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2003, for a comparative analysis that sheds light on how the city’s SWAT team has changed over the last 15 years.

Both sets of reports bring the issue of police militarization into sharper focus, providing a glimpse into the inner workings of Madison’s SWAT unit, the weapons and tactics they use, and the types of incidents they respond to.

They show that SWAT call-ups, in several instances, are beyond reproach. In others, like a no-knock raid where less than a gram of marijuana was seized, the justification for the risks are less obvious.

SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams were formed in response to 1960s-era civil unrest. Once exclusive to specialized units within big-city police departments, militarism has spread throughout small-town America, including places like Blue Mounds and DeForest, where police arsenals include military-issued M-16 assault rifles.

Madison has acquired its own cache of military paraphernalia, including a surplus armored vehicle. As polyester garb, billy clubs and shotguns have been replaced by military khaki, Tasers and assault rifles, even the department’s rank-and-file members no longer resemble your friendly neighborhood police officers.

“They look like something different,” says former Madison police chief and community-policing pioneer David Couper, “and the different is that they look like they’re militarized.”

The SWAT team, according to a bumper sticker, is “Who police call when they need help.” That is, they step in, presumably, when traditional police capabilities fall short.

According to Isthmus’ investigation, Madison’s SWAT unit has been activated 88 times in the past five years, although not all of these generate reports.

It was SWAT officers, for example, who performed the October 2012 tactical clear of a Huron Hill apartment following the death of a 67-year-old woman who had stockpiled more than 50 weapons.

On a half-dozen occasions SWAT negotiators have helped citizens threatening suicide, like a young man in February 2011 who was taken into custody atop the UW-Madison’s Van Hise building while speaking with a negotiator. But “positive outcomes” aren’t guaranteed, as evidenced by the young woman who slid in despair from the roof of a Langdon Street residence less than three months later.

SWAT teams, however, tend to be proactive by nature, planning and executing deliberate enforcement actions. “Once you have a SWAT team and they’re highly trained, you don’t just leave them waiting for the odd occasion there is an active shooter,” says Stephen Hill, a UW-Eau Claire political science professor who has researched the issue.

The June 16 raid that Humphrey witnessed underscores the importance of preparing for the unexpected. That operation involved 24 tactical officers who targeted Kendall Ragland, a 36-year-old suspected of drug trafficking.

Prior to the SWAT entry platoon executing the search warrant, Ragland unexpectedly left his Jenifer Street residence. Once the SWAT observation team signaled Ragland was on the move, a containment team followed Ragland, while a separate entry team moved on his home.

As Ragland was nabbed in a tactical traffic stop on South Carroll Street, between the City-County and Public Safety Buildings, police on Jenifer Street seized 32 grams of heroin and and 14 grams of cocaine from his home.

A majority of SWAT call-ups are to apprehend citizens or execute high-risk search warrants on behalf of the detectives or federal agents whose cases need a tactical touch.

SWAT call-ups are intended to minimize risk to both officers and suspects. Scouting teams relay real-time information on suspect movements or target buildings; an entry team executes no-knock raids; and sniper teams provide cover.

In July 2011, when a suicidal man armed with a shotgun refused to surrender, police sniper Edward Marshall was ready to kill the man if necessary.

“I did align my crosshairs on the subject and was prepared to engage…with deadly force should he make a threatening gesture toward my position or other officers’ positions,” he wrote in his incident report.

While search warrants and apprehensions allow time for threat assessments and planning, spontaneous events often do not.

Options were limited when Terence McCarville refused to exit his East Washington Avenue apartment after allegedly threatening officers with a knife when they came to take him into custody on Jan. 17, 2012.

Later that evening, a SWAT entry team stormed McCarville’s bedroom with guns drawn and bullets chambered.

When the 51-year-old, who was “sitting on a chair in the middle of the room with his hands outstretched,” disobeyed orders to get face-down on the ground, the lead officer plowed into him with a ballistic shield, known as a vertical stun.

McCarville remained defiant, yelling obscenities and exerting “resistive tension” even as he was forcibly brought to the floor. Peppered throughout each officer’s report are concerns McCarville had squirreled away weapons he would use to resist arrest.

Sgt. Jason Ostrenga wrote that in order to gain control of him, “I immediately gave direct knee strikes to McCarville’s rib cage,” as McCarville attempted to rise on all fours.

McCarville was placed in protective custody, but the reason police were initially dispatched has been redacted. Police placed into evidence a pair of pruning shears, but the knife that sparked the SWAT activation wasn’t found, according to the report.

Due to their emphasis on professionalized violence, Hill suggests that SWAT teams are antithetical to the community-oriented style Madison police have helped pioneer since the 1980s.

But MPD’s SWAT captain, Vic Wahl, disagrees. He notes officers went door-to-door explaining the situation following the Jenifer Street raid: “If you dig deeper you will see…that we’re still doing community policing in a tactical situation.”

“Militarization” means different things to different people. Capt. Wahl suggests it is “professionalism” by another name.

“We’re much more restrained in our tactics than we used to be,” he says. “Back in the ’90s our motto was to get in as quickly as we could. You’d hit the door and try to have as many cops in the building as quickly as you could. We just don’t do that anymore.”

Madison SWAT unit typically has between 20 and 25 members. Try-outs for the team are held when there are vacancies due to retirements or when officers either step down from the team or are promoted to a supervisory rank, Wahl says.

In addition to monthly training in tactics and firearms, team members often become certified instructors in specific areas.

The team as a whole often cross-trains with tactical teams from other agencies or what Wahl describes as “specialty groups,” which may include military special forces.

“What we’re trying to do is get the best outcome in these high-risk situations and provide the best service we can to the community,” he says.

Isthmus’ review of SWAT reports found that Wahl, who was promoted to SWAT captain in 2010, has all but ditched some tactics considered reckless by critics, including nighttime raids and using stun grenades.

Occasionally, nighttime operations are unavoidable.

On the night of Feb. 8, 2012, SWAT officers searched two residences and kept another under surveillance in pursuit of murder suspect Edgar Salinas-Leal, until cornering him inside a Raymond Road apartment.

While nighttime raids might be down under Wahl, no-knock search warrants are not.

A 1997 study by policing experts Peter B. Kraska and Louis J. Cubellis, Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing, found that in cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000, the number of no-knock raids rose from an average of 3,000 per year in 1981 to more than 50,000 per year by 1995.

The Dane County Sheriff’s Office typically handles tactical situations outside of Madison, though Madison’s SWAT unit has assisted officers in Monona, Fitchburg and the town of Madison as well as UW Police.

The Dane County Clerk of Courts doesn’t break down search warrants by type, so hard numbers to show how no-knock warrants have trended locally aren’t readily available.

But as recently as 2003, MPD’s Emergency Response Team (renamed SWAT in 2008) referenced in its reports “the no-knock provision” of the warrant it had executed while providing context for why it was necessary.

By 2009, “no-knock” in police parlance had evolved from an adjective to a noun. Explanations for why the no-knock provision was necessary also disappeared.

Based on the MPD reports, the department’s SWAT unit has executed 33 no-knock raids since 2010. Of these, 16 were drug-related, with the rest to assist apprehending fugitives or suspects of violent crimes.

The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutionality of no-knock raids, but critics and police scholars argue they often create risk.

The Cato Institute has identified more than 40 instances where innocent civilians have been killed in botched no-knock raids mistaken for criminal intrusions. Wahl says MPD avoids scenarios that have a higher chance of these fatal errors.

“We’re not smashing in the door at 3 a.m. and bum-rushing a residence,” says Wahl. “When we’re doing a search warrant I don’t want any confusion [from suspects] about whether it’s a drug rip-off or an intruder. We have to be diligent about that in this society, because a lot of people have guns in their homes.”

Madison police have a department-wide system of checks-and-balances for vetting information, Wahl explains. A loudspeaker is sometimes used to give occupants a chance to surrender before the residence is breached.

Still, the risk no-knock raids pose to innocent civilians is never completely eliminated.

Last December MPD SWAT unit executed a federal no-knock warrant on the 4300 block of Britta Drive. In this situation, police decided not to announce their presence ahead of time, believing the suspects might be armed and put up a fight.

As the entry platoon advanced on the building, officers monitoring the perimeter observed people jumping from a second-floor balcony as others opted for the front entrance — police suspect someone from the neighborhood might have tipped the suspects off when police were seen approaching.

“[This] added an element of danger, as it is never advantageous for officers executing a search warrant to have the…targets know of our presence beforehand,” wrote Detective Matthew Nordquist.

Ordered to proceed, officers stormed the upstairs apartment. During the tactical clear, Nordquist and another officer breached a locked bedroom at the end of the hallway with a hard kick.

As the door swung open, officers were greeted by “an aggressive” 50-pound “pit bull running full speed in our direction.”

Nordquist, a pit bull owner himself, had neither the time nor the space to fire a “tactical round.” He opened fire on the animal, discharging numerous rounds from his Colt M4 long rifle before it dropped dead at their feet.

By the time the dog had closed in on him, Nordquist was shooting almost straight downward, creating what he described as “an extremely dangerous situation for anyone…directly below us.”

Fortunately, no one was home in the apartment beneath them. The officer who entered to check for potential victims noted several bullet holes in the hallway ceiling.

A media release posted on the department’s website the following day mentioned an aggressive pit bull, but not the errant bullets.

“We try to have contingencies in place to avoid shooting dogs,” says Wahl. “Sometimes we’re just not going to know, and sometimes there just isn’t any way around it.”

No-knock warrants often evolve out of concerns for officer safety. The target in this particular raid, wanted for selling heroin, was considered armed and dangerous, although no firearms were found in the apartment.

Many other reports make vague references to information about firearms or a target’s violent history, yet weapons aren’t discovered during most searches.

That’s not to say guns aren’t a real threat. During an August 2013 raid on a Femrite Drive property, police seized an Israeli Desert Eagle machine gun, two Winchester rifles and a couple of pistols.

During a raid on a pair of Columbus Lane apartments following a May 2012 shooting, police found an AK-47 assault rifle, .40 and .38 caliber handguns, and a .22 caliber rifle.

“We live in a violent culture, and there are a lot of guns out there,” says Wahl. “When those are used in crimes or homicides, we’re the ones expected to go resolve those situations, so we have got to have the tools to do it.”

Madison doesn’t have a full-time SWAT team so its members spend most of their time working as detectives or patrolling the streets, as Matt Kenny was the night he shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old.

His second “justified” homicide as a police officer, Kenny fired seven rounds into Tony Robinson after the teenager allegedly assaulted him in a dark staircase hallway, before backup arrived.

As national news was made of yet another officer-involved shooting of a young man with dark skin, some questioned whether SWAT-style militarism, where suspects become targets, was creeping into Madison’s police mainstream.

Was Kenny, highly trained in using force (he completed SWAT sniper training a month earlier), a victim of his own battlefield vigilance?

“How police respond to [situations] are things we need to think about more,” says Madison peace activist Bonnie Block. “We really do have this mentality that somehow we solve problems by using force. I think that the police killings of people are one of the ways it plays out.”

In Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond, Kraska and Cubellis blame the for-profit industry that supplies SWAT teams for reinforcing the “seductive powers” of, or the prestige that comes from, being part of a tactical team.

“The techno-warrior garb, heavy weaponry, sophisticated technology, hyper-masculinity, and ‘real-work’ functions are nothing less than intoxicating for paramilitary participants and those who aspire to work in such units.”

Slipping into a bulletproof vest, by itself, changes an officer’s mindset, former Chief Couper says, with perhaps an even more aggressive posture encouraged by each new piece of high-tech gear.

“The attitude is, ‘We’ve got new toys and we’re going to play with them,’” he says, perhaps explaining why the armored tactical vehicle police acquired last year has been deployed for nearly as many public events as tactical operations.

Police agencies nationwide receive a fair amount of new toys through the 1033 project, a 25-year-old military-surplus program established by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Bill Wilson, who administered Wisconsin’s 1033 program for nearly a decade until it was taken over by the state’s Office of Emergency Management in June, says most of what the program makes available to police are practical items, like the box of tourniquets in Wahl’s office.

“It’s stuff that saves the taxpayers’ money,” he says.

An inventory provided by Emergency Management of what law enforcement agencies in Dane County have received from the program over the last 10 years corroborates Wilson’s statement. Occasionally all-terrain MRAP (mine-resistant ambush-protected) vehicles or night-vision goggles become available.

Numerous law enforcement agencies, including the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, have obtained military-issued M-16 assault rifles, along with smaller service weapons.

The program came under fire last year when it was discovered that the Waunakee Police Department acquired a grenade launcher through the program in 2010, which can be used to volley canisters of tear gas, Wilson says.

Police scholars often point to Richard Nixon’s 1971 launch of the War on Drugs as the watershed moment when civilian policing began its philosophical drift toward militaristic law enforcement. Stamping out illegal substances would require a new kind of police officer to help reassert the political commitment to a drug-free America.

“Most of the increases in paramilitary deployments began in 1988, at the apex of drug war…hysteria,” write Kraska and Cubellis.

But the controversial aspects of SWAT teams often overshadow the fact that cities occasionally need a highly trained tactical force to diffuse volatile situations in the field.

Of the last five years, 2012 had the most SWAT activations due to an uptick in armed standoffs. A trained police dog stopped a man on Old Middleton Road from forcing police to shoot him, while a mentally ill East Mifflin Street man was taken into protective custody after threatening neighbors with a machete.

Standoffs are never easy, but officers involved in apprehending Steven Boyle likely agree some are more taxing than others.

Boyle, 51, was wanted on a felony warrant when he barricaded himself inside his Berwyn Drive residence after police attempted to arrest him in September 2013.

For 12 hours, Boyle thwarted every police attempt to flush him out, while he fortified his residence against a SWAT team entry.

Around 3:30 a.m., an entry team began a tactical clear of the first floor when Boyle hurled a gallon of paint at them from the basement.

Moments later, officers descended the basement staircase, but Boyle prevented their entry into the basement using his body weight to barricade the door.

Using a special tool, officers made a hole through the wood large enough to Taser Boyle not once, but twice, to no effect. As officers began breaking the door apart, Boyle retreated farther into the basement.

A police dog was deployed.

Boyle was cornered, but not finished.

With rifle-mounted flashlights, the entry team, wearing gas masks, moved through the unlit basement until Boyle appeared, as if an apparition, in the haze of tear gas.

“He’s choking the dog!” an officer yelled.

Boyle had both hands around the dog’s neck when an officer delivered a vertical stun using his ballistic shield. Another “began to deliver knee strikes…to Boyle’s torso.”

Boyle fought back, delivering blows with one hand while maintaining his chokehold on the dog with the other. A third officer joined the fray, “strik[ing] Boyle with a closed fist in the side torso and rib area.”

Boyle was handcuffed moments later.

Some officers struck a reverent tone in writing about the standoff. Boyle, one officer writes, displayed “the most violent and committed level of resistance I have observed in my 13 and a half years on the Madison Police Department SWAT team.”

“The aggression and strength he exhibited was nothing short of extraordinary.”

Although Madison has avoided some of the most controversial uses of its SWAT unit, there is a growing perception that MPD is becoming a militarized force.

This is epitomized by reactions to the department’s 2013 acquisition of an armored vehicle, which is primarily used by the SWAT team. When people are asked to talk about the city’s SWAT operations, the conversation inevitably turns to the armored truck as evidence the department is out of control.

Former Police Chief Noble Wray applied in 2011 for the armored vehicle through the Wisconsin 1033 program, arguing Madison had a “significant need” for it. In addition to “potentially high-risk targets,” like Monona Terrace, the state Capitol or any of the UW-Madison campus buildings, Wray wrote, there were the many large special events and protests, “some of which have historically resulted in public disorder.”

Wray was no longer chief when the vehicle arrived, leaving his successor, Mike Koval, to take the heat for it from citizens like peace activist Block, who has pushed the department to get rid of it.

Before that, Madison was an outlier among cities its size for not having its own armored truck. It often borrowed the sheriff’s office’s vehicle. Wahl says it would be professional negligence to not have the vehicle.

“I’m certainly not going to look at my officers and say, ‘I expect you to go out into harm’s way without an armored vehicle,’” says Wahl. “Ultimately, it’s just a truck.”

But in other people’s minds, it’s a tank and the police are “playing soldier.” In this narrative, Robinson and Paul Heenan, an unarmed man killed by police in November 2012, are casualties.

“People around here are still angry those two guys aren’t with us anymore because of cops who act like we’re the enemy,” says Bill Scanlon, who lives near the raided Jenifer Street house. “I think that armored tank, the guns, all of it, actually encourages people to fight back.”

But that was not the scenario when police arrived at a Frisch Road residence last October to investigate a domestic disturbance. Robert Carder Jr., 53, opened fire on officers, activating a SWAT call-up.

Without an armored truck, police weren’t able to block Frisch Road without exposing themselves to Carder’s line of fire. Instead, they blocked nearby intersections in case he attempted to drive away.

An hour later, as members of the entry platoon began to arrive, it appeared Carder was preparing to exit his residence. The armored truck — dispatched to prevent him from entering his vehicle — blocked his driveway.

Carder was sitting near the front door, shirtless with his hands up, ready to surrender. But as he waited, an armed SWAT team stealthily slipped out the back of the truck and quickly surrounded him, aiming their assault rifles directly at him.

Instead of getting face-down on the ground as ordered, Carder began to argue. Fearing he might try re-entering the residence, officers closed in to apprehend him.

Feeling betrayed by the negotiator who talked him from the house, Carder shouted from the back of the squad car at police that next time things would be different.

“Next time he was not going to cooperate,” an officer reported him saying. “Next time he was going to shoot and kill anybody that tried to come into his house.”

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