Or what about the SWAT team that drove an armored Lenco Bearcat into Roger Serrato’s yard, surrounded his home with paramilitary troops wearing face masks, threw a fire-starting flashbang grenade into the house in order, then when Serrato appeared at a window, unarmed and wearing only his shorts, held him at bay with rifles? Serrato died of asphyxiation from being trapped in the flame-filled house, and the county was ordered to pay $2.6 million to Serrato’s family. It turns out the father of four had done nothing wrong; the SWAT team had misidentified him as someone involved in a shooting. Even so, the police admitted no wrongdoing.
And then there was the police officer who tripped and “accidentally” shot and killed Eurie Stamps, who had been forced to the floor of his home at gunpoint while a SWAT team attempted to execute a search warrant against his stepson. Equally outrageous was the recent four-hour SWAT team raid on a California high school, where students were locked down in classrooms, forced to urinate in overturned desks, and generally terrorized by heavily armed, masked gunmen searching for possible weapons that were never found.
The problem with all of these incidents, as one reporter rightly concluded, is “not that life has gotten that much more dangerous, it’s that authorities have chosen to respond to even innocent situations as if they were in a warzone.”
This battlefield mindset has so corrupted our law enforcement agencies that the most routine tasks, such as serving a search warrant—intended to uncover evidence of a suspected crime—becomes a death warrant for the alleged “suspect,” his family members, and his pets once a SWAT team, trained to kill, is involved.
Unfortunately, SWAT teams are no longer reserved exclusively for deadly situations. Owing to the militarization of the nation’s police forces, SWAT teams are now increasingly being deployed for relatively routine police matters, with some SWAT teams being sent out as much as five times a day. For example, police in both Baltimore and Dallas have used SWAT teams to bust up poker games. A Connecticut SWAT team was sent into a bar that was believed to be serving alcohol to underage individuals. In Arizona, a SWAT team was used to break up an alleged cockfighting ring. An Atlanta SWAT team raided a music studio, allegedly out of a concern that it might have been involved in illegal music piracy.
Yet the tension inherent in most civilian-police encounters these days can’t be blamed exclusively on law enforcement’s growing reliance on SWAT teams. It goes far deeper, to a transformation in the way police view themselves and their line of duty. Specifically, what we’re dealing with today is a skewed shoot-to-kill mindset in which police, trained to view themselves as warriors or soldiers in a war, whether against drugs, or terror, or crime, must “get” the bad guys—i.e., anyone who is a potential target—before the bad guys get them. The result is a spike in the number of incidents in which police shoot first, and ask questions later.
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