Fault Lines
21 October 2017

Botched Raids or Boring Warrants? A Decision For SWAT Teams

January 6, 2017 (Fault Lines) – One doesn’t have to look much farther than an internet search bar, or a quick search of Fault Lines, to find a list of botched police drug “raids.” The compilation lists appear so lengthy, even as a police officer who spent over sixteen years on a SWAT team, I have to shake my head and ask, “This often?”

The mistakes and bad outcomes come in many flavors. Teams hitting the wrong address. Flashbangs landing in baby cribs. Shooting the family pet dog. Finding no contraband. Suspects being acquitted on charges for firing on police officers. No one home.

**

I still vividly recall my first search warrant (or you might call it, a raid) as a brand new SWAT officer. The neighbors were furious with the dysfunctional family whose home had been a magnet for illegal drug activity. Undercover drug detectives built a strong case for a search warrant, and because informants said the family was armed with guns, SWAT was to serve it. We briefed up and caravanned to the house.

We approached the front door, knocked, and announced, “POLICE!” And when no one answered…our breacher smashed the door. In the chaos after the flashbang detonated, I found myself shuffled down a hallway, where I kicked in the padlocked door to grandma’s bedroom. (She wasn’t home…and let’s agree the padlock was a clue to her level of trust in her grandkids.)

By the time we turned the scene over to investigators, they had already found a sizeable stash of drugs and various firearms strategically placed (and illegally possessed) around the home to protect it. In cop parlance, it was a win.

My adrenaline was still flowing when we got back into our raid vans to depart. What I hadn’t realized was that nearly every neighbor down the block had come out of their homes. They lined the sidewalks, curiously talking to each other about the police activity. Then as we drove away, they cheered us. We got thumbs up. Smiles. “Thank yous!” Waves. Claps. Hoorahs. I felt as though I was riding on the prize-winning parade float.

**

Over the following years, my team learned to slow down. We smashed a lot fewer doors. Even when judges granted “no-knock” warrants (that permit police tactical teams to use battering rams on doors without warning…or knocking), we chose different tactics. Our team began encircling homes and using the telephone and vans’ public address speakers to call the occupants out to us. These “surround-and-callout” tactics got us our illegal guns and wanted criminals in a safer, more controlled manner.

What got us to the point where the surround-and-callout as a default tactic rather than the stereotypical “raid” entry? The research on human decision-making under stress. We learned how our own bodies and minds reacted to compressed time, fear, confusion, smells, noise, anxiety…as I had been affected on my first raid.

But what about the acute stress and fear we caused in those inside the homes we raided? How about waking up a family at 4:30 a.m. from a dead sleep? Could we expect the best decisions (think: compliance) from them? Or were we inadvertently putting them into a state of primal, animalistic, reactive, survival-mode decision-making too?

We connected-the-dots and hypothesized the correlation of stress, on both officer and suspect, to be a factor in so many of the awful warrants we studied nationally. In fact, this shift toward surround-and-callout tactics was a national one. SWAT teams and detectives across the country slowed down and became more deliberate in how they handled warrants.

When our team discarded the raid mentality, the roller-coaster ride adrenaline no longer dumped. I lost cool stories with my family and friends. The exciting tales of run-up-smash-the-door search warrants transitioned to “…our negotiator called inside…and then he came out with his hands up…and that was it.” Though no actual stats were kept, I saw our uses of force drop and our levels of suspect compliance rise. The elderly and children inside were less traumatized. As a trade off, we lost more street drugs and destructible evidence to the city sewer system.

**

There is a compromise with the maturation towards the surround-and-callout tactic: cops need adequate ballistic protection to stand on the perimeter of a potential standoff. You can’t expect cops to wait outside someone’s home and announce to them they are going to jail without providing those officers with the safety of armor. This means not only heavy bullet-resistant vests and helmets, but, yes, armored trucks like BearCats and military surplus MRAPs.

So here we have the biggest misconception with the militarization of police. We have a national trend of SWAT teams actually slowing down to deescalate and make better decisions, but armoring them up so they can slow down and stand post in the safest, possible manner. Merely “armoring up” is not by itself escalation of force; escalation is about speed and aggression, violence and posturing.

**

Keep in mind that “raid” tactics still hold their place. We in policing need these fast-paced options for serving warrants. But there is no magical formula or objective threat matrix that can possibly account for the collective factors that justify them.

Not every neighborhood is safe enough for cops to set up a perimeter and wait for occupants to surrender. There is surely an element of vulnerability to staying outside in what the military calls “non-permissive environments.”

The cramped close-quarters of multi-family housing, especially high-rise apartments, do not lend themselves well to surround-and-callout methods.

Sophisticated, coordinated, and simultaneous search warrants at multiple locations are another reason that may justify fast smash-the-door tactics.

And let’s face it – even extreme weather conditions play into the decisions on what tactics to employ. Freezing cold or soaking wet cops may lose their logical decision-making abilities to the elements.

And lastly, the preservation of evidence in some types of criminal cases does take a necessary priority.

However, not all police tactical teams got the memo. There exist units that default to dynamic raid tactics and use them whenever possible. Some teams rely on expediency to cut down on overtime costs, opting for the 60-second option rather than what could be a hour-long standoff. Or how about the team commanders who have testified that rush-hour traffic congestion factored into their rationale for making entry? Or bluntly, teams that still chase-the-dope in a race to the bathroom?

**

Are we in policing chalking up these mistakes and poor outcomes as acceptable (AKA: “reasonable”) collateral damage? Or are we learning from them and understanding how a shift in our tactics can influence the minimization of errors?

Does the community understand that lack of contraband or wanted “targets” does not mean it was a bad warrant? Or that mistakes will happen in even the best planned circumstances?

As I became a father, the adrenaline rush lost its luster. I realized that my family depended on my return home, and that a change in mindset with search and arrest warrants increased my chances of doing just that. It also decreased the chances of hitting wrong addresses and bad shoots and public criticism.

Before I left our SWAT team, I served two more warrants at that same home where I “popped my cherry.” The tactics we used in subsequent warrants couldn’t look more different than the first. In fact, the second and third stories are quite boring. And I’m quite good with that. So are my wife and kids.

18 Comments on this post.

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  • CLS
    6 January 2017 at 9:57 am - Reply

    Welcome to Fault Lines, Lou.

    Regarding the “surround and callout” technique, I’m going to have to ask why you see justification existing for Bearcats and MRAPs in addition to heavy body armor. Is the default mentality that when you use that tactic it’s expected the party inside will respond with a RPG or machine gun?

    I can see justification for heavy body armor. I don’t follow with the use of military vehicles in a neighborhood.

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      6 January 2017 at 1:37 pm - Reply

      Thanks for engaging. Depending on terrain & environment, cops on perimeter can be sitting ducks on these warrants. I’m not advocating the use of armored vehicles on every type of warrant…but when the intelligence supports the presence of firearms, especially long guns like scopesd rifles or AK47s/AR15s, armored vehicles are completely justified. I understand the mere presence of these vehicles can be disturbing, but in the big picture, I’d much rather error on that than take chances with the multitude of mistakes that can happen when cops rush in. Lou

  • Brad
    6 January 2017 at 11:56 am - Reply

    “These “surround-and-callout” tactics . . .”

    A lot of policemen who post on the internet mock any suggestion of using these.

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      6 January 2017 at 6:12 pm - Reply

      Yes. I will be receiving those mocking messages over the weekend. They usually come in the calling-me-a-coward variety.

  • Greg Prickett
    6 January 2017 at 2:45 pm - Reply

    Welcome to F/L, Lou, it’s great to have you here and I look forward to reading more of your stuff.

    I agree that there is a need for armored vehicles, but I think that we have put way too many of them at departments that don’t really need them. We should look at putting them at major cities, at county SOs, or with the state police, and make them available to local departments for training and operations. A town of 8,000 doesn’t need one, absent special circumstances.

    • not an anon
      6 January 2017 at 4:41 pm - Reply

      Yeah — it seems that mutual-aid is the sensible way to go here when it comes to “heavy” hardware such as armored vehicles. That way, the local PD gets not only the hardware, but people who understand the hardware along with it. Just look at how FDs share technical-rescue or hazmat resources for an example.

      • Lou Hayes Jr
        6 January 2017 at 6:07 pm - Reply

        Multi-jurisditional units are surely the way of the future for highly specialized units. My tactical experience was on one such regional team, where we believed (maybe wrongly) that we were getting the best candidates for the position. The same goes for specialized, infrequently used equipment being shared. It goes beyond fiscal responsibility. There are just some people who need to build their own kingdom…

  • Ross
    7 January 2017 at 10:23 am - Reply

    I’ve thought for years that much of the use of smash the door in tactics was driven by the need for the adrenaline junkies to get the rush such raids bring. It’s probably just as effective to allow the suspects to flush their drug evidence as it is to confiscate it, and you can still get them on whatever’s left and the guns.

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      7 January 2017 at 10:36 am - Reply

      Ross, That’s assuming the evidence to be seized is illegal drugs. The rationale FOR the “speed, surprise & violence of action” is to catch the occupants off-guard, before they can mount a defense, barricade doors, or arm themselves with accessible weapons. Obviously, in my blog, I’ve tried to disrupt that logic. The rationale AGAINST raid tactics is even stronger when the evidence to be seized is not so easily destroyed, such as: wanted people, guns, blood, DNA, stolen property. (And yes, there is certainly an adrenaline aspect that accompanies tactical policing.) Thanks for commenting! Lou

  • Anonymous
    7 January 2017 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Really? “Popped your cherry?” This is how you talk about police procedure?

    I can’t decide if you are trying to say that invading someone’s home is like fucking, or that fucking is like invading someone’s home. Either way it’s not a good look on a peace officer, certainly not professional.

    o_o

    • Greg Prickett
      7 January 2017 at 5:53 pm - Reply

      Oh please, grow up.

      That’s a common term in a number of military and paramilitary organizations.

      When I made my first jump with my airborne unit after earning my wings at jump school, it was called my “cherry” jump. The first vehicle pursuit, the first fight with a resisting suspect, and so on, have been described the same way.

      If you’re too sensitive to read something from someone like Lou who has been there and done that, don’t. We’re not going to baby you or pay attention to politically correct language because you don’t think it’s professional or a “good look.”

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      7 January 2017 at 6:04 pm - Reply

      The particular metaphor is a tool to demonstrate the actual hormonal issues that *sometimes* factor into decisions on police strategy & tactics. We may disagree on its professionalism, but the metaphor was purposefully used to shift police culture in a positive way, through emotional relatability & imagery. I hope you’re willing to overlook any inappropriateness in language and take the blog (as a whole) as a testimony of positive movement & maturation in law enforcement. Lou

  • bacchys
    7 January 2017 at 9:25 pm - Reply

    What “national trend” of SWAT teams slowing down?

    There are 50,000 to 80,000 raids a year. That’s as precise as anyone can get. There’s no way of knowing if there’s a “national trend” in tactics or just a couple of puff articles in some law enforcement literature.

    Meanwhile, those who toss grenades into cribs or chase dogs through the house in order to kill them continue to act with impunity.

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      8 January 2017 at 12:00 am - Reply

      I guess we’d have to articulate what constitutes a “raid” before any meaningful conversation. Not every search warrant can be classified as such. Not even close. And while there exist virtually no “standards” in procedure (legal or otherwise), that does not eliminate generalized trends I’ve witnessed. I have trained with tactical police teams from across the country, from agencies large and small. In my experience, the vast number of them have greatly shifted their mindset towards slowing down their speed of movement and minimized their use of so-called “raid” tactics. The complex nature of this business & its variables is such that rigid standards are completely inappropriate, and compiling statistics or data is impossible. The best we can do is to make small advancements in the direction of what’s best for everyone, including suspects. The legal system is slower to impose restrictions on these teams than we are in imposing them on ourselves. And that’s a step in the right direction.

  • Anonymous
    7 January 2017 at 10:16 pm - Reply

    Fair enough; if you meant the metaphor purposely to call attention, provocatively, to a pseudo-sexual thrill of conquest, it certainly got the point across, colorfully.

    The point stands, though. It seems that this article is written in order to help the reader identify with and sympathize with the individual officer, striving to perform a difficult hob safely, making tough tradeoffs. To the extent that police want to believeably present themselves as exhibiting fairness, professionalism, and self-control, as well as present the police force as a field in which both men and women can advance and excel: know that sexualized language detracts from that goal.

  • A Flash Bang Too Far | Simple Justice
    11 January 2017 at 10:16 am - Reply

    […] Lou Hayes explained at Fault Lines, SWAT raids don’t have to be violent paramilitary adventures, even though the alternative […]

  • Peter Gerdes
    12 January 2017 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    “Not every neighborhood is safe enough for cops to set up a perimeter and wait for occupants to surrender. There is surely an element of vulnerability to staying outside in what the military calls “non-permissive environments.””

    If there is any neighborhood in the US which isn’t safe enough for a large group of heavily armed police to stand in something is seriously messed up. If a large group of police with assault rifles is in mortal peril what chance do ordinary citizens have?

    Also I’m afraid I don’t see why coordinated service of warrants would require a raid. Merely simultaneously surrounding all the locations warrants are being served on would prevent escape. But maybe this was just a special case of evidence preservation.

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      12 January 2017 at 8:20 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the comment. // Something *is* seriously messed up in some of these neighborhoods. Performing surround-and-callout tactics in these places requires a lot more manpower to ensure the perimeter posts are protected. Think: half watching/handling the suspect location; half watching/handling the rest of the neighborhood. You can’t simply take comfort in having a lot of cops. More does not equal safer. And we cannot ignore that cops pose a certain challenge to suspects that ordinary citizens do not: power of arrest, suspension of freedoms, seizure of property & disruption of criminal enterprise. This element is what makes cops a target of resistance/violence in some of these circumstances that are not posed to citizens. // Regarding the simultaneous warrants: you are very correct. Multiple surround-and-callouts are possible. Just merely offering some aspects that factor into the decisions. There is nothing that says multi/simul = raid tactics. Lou