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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Stop using SWAT teams on civilians

(Posted 13 Aug 2008)

Editorial: Stop using SWAT teams on civilians.
Examiner, 13 Aug 2008 (Editorial).
WASHINGTON - The violent assault on Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo’s home late last month was certainly not the first bungled raid by a government SWAT team, but the bad publicity it generated should make it the last time these trigger-happy squads target innocent civilians.

Tracking a 32-pound package of marijuana that had been addressed to Calvo’s wife, Trinity Tomsic, Prince George’s sheriff’s deputies forcibly entered the mayor’s home on July 29 and killed his two dogs before handcuffing him and his mother-in-law.

But like so many other SWAT team raids across the country, this one turned out to be a big mistake. After reviewing the case, State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey acknowledged that the Calvos were victims of a multistate drug ring that used innocent people’s names and addresses to hide shipments of contraband drugs. But the mayor and his family were also victims of a home invasion by the SWAT team, based entirely on what turned out to be a false premise.

In a groundbreaking study in 2006, former Cato policy analyst Radley Balko documented a disturbing pattern of cases across the country in which innocent citizens were killed by armed-to-the-teeth SWAT teams who either acted on the basis of wrong information from an informant or stormed the wrong house by mistake. “One thing I’ve noticed while picking through the depressingly long list of botched drug raids: The cops always shoot the dog,” Balko noted. Sure enough in the local case, Mayor Calvo and his family lost their two beloved black Labrador retrievers, but it could easily have been his own life or that of a family member that was lost. An apologetic “oops” from the responsible officials just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Originally set up to handle volatile, high-risk situations involving snipers, hostage takers or prison escapees, militarized SWAT teams have been unleashed on civilians with predictably disastrous results — as the fatal shooting of unarmed optometrist Salvatore Culosi by a Fairfax County SWAT team two years ago illustrated all too well. Sending a SWAT team to arrest Culosi was excessive compared with his alleged crime of betting on football games.

By sending a SWAT team to Calvo’s home, the Prince George’s Sheriff’s Department made the same mistake, setting the stage for a violent confrontation that could easily have escalated into something far worse.

It’s long past time for law enforcement agencies to restrict SWAT teams for use only in situations where massive lethal force is their only remaining option.

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