How A Crazy Sex Drug Inspired Mass Police Raids Across America
SWAT team members patrol a Washington state neighborhood looking for a meth suspect.
On November 2, 2002, a large group of police officers in tactical gear descended on a rave party in Racine, Wisconsin. The cops kicked in doors, dragged young people from bathroom stalls, threw others to the floor, and held dozens more at gunpoint.
The police issued more than 450 citations of $968 each to partygoers merely for attending an event where some attendees were breaking the state’s drug laws. Only three people were arrested on actual drug charges. With help from the ACLU, the city of Racine eventually dismissed the charges against all attendees who hadn’t yet pleaded guilty.
The trendy new drug throwing the media and politicians into hysterics was Ecstasy. Raves were the new, weird, and different dance parties where teenagers were allegedly taking this crazy sex drug. Cue the moral panic, political grandstanding, and ensuing aggressive crackdown. Prior to the raid in Racine, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware seemed particularly obsessed with rave parties. Politicians seemed to think that any party with techno music, pulsing lights, and neon inevitably degenerated into underage kids getting high on Ecstasy and engaging in mass orgies.
In the summer of 2002, Biden was pushing his RAVE Act, an absurdly broad law that would have made venue and club owners liable for running a drug operation if they merely sold the “paraphernalia” common to parties where people took Ecstasy — accessories like bottled water and glow sticks. After attempting to sneak the bill through Congress with various parliamentary maneuvers, Biden was finally able to get a slightly modified version folded into the bill that created the Amber Alert for missing children.
Once again a politician had demagogued worries over a mostly harmless drug into a climate of fear. And once again that fear led to aggressive, wholly disproportionate crackdowns across the country.
A few years later, a rave raid was captured on video. In August 2005, more than 90 police officers from several state and local SWAT teams raided 1,500 people at a peaceful, outdoor dance party in Spanish Fork Canyon, Utah. The police were armed with assault weapons, full SWAT attire, police dogs, and tear gas. Many in attendance say that police beat, abused, and swore at partygoers.
Police denied the allegations, though amateur video/audio clearly showed the police barking out orders punctuated with profanity. In truth, the party appeared to have been pretty well run. Private security guards had been stationed outside the event, and confiscated any illegal drugs they found on attendees. The raiding SWAT cops then arrested the private security guards for the drugs they had confiscated, and charged them with possession.
The other new concept at work in Racine and Spanish Fork was the willingness to subject large groups of people to commando tactics in hopes of catching even a few offenders. By the late 2000s, SWAT teams were increasingly called out to raid entire bars and nightclubs for drug activity. A search warrant for a bar’s owner or a description of the place as a drug market could allow police to go in and give the SWAT treatment to everyone inside.
And it wasn’t just bars and nightclubs that were treated this way. In November 2003, police in Goose Creek, South Carolina, raided an entire high school, conducting a blanket commando-style raid on Stratford High School. Students were ordered at gunpoint to lie face-down on the floor while police searched their lockers and persons for drugs. Some were handcuffed, while K-9 units deployed dogs to search their lockers, backpacks, and bodies. Oddly, media reports indicated that the school had a stellar academic reputation.
Le’Quan Simpson, a fourteen-year-old, was forced to kneel at gunpoint. His father had once served on a SWAT team. “They hit that school like it was a crack house,” he said. “Like they knew that there were crack dealers in there armed with guns.” The raid was based on a tip from the school’s principal that a single student might have been selling pot. The raid turned up no illicit drugs, and the police made no arrests.
Still, though these raids of schools and parties were somewhat new, drug cops had been conducting massive drug sweeps of entire neighborhoods for years, subjecting innocent people to violent tactics simply because of where they happened to live. There were more of those police actions too.
In February 2002, for example, one hundred Durham police officers, two National Guard helicopters, and ten North Carolina Bureau of Investigation agents seized an entire neighborhood on Cheek Road, then engaged in a series of forced-entry drug raids. They called the whole episode Operation TAPS, short for The Aggressive Police Strategy. The police arrested thirty-five people and confiscated an “undisclosed” amount of drugs, plus two pistols. Superior Court judge Orlando Hudson later threw out all the arrests and evidence, ruling that the entire operation was unconstitutional and “partially illegal” and that some of the officers’ behavior amounted to “criminal conduct.”
One particularly aggressive action peppered with war rhetoric oc- curred in April 2006, when police in Buffalo, New York, staged a series of drug raids throughout the city under the moniker Operation Shock and Awe. They borrowed the phrase from the US military, which had used it to describe its strategy in the early days of the Iraq War. Shock and Awe in Buffalo meant thirty-eight SWAT raids over three days. The cops even invited along a couple of reporters from the Buffalo News to cover the invasion.
A month later, the Buffalo News ran a follow-up report. The original six pounds of marijuana police claimed to have found was actually four pounds, thirteen ounces. Three and a half pounds of that came by way of an unrelated traffic stop on the same day that had nothing to do with the raids. They found all of five guns. Not surprisingly, the revised haul wasn’t enough contraband to keep the seventy-eight people in jail. Sixteen were immediately released with no criminal charges. Another thirty-two were out of jail within twenty-four hours due to insufficient evidence.
City leaders were furious, not because city police had just terrorized innocent people with fruitless SWAT raids, but because so many petty offenders were let off. City officials demanded tougher drug laws, and discussed the possibility of sending drug cops and SWAT teams out with housing code inspectors to clean up suspected crack houses without those pesky Fourth Amendment warrant requirements.
Buffalo’s chief of detectives, Dennis Richards, told the newspaper that Operation Shock and Awe was “just the beginning.” “There will certainly be more raids in the future,” he said. “You can count on that. . . . We’re looking at small-scale, large-scale, street-level. . . . We’re looking at top to bottom.”
From RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs Books.