When SWAT Raids Are Routine
In his documentary Do Not Resist, Craig Atkinson depicts the militarization of police in the United States. Atkinson embedded himself with numerous SWAT teams across the country and followed them on their regular deployments.
John Payne interviewed Atkinson by phone in November, and the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
John Payne: What inspired you to make a film about police militarization?
Craig Atkinson: My father was a police officer, and I think that very much influenced my curiosity. He was a SWAT officer for 13 years, during the late ’80s and early ’90s, which gave me a background to see that things had changed. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, he was very much in the back of my mind when I was watching how the police were treating the community as they continued to search for the Tsarnaev brothers.
They were heavily armed with equipment, and the approach that they had toward the community made them seem more like an occupying force. [Producer Laura Hartrick] and I went up to Boston and interviewed people that experienced that, and they said to us that they were whisked out of their homes and detained for as much as four hours, face down on the grass, and never told why they were being detained. No charges were subsequently filed against these people.
I was very curious to know where all this equipment came from. Then we were fortunate enough to film in Concord, N.H., where we saw a group of activists protesting the acceptance of federal money to get an armored vehicle.
JP: Of course, at least in that case, the people they were pursuing were actually violent criminals who posed a threat to public safety. That’s really not the case in most SWAT raids, is it?
CA: Right, well, that’s the whole thing.
There are plenty of reasons to be heavily equipped in this way. Terrorist events would be one of them. I point people all the time to the Pulse nightclub shooting, where they used an armored vehicle to puncture a hole in the side of a wall and then free hostages.
We kept being told the entire time that this equipment was going to be used for a terrorist event or a hostage situation or a barricaded gunman. Then every single time we conducted a search warrant, it was for drugs. We did half a dozen raids while making the film. One time we found a bowl of weed. All the time, destroying the home and arresting people for small quantities of drugs.
An ACLU report says 80 percent of SWAT deployments are for search warrants, and if you look at the search warrants, the vast majority of those are for nonviolent drug offenses. Clearly there’s a time when you actually need this equipment, but we kept going out and seeing it used for low level offenses.
JP: That brings me to my next question. In the film you don’t have any talking heads describing what’s going on—you just embed yourselves with these police forces and see what they’re doing. One thing that surprised me is how forthright the police were with you. Why do you think they were so willing to talk about what is probably a controversial subject, at least to the general population? Were any officers reluctant to speak to you because of that?
CA: Well, we were very honest with our intentions, and I think that helped set the tone for our relationship with the police departments. We kept saying that we would offer an authentic portrayal of whatever we did together, and I think they were taking the opportunity to have that, where we wouldn’t re-edit or sensationalize the footage.
I think it speaks to how common these SWAT deployments are. We went on a ride-along, and we raided a home and recovered a gram and a half of weed, and the team told us that drug-search warrants are actually only 50-50—and they find stuff only 50 percent of the time. These are the types of standards that some police departments are working within. That same department also told us that they do 200 of these raids a year, three to four times a day. In my father’s era, they did 29 search warrants total in the 13 years that he was on SWAT, between 1989 and 2002.
In St. Louis County, every felony search warrant is executed by a SWAT team, and there are plenty of felony search warrants that don’t require that level of armament. They’ve gotten in trouble in St. Louis for raiding homes for code violations, for illegal gas hook-ups, and things like that.
JP: A lot of the film is you going with those St. Louis County SWAT teams, and there’s a lot of footage of the Ferguson protests and riots too. Is what you saw in St. Louis County common, or is it an outlier?
CA: Well, there are plenty of departments throughout the country that are deploying SWAT teams in a very similar way to St. Louis County—counties that have full-time teams, who are using SWAT on a day-to-day basis.
But when I go to larger departments, and they see the scene in St. Louis County where they’re checking Google Earth to make sure they have the right house before they raid it, a lot of officers see that and say they would hold those officers in dereliction of duty for not having a proper plan prior to entering the home. There are a lot of police departments throughout the country who will spend a week or two on one particular SWAT deployment, to ensure that it’s conducted safely, to ensure that it’s done in a way that’s as respectful to the community as possible.
But when you’re using SWAT for every single felony search warrant, there’s not time to properly plan. You might have a docket for a day that has four or five or six houses to hit.
About seven months after we edited the footage of that SWAT team checking an address on Google Earth, the same team raided the wrong home. Luckily no one was killed, but there have been cases where SWAT teams will raid the wrong home and someone will end up dying because they grabbed a weapon thinking they were under attack.
I just think that when you’re raiding homes on a 200-times-a-year basis, you’re not doing the proper investigative work to ensure that it’s done in a way that’s fair to the community, and it’s just leading to further unjust policing.
JP: A lot of the time, and not just St. Louis County, the intel that the cops were operating under was wrong. They expect to find drugs, but don’t, or it’s way less than they were expecting, or there were kids present when they thought there weren’t going to be. Is it just the number of raids that accounts for this bad intelligence, or are there other factors at play as well?
CA: To obtain a search warrant in my father’s era, you would have to do sufficient investigative work to prove your case prior to entering the home. You would do your entire investigation, and the judge would not give you a search warrant until you could prove that you could make an arrest on the individual even if you didn’t find any contraband in the house.
Well, that evolved, and now it’s become just the suspicion of narcotics. The search warrant we conducted in South Carolina was based off an informant’s testimony, so this is someone who could be trying to get off of a charge themselves and clearly has an incentive to give the officers some information. We went on the raid and they didn’t find what they were looking for.
It was supposed to be a drug kingpin; it was a 22-year-old college student. He was supposed to be there by himself; he was there with his mom and dad, his sister, and his sister’s four-month-old baby. When you’re not doing sufficient investigative work, and trying to go into the house as fast as you can in order to retrieve the contraband to be able to make the case, well, clearly mistakes happen.
That’s how I think we have seen the expansion of the stat that we quote in the film: 3,000 raids per year in the 1980s, whereas now it’s between 50,000 and 80,000 raids per year. We’ve just seen this incredible escalation, and it’s not hard to imagine how that happens when you’re rubber-stamping warrants.
Today you’re also able to seize the assets inside of the home and have those assets returned directly back to your police department. Gone are the days where you would take the asset and put it into a general fund for the city. After the feds stepped in and created the “equitable sharing” program, as long as a police department includes one federal agent on their task force, then their department itself gets to keep 80 percent of the money, and the feds get 20 percent of the money as a kickback.
So you’ve created a financial incentive for departments to go in and seize those assets, and that’s very much what we saw in the raid portrayed in the film. The first thing that was said when we got back to the police department in South Carolina was, “Did we seize anything?”
JP: Was that the raid where the guy was arrested, and he had the lawn-mowing business, and they seized the money he was going to use to buy another lawnmower? I wonder, do you think these officers believe that they’re helping that young man or his community in any way, or is it just base self-interest here?
CA: I think the law-enforcement community has been conditioned to think that all drugs are the bane of society’s existence, and that’s what’s destroying all of our communities, is the drugs. They’ve been effectively messaged to with the idea that the War on Drugs is the most important duty that they could perform. I think some of them do think that getting drugs off the streets will lead to less crime.
I think that veil is quickly being lifted, and a lot of officers we went out with seemed to be caught up in the middle, where they were given a top-down objective that completely put them at odds with their community. They felt as if they weren’t doing justice to the community by entering homes and arresting people for small amounts of weed, and putting them in prison, and creating all of the subsequent effects on that person’s life because they have now gone through the prison system.
I think it’s hard to argue that there’s a benefit to society from locking up a person for a gram and a half of weed. It’s becoming a lot harder to make the claim that that’s true crime-fighting, especially in an era where we’ve seen several other states legalize weed. I think we’ve seen exactly the opposite, that putting people in prison is what’s turning out to destroy a community in so many ways.
JP: The film features a lot of military surplus—MRAPs [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected] and other sorts of armored vehicles—and you show how those end up in the hands of local police forces. Often I notice these departments don’t seem to have any idea what they’re doing with this equipment. Does the federal government require any sort of training, or is it just “Fill out some forms and go have fun”?
CA: Because of the Posse Comitatus Act, the federal government actually can’t train the law-enforcement officers. The National Guard has been used to help some departments learn how to drive the MRAPs, but there’s no official policy that requires any training whatsoever.
There’s a story of a police officer picking up one of the MRAPs from an army depot out in California, and when he’s driving it home, all four tires blow out because no one told this officer that the top speed is 45 mph. The vehicles are very heavy, and that friction alone can explode the tires. He was going 75 mph down the freeway, and he went into oncoming traffic and got into a head-on collision with someone who had just picked up a brand-new F-150. You can’t write this stuff.
We would see officers picking up brand new MRAPs off of the army-depot lots and just driving them home without any training whatsoever, or just very basic orientation. This is a vehicle that the military trained officers on for a minimum of 80 hours a week before licensing them, and before they would send the soldiers off to Iraq and Afghanistan. You’ve reduced that down to absolutely nothing, and departments don’t report statistics at all on when the vehicles are deployed, how they are deployed, and what is found in the home. Police officers have been left on their own to determine how they want to deploy these vehicles in their community.
JP: One of the most intriguing parts of the film is about the training offered by Dave Grossman. He does a lot of off-the-wall things, at least from my perspective, but he says that after killing someone they’ll have the best sex of their lives. I think that’s probably the line that stands out the most. Did you sense any moral conflict in Grossman, or his trainees, about using deadly force with what basically amounts to joy?
CA: In an unreleased clip that I have of Dave Grossman, he said something similar. He said there’s many ways to feel after you kill someone, but if you had to choose, he thinks that you’d want to feel good about it. The satisfaction of hitting the target under the stress of combat is something that you should feel good about. I found this very perplexing, because I’ve always questioned the efficacy of crossing the line and becoming what you’re actually fighting against. It seems like that’s the slippery slope one finds themselves on if they start to actually enjoy the violence that they need to use from time to time in order to protect the community.
I’ve always wondered why we’re not teaching officers, if they must kill, to do it from a sense of duty: it’s regretful when we do it, but nonetheless, this is the task that we’re asking you to perform, and it should be handled with a great deal of respect and care.
I think that we’re just crossing a serious line when you’re interrupting someone’s humanity, as Dave Grossman is, by teaching soldiers and police officers to kill from a process of desensitization, and through muscle memory and conditioned response. If you look into Dave Grossman’s training, he’s inspired by the fact that the military took the 15-30 percent kill ratio it had coming out of World War II and improved it to 90 percent by Vietnam, and did that by teaching to kill with pop-up targets and conditioned response.
He talks about how we interrupt the part of the brain that asks, “Should I be doing this?” That may be effective in wars, where you have to engage with the enemy on an ongoing basis, but when you’re taking that thinking and applying it to what cops are seeing on a day-to-day basis—whether it be traffic stops or whether it be calls of domestic violence, where they’re being asked to de-escalate situations— it doesn’t necessarily apply.
I point people all the time to the officer who actually was just charged with manslaughter for shooting and killing Philando Castile this last July in Minnesota. This is the individual who was reaching into his pocket for his wallet when the officer shot him six times, when he had a four year old in the back seat of the car. That officer had attended one of Dave Grossman’s seminars only two months prior.
JP: The final question, and I kind of have to ask about this: there are some signs the drug war might be on its way out, but on the other hand, Donald Trump has been elected president and looks to be appointing Jeff Sessions as attorney general, who is a drug warrior and probably a fan of police militarization like none other in the Senate. What are you seeing as the future of police militarization, and the efforts to reform it?
CA: I think the election of Donald Trump certainly complicates the situation, but I’m trying to get my head around how this affects the momentum and the direction of reform. I think that even if you end the War on Drugs, there are going to be new threats that law enforcement is going to put forth as reasons to stay heavily armed.
In the next four years, I think people need to be very active in paying attention to the rumblings of reform that are suggested, and to be very diligent in working on a local and community basis in order to effect change.
Activist groups have had some success recently in a variety of states to push back the asset-forfeiture laws. California voted to require a criminal conviction before seizing assets. I think that is a huge step forward. That’s the type of small step forward that helps de-incentivize law enforcement from using SWAT in a way that might put it at odds with their community.
We need to work on the state and local levels, because there are 18,000 police departments throughout the country. We filmed in 18 of them, and each community really has its own needs from law enforcement. So I think that people really need to work on that state and local level, fighting for what we can, because the federal level’s a big unknown right now.
John Payne is the campaign manager for New Approach Missouri, an initiative campaign for medical marijuana. He resides in St. Louis.