Tuesday, June 07, 2011

You never know which casual saunter across somebody's lawn might be your last

You've probably heard by now of the police killing of Jose Guerena his own home during a SWAT team raid in Pima County, Arizona. If you don't have the back story, please see Radley Balko's article. (I just approvingly linked to something at the Huffington Post. Strange feeling.) See also here, here, here, and here for more.

I've never been impressed by the arguments of apologist for the police who claim, whenever police engage in some questionable use of force, that mere civilians should not pass judgment because they don't understand what it takes to do a job where you never know if you'll be returning home to your family alive and failing to respond to a potential threat quickly enough can be lethal.

Partly that's because police work isn't nearly as dangerous as many jobs that don't get this sort of privileged status- you're more than four times more likely to die in the line of duty as a logger than as a law enforcement official, and more than five times more likely as a commercial fisherman, and not once in my entire life have I ever heard anyone being upbraided for failing to appreciate the hazards they face so that the rest of us can have houses and books and seafood. (And violence isn't the primary cause of officer fatalities- traffic accidents are- so using police occupational fatality rates as a measure of how much danger the police face from violent attack is quite misleading in any case.)

Partly it's because the argument tends to be inconsistent- police are supposed to have a blank check because they heroically endanger themselves for the sake of civilians, even when  doing things that gravely endanger or sacrifice innocent civilians to minimize risks to the police themselves. And, partly, because it's frequently plainly incompatible with the facts of specific cases- quite often, the only way an officer who engaged in some dubious act of violence or coercion could have genuinely believed that his actions were a reasonable response to the amount of danger he perceived himself to be in is if he's either a coward or utterly unhinged from reality.

All the usual defenses and excuses for misconduct by law enforcement have been brought out for the killers of Jose Guerena. You can't read the comments on any news article at any site of significant size without stepping in them.

SWAT teams and paramilitary-style tactics are used in situations requiring rapid, coordinated, overwhelming force. Their work is extremely perilous, and the sort of methods often used for serving search warrants- violently terrorizing whoever happens to be in a targeted house at gunpoint, slaughtering harmless household pets, using tactics that often give the people inside the targeted house no way of knowing whether the armed intruders in their house are actually police or just private-sector thugs, shooting innocent people defending their homes from sudden violent invasion by armed intruders, beating, electrocuting, or killing what turns out to be unarmed, helpless, innocent people for the supposed sake of "officer safety"- are necessary and justified because of that peril.

They work in situations where instantly reacting to a possible threat can often mean the difference between life or death, and so actions that may seem unreasonable, overly hasty, or excessively violent to civilians are, in fact, entirely appropriate and ought to be accepted. Their personnel are very brave men and women who know that they are putting their lives on the line every time they go out, and consequently their willingness to gravely endanger or harm innocent citizens- sometimes fatally- for the sake of reducing potential risks to themselves is justified and should not be questioned or criticized by civilians, who owe police their deference.

And so on.There's been some video of the fatal raid released, showing the police outside the house before, during, and immediately after the shooting. Let's take a look.

By far the most striking thing to me is how laid-back the whole affair is. The officers just sort of cluster in the front yard, mostly in the general vicinity of the door. Some amble about a bit, apparently at random, which will continue until the actual shooting starts. Aside from the fact that they're holding guns, they look like a group of coworkers killing time in the alley behind the store during their smoke break.

When the door is forced open with a loud bang at about :34, there's no apparent urgency. Only one or two men- it's hard to tell because there's a bunch of other guys lollygagging around the door and adjacent areas of the yard- go in. Now, the point of having a bunch of men right by the door just before you bust it open is so they can rapidly file in and be in position to back each other up against whatever might be lurking on the other side as quickly as possible. Of course, it's only worth doing if you have reason to believe the situation might involve some sort of actual danger.

Two men remain just outside, looking through the front door. Which is precisely where you don't want to be when that door has just been loudly forced open and you're concern about the prospect of someone hostile and armed on the other side, since it means you're silhouetted exactly where the people on the other side of the door know an intruder will have to pass. Again, absurd behavior for anyone who actually thought the situation was even close to being dangerous enough to warrant a SWAT team smashing through somebody's front door with guns drawn.

The rest are just standing around, looking quite casual. One of them turns around, quite casually turning his back to the open door of a house where someone who is supposedly potentially dangerous enough to justify the presence of a SWAT team to serve a search warrant may lie in wait, and strolls back to the vehicle. Several of them are in the direct line of sight of a large picture window, with its blinds lowered and closed, in the front of the house- another place I would very much not want to be spending extended periods of time if I thought there might be an armed hooligan lurking within.

A lot of people who've commented on this video have described the officers as incompetent or poorly trained. Maybe, but based on their behavior and demeanour in the video there's a more parsimonious explanation: their behavior was grossly inappropriate for dealing with a supposedly dangerous situation because it didn't occur to them that they were in a dangerous situation.

And why would it? SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics are used so casually now that there's no reason to assume, just because they've been called out, that the situation is actually dangerous. They were ambushing a man in his sleep to search his house for drugs. (Though the official reason the police were there seems to has shifted over time, with the crime Guerena was supposedly suspected of committing escalating as new information made the police look worse and worse.) They had no reason to expect anything but immediate submission.

The SWAT raid was conducted the way it was in order to prevent police casualties? Please. They were practically going out of their way to make it easier for hostile gunmen to kill them, if any had actually been present.

They didn't, as the old cliche goes, know if they'd make it home that night?  Watching them in action, I'd be very surprised if the idea that they might actually be attacked, let alone killed, ever crossed their minds until they actually started firing. The shooting wasn't something done by men whose reflexes were on a hair-trigger because of the life-or-death situations they've faced.  It was the sort of panicked flailing typical of people who are accustomed to half-assing things when they unexpectedly encounter a situation where they're threatened with actual consequences for it.

The typical excuses made for this sort of police violence aren't convincing even when there isn't any sort of video record, and they're an utter joke this time. The Pima SWAT team's apologists may honestly believe that the police did what they did here- serving a search warrant by breaking down Guerena's front door after a "warning" so perfunctory and half-assed as to be indistinguishable from none at all, storming into his home with guns drawn to ambush him while he slept, blasting him to ribbons in a wildly undisciplined hail of over 70 bullets when they saw he possessed a weapon, and leaving him to bleed out on the floor while they stopped the paramedics from going to him for the next hour- because they were venturing into potentially lethal danger and did what they had to do to make it home alive.

But actions speak louder than words, and the police officers themselves don't seem to agree.

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