FBI agent, Samuel Hicks, was killed this week in Pittsburghwhile serving an arrest warrant in a botched drug raid. He was 33. After the agent knocked on the suspect’s door and announced his intention, the suspect apparently proceeded to flush his stash of cocaine down the toilet. After the suspect didn’t answer, they were shot by the suspect’s wife when they came through the threshold. The arrest went down using the “knock and announce” tactics and non-SWAT gear that libertarians have long asked for.
For years now libertarians have complained about “excessive force” in drug raids, including SWAT teams’ use of AR-15s and full body armor. Even now, libertarians pretend that drug dealers’ sordid lives are equal in social value as those of FBI agents, blaming the FBI agents for their raid tactics rather than looking at the long string of criminal, illegal choices that led to the suspect’s position on the wrong end of a raid in the first place. I wrote in an earlier entry–an adaptation of which was published in the Washington Post–that not only are police using less force today than in the past, but that the displays of potential force in a typical SWAT raid actually reduce violence compared to alternatives by encouraging submissive behavior by suspects.
The moral compass of libertarians is more than a little off course, and that is why they remain a fringe movement in America’s public life. Even people that recognize police and the state need to be restrained by generous protections for civil liberties do not typically believe that the lifestyles of drug dealers are the reason why; instead, these rights are protected because criminals as a whole act as surrogates for other members of society who may have encounters with police. Undeniable criminals’ civil liberties are respected because innocent people too may be arrested, not because accommodating crooks and allowing them to run wild is an end in itself. The libertarians’ silence on the Hicks’ case as the facts have come out is noteworthy. The pro-drug-dealer libertarians of the CATO Institute make a big show of every mistaken drug raid, while ignoring the many cases of brutal drug dealer violence against police and one another. Libertarians ultimately have a maudlin view of drug dealers, whose “natural rights” to deal crack are somehow being infringed. This is of course a ridiculous position, that makes little account of the rule of law, and ends in the absurd equation of the moral status of violent, greedy drug dealers with that of sworn FBI agents enforcing our democratically enacted laws.
Update and Response: Radley responded at length to my past, as have many commentators below.
One line of argument raised by Radley and many commentators below is that these raids are unnecessary and suspects could be taken on the streets. That may be true and safer in some instances, but I think this sets up a false dichotomy, and I believe some deference is owed to the experienced folks who have to make these decisions under conditions of uncertainty.
Further, the question is not “no knock” raids versus “no raids at all.” It’s “no knock raids” versus “knock and announce raids.” The older tradition of police work was one where suspects had a great deal more fear and thus respect for the police often involved knocking on the door and arresting them without much resistance. This has changed; it’s not controversial to say criminals in general are somewhat more violent and less respectful of police than they were in, say, the 1950s. Where a search warrant is involved, the home is where the evidence is. If the suspect and home are not secured simultaneously, a conviction of someone even for a very violent offense may not happen.
The safety tradeoffs of public arrests versus arrests at home are not obvious either. Felony stops and high speed chases are both notoriously dangerous and endanger the community at large rather than limiting the collateral damage to the drug dealers and their associates (as well as the police, who must take some risks by necessity).
It’s also been suggested that somehow this drug dealer’s wife was some innocent babe in the woods who only cared about protecting her children, as evidenced by the 9-11 call. This paints a “snapshot” distorted picture of the suspect and his family. Setting aside the possibility that the 9-11 call that Radley was so moved by was a ruse to drum up an alibi, news reports make it clear that she had expensive tastes and was arm-and-arm with her husband in his drug-dealing enterprise. There is a chain of choices that led to this incident. She could have left her man. She could have made an ultimatum and told him to stop dealing drugs. But instead together they took the major risk that they would someday be raided over their drug dealing gig. I’ll even concede that drug dealers run higher risks of “home invasion” robberies, but at the same time they also run the higher risk of police running warrants. If someone busts into my house, I can be 99% sure it’s not the cops. For a drug dealer, maybe it’s a 50-50 proposition. So she can’t just claim complete innocence and surprise that people are busting through her door, and it says a lot about her that she’d put these kids in that position. Home invasions of one sort or another are a risk of the “profession,” and if you tag a cop you should expect to go away a long time.
This line of argument also risks absurdities. It’s not clear why these concerns for suspects’ families should not apply in the case of super-violent criminals. After all, the wives and kids aren’t the serial rapists or bank robbers, right? I guess the people on the freeway or 7-11 parking lot should be put at risk instead.
Finally, there is a persistent attempt to connect these raids exclusively with the drug war. But this is not the case. Warrants pre-exist the Nixon-era “War on Drugs.” Warrants are mentioned in the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. In fact, in the recent past, these raids were undertaken with fewer civil liberties’ protections in a milieu of much higher police-on-citizen deadly violence. Police tactics evolve, and the SWAT raid has the benefit of overwhelming a suspect and making him psychologically ill disposed to shoot at the cops in a desperate Alamo-style showdown.
The real precipitating driver for the birth of SWAT teams and SWAT tactics were incidents like Charles Whitman’s murders at UT in the 60s and the persistent problem of barricaded suspects in armed robberies. Once that capability is there, however, there is no reason it shouldn’t be used when practical. It’s obviously quite a bit safer for everyone involved to raid a house using a SWAT team as opposed to two plain clothes Narcotics officers using a Remington shotgun. (Watch Serpico sometime to get a sense of the 70s warrant-service flavor.)
I do think a lot of this may come down to optics. After all, the statistics are not on Radley’s side. He says, “And even if all of these raids went down exactly as planned, there’s the broader question of whether the image of armed men dressed as soldiers battering down American citizens’ doors some 40-50,000 per year, mostly for consensual crimes, is one that’s consistent with a free society.” Pace Radley’s point, I find this imagery less disturbing than the imagery of police officers’ funerals. It is appropriate that some risks are taken by police to preserve evidence while also protecting themselves, and in achieving those goals, we should be generous in our grant of means, equipment, and tactical discretion.
It seems elementary, but highly controversial among libertarians, that so long as a law exists, it should be enforced. It would not be appropriate for police to decide not to enforce the drug laws, and, most important of all, there is not a hermetical seal between drug dealers and other criminals. Recidivist drug dealers commit other crimes. Other types of criminals deal and use drugs. On balance, drug crimes permit violent and anti-social people to be locked up for a long time on a relatively easy-to-prove charge. I don’t buy all these guys would be getting masters degrees if drugs were not criminalized. There have always been rackets, and there have always been greedy, law-breaking people. I’d rather they be convicted of an easily proved crime than run around pimping prostitutes or robbing banks or doing God knows what else that would be much harder to obtain convictions on if drugs were legal.
That said, I’ll concede that some good arguments exist to decriminalize certain drugs and reduce mandatory minimums. But the issue of the law’s substance and the tactics used in its enforcement are distinct. Other criminals whether thieves or child porn possessors or vandals could and should be subject to “no knock” warrants when necessary to preserve evidence and when, as here, it’s the safest way to protect the community at large in the arrest of the suspect.