Menus Subscribe Search

True Crime


SWAT team members breach a room in a training exercise. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Flickr)

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

• September 02, 2014 • 10:00 AM

SWAT team members breach a room in a training exercise. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Flickr)

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.

Last week, a popular video-game livestream was interrupted when a player’s door was busted in by a team of highly weaponized and adrenaline-pumped cops. Twenty-three-year-old Jordan Mathewson’s webcam and microphone captured the whole tense and terrifying episode as they cursed at him, pointed AR-15s and shotguns at him, and cuffed him on the floor.

This was just the most recent and highest-profile instance of a prank now being pulled by video-game players against their rivals, and by hacker kids against celebrities. To “swat” someone is to impersonate them on an untraceable phone call to the police, confess to fake murders, threaten more violence, and do everything possible to cause a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to come rushing to wherever they are. If there’s a livestream on at the time, that’s all the better for watching the prank’s effects.

In the video of the prank, which Mathewson later posted to YouTube, it’s clear that he knew what was happening when he first heard the cops coming down the hall: “I think I’m being swatted,” he told his viewers. Good thing, too; his calm affect when the cops reached his door might have saved his life.

“I receive at least two phone calls per week from journalists, lawyers, or police departments reporting a new botched raid, generally where a citizen has been killed under highly questionable circumstances.”

“This is not a game,” Chief Doug Stephens of the Littleton Police Department told a local ABC news reporter. “We have real guns with real bullets, and there’s some potential there for real tragedy.”

No kidding. Adrenaline, tension, trigger-fingers, and bad information make a terrible combination. SWAT raids, which by one oft-cited count have increased 1,400 percent in America since the 1980s, can lead to tragic mistakes on all sides. In 2006, Atlanta police killed a 92-year-old woman when “they got the wrong house” while executing a drug raid. Not knowing it was the cops busting her door down, Kathryn Johnston pulled out a revolver to defend herself, and was shot by the police.

In 2011, Detroit police shot and killed a seven-year-old girl named Aiyana Stanley-Jones during a dramatic “flash-bang” raid that was being filmed for a reality TV show for A&E. Officials later said it was “a total, unfortunate fuck-up.” This year, a 61-year-old man in Lebanon, Tennessee, was killed after he pulled a gun during what he thought was a home invasion; the cops who shot John Adams later admitted that they had “intended to raid the home next door.”

And, according to a news story that not surprisingly got even more national airtime than those above, cops killed two beloved family dogs in a raid-gone-wrong of the house of a “recreational marijuana smoker” in St. Paul, Minnesota. Police reportedly confiscated one glass bong during the raid.

These are just a few stories out of many. Radley Balko of the Cato Institute created a map of dozens of botched police raids across the country in conjunction with his 2006 paper, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.” SWAT raids are most often used today to serve drug warrants, “usually with forced, unannounced entry into the home,” Balko wrote:

These increasingly frequent raids, 40,000 per year by one estimate, are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers…. And they have resulted in dozens of needless deaths and injuries, not only of drug offenders, but also of police officers, children, bystanders, and innocent suspects.

Balko’s analysis aligned this rise in paramilitary drug raids with the overall pattern of increased militarization of police over the decades. He cited research by criminologist Peter Kraska, who has traced the rise in police militarization back to the 1970s.

In the fallout of the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, media commentary has often described the militarization of local police forces as a post-9/11 phenomenon. It’s true that grant money and equipment transfers from the Department of Homeland Security has made it even easier for local police departments to obtain more expensive and heavier-duty military equipment. And the terror attacks of 2001 increased the scope and the scale of the funding involved. But the current iteration of the federal government’s “1033 program,” which allows for excess military equipment to be transferred to local police departments, launched in 1997. And the seeds of today’s militarized police forces were sown much earlier than that.

Kraska’s 1997 paper, written with Victor Kappeler for the journal Social Problems, described how the “metaphor of war (e.g. the War on Poverty, the war on drugs)” has fueled and glorified the use of military tools to solve local, domestic problems. The lines between police and military began to blur in America especially after the Cold War. “With the threat of communism no longer a national preoccupation, crime has become a more inviting target for state activity,” the authors wrote. Paramilitary units and SWAT teams have been an important aspect of that trend.

Of the larger law enforcement departments Kraska and Kappeler’s research focused on, “most departments formed their units in the 1970s,” and grew them steadily throughout the following decades. The drug war, especially, encouraged this growth. Not only did the number of these units grow, but the frequency with which they were actually deployed exploded in the late 1980s and early ’90s. First they looked at the number of deployments in the years 1980 to 1983. Then they saw that “the level of police paramilitary unit activity more than doubled by 1986, almost tripled by 1989, and quadrupled by 1995.” The vast majority of these calls were for “high-risk warrant work” for drug raids.

Ten years later, having established himself as an expert in this area, Kraska wrote, “I receive at least two phone calls per week from journalists, lawyers, or police departments reporting a new botched raid, generally where a citizen has been killed under highly questionable circumstances.” He wrote that he had personally recorded more than 275 of these cases.

Finally, in an article for Policing and Society last year, Kraska and Kappeler also made the important point that “both the felonious killings of police officers and violent crime rates in the USA declined dramatically during the very period that police agencies were creating the vast majority of these [paramilitary] units.”

Crime is going down nationwide, and yet the frequency of SWAT raids is still rising. Even with the best police training, more raids inevitably introduce more opportunities for error. And the consequences of those errors are usually much more devastating than a viral video of a video-gamer getting punked.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

More From Lauren Kirchner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Israeli researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.

September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.

September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.

September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.

September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.

September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.

September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.

September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.

September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.

September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.

September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.

September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.

September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.

September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.

September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?

September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.

September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?

September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)

Follow us

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.