Friday, August 8, 2014

No Sympathy for the Devil- Dirty Business

People ask me why I left a successful career in law enforcement the way I did. Some say I acted like a child, pitching the proverbial fit over business as usual. Some say I'm an out of touch idealist who longs for an Utopian dream land. Some say it was my stubbornness that did me in.

There isn't one event I can point to as an my "ah-ha" moment. No deep epiphany that struck me like a bat to the back of the head. It was more like thousands of paper cuts that finally led me to bleed out. This isn't to say that some didn't cut deeper than others.

I was sitting in my office one day when I received a phone call from one of the local city agencies in my jurisdiction. They were requesting SWAT's assistance with the execution of a narcotics search warrant. As a team leader it was my job to evaluate all such requests to see if the warrant met our criteria to get involved. 

My team had always done a good job of weeding out hack requests from other agencies, including our own.  I'm not saying we were perfect, far from it. But nine times out of ten, we were going after some pretty bad characters. We had a threat assessment that had to be submitted to me by the requesting agency. This checklist contained information like criminal history, purpose of warrant, threats made, firearm information, mental health issues, etc etc. Each section had a corresponding numerical value. If the total added up to our threshold, SWAT would execute the warrant.

This was non negotiable.

Unless politics came into play.

We did a lot of narcotics warrants, but only if there was a credible threat of violence. If you're going after an international drug trafficking organization, you're going to want SWAT there. If you're going after JuneBug the neighborhood weed dealer, I didn't give a shit. Serve your own damn warrant. Our main purpose was arresting violent fugitives, hostage rescues, and barricaded gunmen. Not to shoot grandma's door off of the hinges for her cataract medicine. 

At least it was at one time.

I reviewed the case file sent to me, denied it, and sent the file to my boss. If I was the submitting officer, I would've been ashamed to send it over for a consultation. This particular department had a cowboy reputation for stirring shit up for no reason. The warrant was for distribution of marijuana. Their evidence, two ziplock bags with pot residue found in a trash pull over 3 months prior and a few anonymous tips. Great reason to run a tank up in someones front yard.

The trash pull is a favorite tactic of narcotic units around the country. If they receive a tip about a location, they will wait till trash day when you bring your can to the street and take it. They'll go as far as getting a spare, empty garbage truck and roll right up to your driveway to get it. This looks a lot less suspicious than an Expedition with blacked out windows stealing your hefty bags in the middle of the day. The bags are then taken to a secure area and the investigating officers painstakingly go through everything you've thrown out, looking for contraband that will give them probable cause for a search warrant. Trash pulls have been upheld by the Supreme Court, and it does not require a warrant to do one.

A few hours later my boss is in my office. He explains after I denied the service request, the submitting officer took the file to his chief of police. He stated that the chief had called him wanting us to do the warrant anyway. His department had been having a lot of problems in the area of this warrant and they wanted to send a message to all the "thugs". He said they had a confidential informant who stated the house was always full of armed "gangbangers". Funny, this confidential informant wasn't in the case file I looked at.

The argument went back and forth between my boss and the chief for a while. We stood firm that this was not a situation in which SWAT needed to be involved. While we might have been a bunch of heavily armed, militarized pirates who would fuck your world up if we showed up at your doorstep, we typically saved our special brand of violence for murders, armed robbers, kidnappers, and child molesters.

The Chief, not used to not getting what he wanted, did what any spoiled child would do. He went crying and screaming all the way to our main boss, the head honcho, the big hat. The chief and big hat also happened to be very close friends. So it wasn't a huge surprise when the word came down that we were doing the warrant, per big hat.

Needless to say I was pissed but nothing I couldn't handle. I was told I had to execute the warrant, but I wasn't told how. Armored vehicles, dynamic entry, flashbangs, tear gas, and shotgun breaching were the norm for high risk warrants. They knew this, they had seen it before and this is what they wanted. I had other plans.

I planned the operation like I would a barricaded gunman, and not like the usual high speed, no knock drug warrants we had done in the past. We would approach the house the following morning at 5am. We would surround the house, with an entry team on stand by to make immediate entry into the location if something went south. Once the house was surrounded, our negotiators would make a call to the house phone and instruct everyone to come out with their hands up. Once everyone had been removed from the house, only then would we make entry and secure the location.

I'm not going to put lives on the line for 2 empty ziplock bags. Needless to say, the narcotics officers were not happy when they were briefed on our plan the next morning. They were concerned with evidence being destroyed. I kindly advised them I didn't give a fuck about their evidence.

As we departed for the target location that morning, I had this recurring thought that I couldn't get out of my head. Like a recorded loop playing over and over.
This isn't right. What are we doing? This isn't right.

At this point in my career, I'd seen and done plenty of things I didn't agree with. Some trivial, some that are with me to this day. It bothered me every time. But this was different. SWAT had always been special to me. We were incredibly selective on who we put on the team and even more selective when determining what operations we undertook. This wasn't your typical run of the mill Rambo circle jerk SWAT team. We understood force had to be used appropriately according to each situation. We prided ourselves in not being like the rest of them. We tried our best not used as a political tool.

The operation goes as planned, which is a rarity in tactical operations. We pulled 17 people out on their front lawn in their pajamas at gunpoint that morning. Six adults and eleven children were in the house. Not a single one of the detectives persons of interest were at the location. Not a single weapon was found. Not a single person with outstanding warrants. No controlled substances were found, not even paraphernalia.

All in a days work I suppose. I got home that morning around 830am. I made myself a breakfast of vodka and percocet. When the pills started kicking in I went and laid down. As I stared at the spinning ceiling fan above my bed and felt the warm blanket of opiate sleep coming on fast, my mind still raced.
What are we doing? What the fuck are we doing?

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