At Huffington Post, Radley Balko writes of an old SWAT operation in Detroit, back when someone thought cleaning up Eight Mile Road would save the city from moral bankruptcy.
Over a three-day period in June 2007, heavily armed SWAT teams, supported by tanks and helicopters, descended on Detroit’s Eight Mile Road. The massive operation involved police and agents from 21 different local, state and federal branches of law enforcement, and was intended to rid the notoriously crime-ridden area of drug houses, prostitutes and wanted fugitives.
After conducting hundreds of raids, the authorities made 122 arrests, according to The Detroit News, and seized about 50 ounces of marijuana, 6.5 ounces of cocaine and 19 guns.
Of course, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet, one of those metaphors that calms the fearful even if its meaning is that they are willing to sacrifice the innocent to get the bad dudes. It’s always better to dehumanize victims of police abuse so no one feels too badly about what happened to them. Of course, Radley then humanizes them again, screwing up the whole concept.
When Caroline Burley, now 51, first heard the boom around 5:30 on the evening of June 13, it sounded like it had come from outside her bedroom window. She rushed to investigate, and as she came out of the room, a man with a gun confronted her, threw her into a wall and then hurled her to the floor. A SWAT team had burst through her front door.
What came afterward was bad, and Radley more than capably exposes how Caroline Burley and her mother, Geraldine, are stymied in their efforts to seek redress by the fact that they have no clue who raided their home. No names. No faces. Not even an agency, and six years later, no one will admit to having done it.
But there are some bits of the story relating to how the raid was conducted that could bear some additional scrutiny. Caroline Burley was first to be taken down:
Wearing only her nightgown, she asked for mercy. She recently had back surgery, she explained. Instead, one officer, then another kept her close to the floor by putting a boot in her back, according to court filings.
Then came her mother:
Geraldine, now 70, pleaded with the man to let her move to the floor slowly, explaining to him that she’d had both of her knees replaced. Instead, another officer approached, grabbed her by the face, demanded that she “get the fuck on the floor,” then threw her into a table. She tumbled to the ground. At that point, she said later in a deposition, everything turned to “a fire, white and ringing in my ear.” Another officer came up from the basement with her grandson, stepping on her knees in the process. She cried out again in pain.
Police officers don’t like to give up their tricks, as it detracts from their ability to use them to get people to do as they’re told. One such trick is called “command presence,” the ability to immediately seize control of a situation and thus be taken with the utmost seriousness. For some, the training is about appearance and integrity. For others, it’s about credibility, the belief that the officer will blow your brains out if you don’t do as he says.
This comes in anticipation of the question raised in the conduct of the officers toward Caroline and Geraldine Burley. Let’s forget, for the moment, that they weren’t necessarily spring chickens, as even women in their 50’s and older can squeeze off a round or two. So the natural bias that these were harmless women doesn’t mean that the police should take them for granted.
Also, let’s put aside that whatever the SWAT team thought was happening in the Burley home wasn’t.
The officers searched the home but found no drugs, weapons or any other contraband. (They arrested Geraldine’s grandson on an unrelated misdemeanor warrant.)
No mention of evidence of prostitution seized, but then, no reason to think there would be.
That said, why was it necessary for the police officers to use such harsh language? Why was it necessary for the police officers to aggravate the physical pain inflicted on these women by putting a boot in Caroline’s back and stepping on Geraldine’s knees?
It might be argued that they were not sufficiently compliant, dropping immediately upon command. It might be argued that subduing the occupants of this home, since the police could not be sure that they would not present a risk to the officers, was more important than not harming people who had committed no crime and presented no actual threat.
Is it not sufficient that men in black with weapons pointed at the heads of human beings burst into a home in the wee hours of the evening* and seized physical control of both the premises and occupants?
There is a spectrum of conduct that goes along with the assertion of authority which police, government officials and those who happily sacrifice people like the Burleys for their own peace of mind. There are times when conduct along that spectrum is justified by facts known and circumstances found, such as when the SWAT team bursts in on a place where a sniper is holed up, picking off people at random to kill.
But the perspective has shifted to allow the most vicious, most violent, most needlessly aggravating conduct in any instance where conduct along the spectrum is deemed justified. Whether there was probable cause to burst into the Burleys’ home that evening isn’t clear, as no search warrant has appeared to explain what and why the police believed these two women to be engaged in such criminal conduct as necessitated the raid. Perhaps it was just their turn as the cops went down Eight Mile Road cleaning up the mess.
Yet, even if there was cause for the raid, its execution reflects a mentality, a dehumanization, that can’t be explained or justified. Police officers are people. They have wives, mothers, children, and they no doubt would be as outraged as anyone else if this happened to theirs. But when they don their tactical gear, something evil happens in their heads. They must assert command presence, seize control, let their targets know that they will kill them at the drop of a hat.
If they see Caroline and Geraldine as humans, they may be reluctant to pull the trigger. So they talk dirty to them, and that’s their understanding of command presence.
* Radley writes that the raid happened at 5:30 in the evening, and I’m unable to find source material about when the raid occurred, but it strikes me as odd given that Caroline was in a nightgown, and SWAT teams don’t typically raid in the evening, but in the morning when they can maximize their shock and awe, and catch their targets in the most vulnerable position.
I have confirmed with Radley, who explains that according to police and court records, the raid occurred between 5:30 and 6:00 pm, so regardless of my speculation, that’s what the source information provides.