Never before published After Action Reports from a Massachusetts SWAT team reveal the extent to which the militarization of the police is bound up with drug prohibition and the government’s decades old, failing war on drugs. The records, the first of their kind to be made public in Massachusetts in recent years, demonstrate the importance of robust government transparency to effectively addressing the narcotics crisis in Massachusetts. After all, if we don’t know what’s broken, we cannot fix it.
Documents obtained through an ACLU public records lawsuit and released today show that police militarization in Massachusetts, as in the rest of the country, is in large part driven by the trillion dollar failed war on drugs. According to records from the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC), nearly half of all NEMLEC's documented 79 deployments over a two year period between 2012 and 2014 were search or arrest warrant operations. An overwhelming 63% of those warrant raids were conducted to search for drugs or arrest someone suspected of drug crimes. In the 21 drug warrant raids detailed in the records, police only documented having recovered drugs five times—less than 25 percent of the time.
Police commonly justify the existence of costly, intimidating SWAT teams by talking about rare incidents of extreme violence, like hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios. And the After Action Reports reflect that to a degree, describing scenarios in which SWAT officers were able to safely arrest apparently threatening people wielding knives. But in Northeastern Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, the single most common reason for SWAT deployment isn’t an imminent public safety crisis—it’s the decades old, failed war on drugs. No one thinks we can arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug war, but these NEMLEC documents suggest that—despite criminalization’s failure as a drug policy approach—SWAT teams haven’t stopped trying.
The newly released documents illustrate just how terrifying drug raids can be. One after action report describes a typical NEMLEC SWAT raid, in Lowell, Massachusetts, in August 2013: “[T]he main targets of the search warrant…are suspects in dealing narcotics, both pills and cocaine.” One of the targets, the report says, “is also believed [sic] in possession of several firearms with intent to sell them.” Someone who lives in the home “has three young children living with her,” the police acknowledge before the operation.
Using military terms like “operators” to describe the police officers who conduct the raid, calling their teams ‘Alpha’ and ‘Bravo’, the report details how officers “breached” the doors of the home to enter it at six in the morning, to take the family by surprise. According to the report, police found no drugs or guns in the home. One person was arrested on an outstanding motor vehicle violation warrant, and charged with reckless endangerment of a child and possession of ammunition. The children were handed over to the Department of Children and Families.
It’s not an isolated incident. During the two-year period for which we have data, the NEMLEC SWAT team served 17 “no-knock” warrants—out of a total of 33 warrants—allowing them to barge into someone’s home in the middle of the night instead of knock and announce their presence before entering, as traditional Fourth Amendment jurisprudence requires. The vast majority of those no-knock raids—14 or 82%—were targeting people suspected of drug crimes. Despite having justified the over the top, military style raids by alleging that the targets may have had guns, or by referencing alleged past crimes, only once did NEMLEC document having found a weapon in the home of a person targeted with a no-knock drug warrant.
And in the five of the 21 drug warrant raids wherein NEMLEC documented finding some kind of illegal substance, the hauls were hardly evidence of nabbing serious narco-traffickers.
In January 2014, for example, NEMLEC SWAT officers responded to a call for assistance from the Lowell police department. The Lowell cops had been working a case alongside the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and obtained a warrant for a home where they suspected people possessed drugs and guns. The NEMLEC SWAT team raided the home, where they were apparently surprised to find small children. They found no guns—only cash, marijuana, and steroids.
Another operation, based off of information from a confidential informant who conducted law enforcement-directed drug buys from the suspect, targeted a Methuen man with a no-knock search warrant in October 2012. The after action report makes it sound like the man could be a very serious drug dealer who might even possess a gun. Local reporters covered the raid, and describe it differently: the cops only found “30 pills, $1,500 and a small bag of marijuana” at the 25 year-old man’s home. One law enforcement official even told the reporter that the suspect was a “mid-level to low-mid-level dealer.”
The documents provided by NEMLEC show that the majority of its SWAT team’s actions are a far cry from the deployments to handle rare incidents of extreme violence we are told SWAT teams are trained for and that make them necessary in modern policing.
These findings on search and arrest warrants match up with national trends documented in a 2014 ACLU report, War Comes Home, on the militarization of the police. That study showed that nationwide, more than 60% of SWAT raids to serve search warrants at homes were drug war related. These operations aimed at finding drugs or arresting drug suspects have the look and feel of US special operations night raids, not local police actions, and disproportionately target people of color, particularly Blacks and Latinos. While the NEMLEC reports do not uniformly include information about the race of the person or persons targeted in a SWAT raid, the available figures show that in the five drug raids for which race is documented, no target was white. Two were Latino, two were Black, and one was Asian.
To truly understand how the drug war functions in Massachusetts, we must take a hard look at the big picture—not just the SWAT raids that end in violent death, like the 2011 police killing of African-American grandfather Eurie Stamps in Framingham. We must look closely at the hundreds of daily SWAT raids nationwide targeting suspected drug users or dealers, even when they end in less spectacular kinds of misery and trauma. These cases might not make for bleeding headlines on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, but they constitute the bulk of the war on drugs in Massachusetts and nationwide, and they are also destructive—to individuals, to families, to communities, and to the relationship between police and the people they serve.
These records open up an important window onto the ground truth of the war on drugs in our state. Despite the countless raids on suspected drug users and dealers conducted by NEMLEC and the many other SWAT teams in Massachusetts, drugs like heroin are more widely available and harmful than ever before. Militarized police tactics aren’t the way to fix the opiate crisis in the Bay State.
Fortunately, the rhetoric around drug use and abuse is starting to change for the better. Increasingly politicians and even police officials are acknowledging that drug use and abuse is a public health issue, not a law enforcement problem. It’s time to act on that recognition. There’s no arresting or incarcerating ourselves out of drug use; we’ve been trying for 40 years and all we have to show for it is misery, the worst incarceration crisis in the world, and higher drug abuse rates.
The first step in democratic governance is transparency. We shouldn’t have had to sue to obtain these records, but we did. Next is accountability. We hope the public and lawmakers will use the information laid out in these documents to shift resources from drug enforcement to treatment. As these records help to illustrate, business as usual is not working—and there’s ample reason to believe it’s making things worse. The war on drugs might be a “joke” like Suffolk County Sheriff Tompkins said. But it’s not funny when people get hurt and communities waste precious tax dollars throwing good money after bad. Other countries have demonstrated it doesn’t have to be this way. Massachusetts should take the lead, and move from rhetoric to action in ending the war on drugs.