Florida sheriff cuts tough-guy video with masked SWAT team

Guilty people aren’t the only ones who should fear nighttime raids.

CREDIT: Screenshot/Lake County Sheriff’s Office
CREDIT: Screenshot/Lake County Sheriff’s Office

Tired of nuanced debate over police tactics and introspection by law enforcement leaders who recognize they can’t do their jobs if their communities do not trust them? Pining for the real world to look more like the black-and-white moral simplicity of a Hollywood blockbuster?

Sheriff Peyton Grinnell of Lake County, Florida has your back.

In a video “message from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office Community Engagement Unit” posted to Facebook on Friday, Grinnell is flanked by four silent, masked, flak-jacketed sheriff’s deputies.

“To the dealers that are pushing this poison, I have a message for you: We’re coming for you,” Grinnell says.

“Enjoy trying to sleep tonight, wondering if tonight’s the night our SWAT team blows your front door off the hinges.” Grinnell seems not to realize that lots of innocent people might be wondering that too.

Unknown iFrame situation

The sheriff’s swaggerific tone and colorful script are meant to frighten the bad guys and, by the transitive property, comfort everyone else. The premise is that Grinnell’s masked goons are competent enough that only lawbreakers need fear them. All other citizens can sleep more soundly.

Or maybe not. Police departments use the aggressive paramilitary tactics Grinnell boasts of here thousands of times per year. And in many cases, they simply take the wrong door.

Maybe the information was bad. Maybe the information was good but officers went to a different house by mistake. Either way, no-knock raids and dead-of-night “dynamic entry” tactics have become notorious in recent years precisely because they often terrorize innocent people. Grinnell’s show of force and grim threats of nighttime police raids ignore a raft of evidence that these tactics are misapplied.

From 2010 to 2016, the New York Times found, at least 81 civilians and 13 cops have been killed in “dynamic entry” raids, oftentimes after police obtained a “no-knock” warrant allowing them to bust in a door and go in heavy without warning.

Most such raids, regardless of the type of warrant, are conducted in the wee hours of the night in hopes of catching residents off guard. The consequences of that approach can be tragic when police are acting on bad information, as they did in Georgia in a 2014 raid where one cop tossed a flashbang into a baby’s crib and blew a hole in the 19–month-old’s chest, nearly killing him.

Florida does not allow no-knock warrants, but police are authorized to use “dynamic entry” tactics as they deem necessary. Even when officers knock, they do not necessarily announce who they are — and the knock can be followed almost immediately with a battering ram, stun grenades, and a sudden swarm of heavily-armed, adrenalized cops rushing into a sleeping home.

Sometimes — in dozens and dozens of cases around the country, going back to the 1980s — these keyed-up officers are barging into the wrong house. Police in Hawaii twice raided the wrong house — once throwing two elderly residents to the ground and holding guns to their heads in front of their grandchildren — in pursuit of a drug ring in 2005. An article in Playboy in 1989 documented 18 separate examples from the previous few years of officers raiding the wrong home.

The NYPD sent a memo around in 1998 advising officers on how to contact locksmiths when they kicked in the wrong door — “suggesting that mistakes were in fact fairly common,” policing expert Radley Balko noted in a 2006 report documenting the overuse of SWAT tactics across the country. Balko’s other research has uncovered at least 40 additional deaths in botched SWAT raids in the years prior to the Times’ study.

While no comprehensive figures on mistaken-address raids are available, the stories and stats Balko and others have collected suggest that erroneous SWAT raids without fatalities are far more common than those where a death garners public outcry.

Lake County residents should know by now that the kind of terror-that-bumps-in-the-night ruthlessness Sheriff Grinnell promises is often visited upon innocent people.

Deputies there killed a man in 2012 after a botched attempt to catch a murder suspect. The deputies knocked that night, at 1:30 a.m., but reportedly failed to identify themselves as police. The apartment was not registered to their suspect, but his motorcycle was parked nearby.

When the actual resident, 26-year-old Andrew Lee Scott, answered the knock with his gun in his hand, the cops killed him. He had nothing to do with their case.

A judge later tossed out the Scott family’s wrongful death suit against the county sheriff’s office, which in turn declined its right to charge the family for the legal costs of defending the lawsuit.

The masked tough guys flanking Grinnell in his video are dressed to do a certain kind of job. The other kind of job — public service, professional maintenance of public safety, and conflict resolution in service of the law — requires a different kind of costume.

In some police departments where leaders have recognized they must reform their enforcement culture to regain the trust of their communities, brass have veered in the opposite direction. Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis recently ended all plainclothes police work, ordering his whole team back into standard uniforms in hopes of grounding their daily work in the higher-minded purposes of the job.

Davis’ gesture on uniforms may seem small. But it’s an abrupt course change from decades of recent history.

Dynamic-entry tactics and their attendant horrors became prevalent nationwide thanks in large part to the years-long spread of SWAT teams to small-town America. Communities with little real need for an independent, permanent group of videogame-style supercops nonetheless maintain such “Special Response Teams.” Tactics and organizational plans designed to respond to terrorist attacks, riots, and gang violence are instead applied almost exclusively to drug investigations, in sleepy towns where house raids are the only action available to these warrior cops.

This long process of militarizing law enforcement at the local level seemed poised for a reversal as recently as a few years ago, with broader police reform efforts gaining momentum and longstanding criticisms of heavy-handed policework coming to the fore.

But President Donald Trump ran on a promise to end that swerve and instead encourage police “to go and counterattack,” and act “very much tougher than they are right now.”