Smooth is fast

Alex Freer
September 20, 2013
‘The fear of a smashing in of doors by government agents is based  upon much more than a concern that our privacy will be disturbed. …  Something much more malevolent and dangerous is afoot’.
— The observation  comes from Ferdinand Fernandez, a Bush Sr.-appointed judge on the Ninth  Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, explaining the court’s  decision, in United States v. Becker, to suppress the evidence gathered against Becker during a SWAT raid on his home, early one Saturday morning in June, 1989.

Believing the house might be an active methamphetamine lab, and  having recovered firearms in a related raid two months earlier,  Springfield Police Department had decided the warrant justified a dawn  raid. Six armed officers shouted ‘Police—Search Warrant’ as one kicked  in the door and the search began. They encountered no resistance from  Duskin Becker, or his daughter, who had both been asleep. At the back of  the building lay a fresh slab of concrete. When it was cracked with a  pneumatic drill, the officers discovered the remnants of drug  production. Fernandez’s point—and the point of law—was that the warrant  did not justify the intrusion; when the officers took the door off its  hinges, they broke their Fourth Amendment obligations.

The knock-and-announce rule, as it became known, is traced by  historians to English common law, almost two hundred years before the  ratification of the Fourth Amendment. The 1603 rule that a sheriff  ‘ought to signify the cause of his coming, and to make request to open  doors’ is made both on the grounds of inconvenience and damage to  property. It was up to individual states to decide on American  enforcement, until 1917, when the Federal government gave the rule  statutory basis within Fourth Amendment considerations. From this point,  a forced police entry anywhere in the United States was deemed to  violate a citizen’s right to ‘be free from unreasonable governmental  intrusion’ if the officers involved did not give an occupant the time  and reason to voluntarily admit officers. In the modern formulation of  knock-and-announce, there are three grounds for exception: concern for  officers’ safety; announcements which would be pointless (because, for  instance, police had pursued a suspect into the dwelling) and to prevent  the destruction of evidence. Some courts interpret the last rule  liberally, granting ‘no-knock’ warrants simply because officers expect  both drugs and a toilet down which they could be flushed, resulting in  no-knock becoming standard procedure in the War on Drugs.

In Becker, none of these exceptions mattered. Fumes from an  active meth lab can be toxic, and the department was right to use  officers with protective equipment, but the presence of firearms at the  address searched in April was hardly evidence that Becker himself was  armed. That ruled out the first exception. Further, the judges reasoned,  there was no imminent risk of evidence being destroyed when the raid  began, because Becker had already had two months’ notice of the previous  search—time to lay concrete over the remains of his lab, as it turned  out. The second exception clearly did not apply, and this disproved the  third. Yet Becker got lucky: only because his alleged associates had  been arrested was the evidence against him suppressed; if the raids had  happened identically, but the other way around, the destruction of  evidence rule would likely have applied.

The issue pits law-and-order conservatives against the liberal left  and the libertarian right. The former group regards the rule as  antiquated in a time of readily-available automatic weapons, when the  element of surprise might save an officer’s life. Critics retort that  SWAT teams, with their military-style equipment and training, are a  radically different proposal to the local magistrate unhinging your  door.

But it’s hardly clear that no-knock warrants do make police  operations safer. As legal scholar Mark Josephson notes, unannounced  raids are extremely dangerous to officers and occupants, since it’s  unclear to occupants who is coming into their home—particularly when  raids are conducted by plainclothed officers. With half of American  households owning at least one gun, and laws in nearly all states  protecting a homeowner’s right to shoot intruders, things unsurprisingly  go wrong, not only because occupants mistake the police for violent  criminals, but because the police are expecting armed resistance, and are entering unannounced precisely so that they might shoot first, if necessary.


Police killings of innocents, due to real or imagined resistance,  accidental firearm discharge or raiding the wrong address are both  numerous and lurid. Taking only the recent cases which made headlines,  there are Jose Colon in 2002, Alberta Spruill in 2003, Cheryl Noel in  2005, Kathryn Johnston in 2006, Tarika Wilson and Gonzalo Guizan in  2008, Jason Kemp and Aiyana Jones in 2010, Eurie Stamps and Jose Guerena  in 2011. Moreover, the circumstances even of justified shootings are  frequently relatively trivial matters: possession of small quantities of  marijuana or cocaine; rarely the cases of violent armed robbery,  domestic terrorism and hostage-taking which SWAT teams were formed to  tackle.

There’s a further conflict here between two touchstones of  law-and-order politics: commitments both to ‘aggressive’ policing, and  to the right of citizens to injure or kill criminals in defence of their  families or property. One could be forgiven for thinking in some states  that it had become legal to shoot a police officer in self-defence. In  practice, the law almost always sides with officers, who are routinely  exonerated from the accidental killings found to be honest mistakes  (they call cases ‘awful but lawful’). In the less frequent event that a  civilian injures or kills an officer, and survives the raid, the courts  are less understanding, even when the same good-faith assumptions apply.  Cory Maye was sentenced to death in 2001 for the shooting of a police  officer at his home in Mississippi, after officers accidentally entered  his apartment during a search of the adjoining property. The murder  sentence was eventually quashed in 2005, but Maye still served a  decade’s imprisonment for manslaughter.

No-knock raids are on the increase. The figure usually quoted is from  criminologist Peter Kraska, who claims that across the US, unannounced  raids leapt from 3,000 annually at the beginning of the eighties to over  50,000 in 2006. Still, there is quantitative evidence in the police’s  favour, too. The Economist recently noted that ‘in 1973 the  NYPD, with a 30,000-member force, shot and killed 54 New Yorkers. Last  year, with 36,000 officers, it shot and killed ten.’ Policing studies  distinguishes between ‘excessive force’ and ‘excessive use of force’.  Excessive force is straightforward to define: the escalation of police  violence beyond what is considered necessary by departmental regulations  or the courts. The excessive use of force, however, concerns the pattern  of force usage over a period of time. There is no agreed standard on  how to measure it, not least because, as two criminal justice scholars,  Eugene Paoline and William Terrill, have shown, there is no generally  accepted use of force policy, with disagreement even at a very basic  level: some departments consider incapacitating gases, like oleoresin capsicum  (‘pepper spray’), to be less forceful than conducted energy devices  (such as the Taser systems), other departments the opposite.

But here’s the deeper issue: the ‘force’ in ‘excessive use of force’ need not itself  be ‘excessive force’. It’s not a question of police breaking the law,  but of general, quotidian violence. If the trends are widespread and  sustained, an increase in SWAT raids, combined with a drop in killings  by police, would suggest that policing is becoming less deadly, even as  it becomes more routinely forceful. And an increase in force, even if  accompanied by a reduction in deaths, would suggest the decline of what  forces call ‘community-led’ policing, in favour of the ‘gun-led’.

Of course, it’s still easy to disagree that professionalism is  increasing. Critics point to the lack of independent data on police  excessive use of force (sometimes using the emotive term ‘police  brutality’), and even a recent Department of Justice report admits that:

If use of force is uncommon, and civilian complaints are  infrequent, and civilian injuries are few, then excessive force by  police must be rare. That conclusion may indeed be correct, but to the  extent that it hinges on official police statistics, it is open to  serious challenge.

Moreover, sociologists may well be more interested in citizens’ judgement  that they have not been treated reasonably by the police, rather than  whether the police follow the letter of the handbook, and are acquitted  by review boards and courts. Indeed, if commentators are concerned with  people’s basic expectations of safety and dignity in police encounters,  the whole spectrum of legal police violence from the ‘awful but lawful’  right down to the everyday possibility of stop and search may well be  more relevant than the number of disciplinary cases a department  investigates.

Academic opinions on police reform take the usual sides in social  sciences between those concerned primarily with individuals (‘bad  apples’) and with departmental structures (‘bad trees’). ‘Bad apple’  theorists believe that individual leadership and officer selection is  the major factor. This is known as the ‘professionalism model’ of police  reform. Structuralists believe that faulty procedure and policy incline  officers towards misconduct and forcefulness; theirs is the  ‘bureaucratic model’. The journalist and prominent SWAT critic Radley  Balko gives a structural explanation in a Wall Street Journal article:

‘Armed federal agents from the Fish & Wildlife  Service raided the floor of the Gibson Guitar factory in Nashville in  2009, on suspicion of using hardwoods that had been illegally harvested  in Madagascar. … In 2010, the police department in New Haven, Conn.,  sent its SWAT team to raid a bar where police believed there was  underage drinking. For sheer absurdity, it is hard to beat the 2006  story about the Tibetan monks who had overstayed their visas while  visiting America on a peace mission. In Iowa, the hapless holy men were  apprehended by a SWAT team in full gear.’

More deployments equals more force, inappropriate deployments equals  inappropriate force, even if no physical violence occurs. Conversely,  Paoline and Terrill point to a small study conducted in 2000 in which  almost half of the nine hundred officers questioned agreed that  ‘following the rules is not always compatible with getting the job  done’.


On the last day of July 1966, Charles Whitman, a former marine who  had returned to the University of Texas to study architectural  engineering, murdered his mother and his wife. The next day, he climbed  the clock tower at the university’s Austin campus with a shotgun and an  M1 Carbine (a short, military rifle) purchased that morning. Just before  noon he began shooting at those below. The campus police, armed only  with sidearms and shotguns, could do nothing from the ground. An hour  and a half later, by the time officers had managed to enter the tower,  get through a barricade to the observation deck, and kill Whitman,  seventeen others were dead and double that number wounded. The case is  often cited in explanations of a growing belief within forces in the  sixties that regular training, weapons and equipment were insufficient  for ‘getting the job done’.

It was not Texas, however, but Los Angeles, where the first SWAT  units were deployed. Chief of Police William Parker authorised the  decision, but the LAPD website attributes the concept to Officer John  Nelson, and its success partly to the inspector to whom he took the  idea, Darryl Gates. The LAPD SWAT teams were formalised in 1971. For  several years in the late sixties, according to Californian sheriff Don  McDonald, these teams operated informally: without official training or  equipment, as a loose collective of officers who already had expertise  with high-powered rifles, and could bring their own weapons to work.  Perhaps worryingly, McDonald notes that these first recruits were often  those ‘who enjoyed some form of big game hunting’.

The Los Angeles department cites various ‘sniping incidents’ as  motivating factors, including those during the Watts Riots, a week of  racially-aggravated unrest in south LA, twelve months before the Whitman  shooting. An incident of apparently needless police violence towards a  black family on the evening of Wednesday, August 11th sparked the first  night of rioting. Late on Thursday, Bill Parker called out the National  Guard. Five days of martial law followed. A degree of moral panic always  follows civil unrest, and the popular (white) opinion was generally  that the riots confirmed the need for forceful policing, rather than  demonstrating its failure. That panic having cooled, a 2010 LA Times  article focuses instead a department which was ‘aggressive,  intimidating and confrontational by design—a small force of faceless,  paramilitary cops in patrol cars policing through fear.’ It goes on:  ‘the strategy fuelled the 1965 Watts riots, which in turn caused the  department to further militarize.’

When he retired in 1978, Parker was succeeded by his protégé Daryl  Gates, the SWAT enthusiast whose tenure ran until 1992. As his Guardian  obituary noted, Gates loved acronyms: alongside SWAT he would preside  over DARE (a drug education programme) and CRASH (a gang crime unit  frequently accused of racial profiling). Gates was no less controversial  than his predecessor. Parker was widely quoted comparing the Watts  rioters to ‘monkeys in the zoo’ in 1965, but when, sixteen years later,  Gates appeared to suggest that black suspects died more frequently in  police custody because they had different physiology to ‘normal people’,  there were calls for his resignation. It eventually came following  Gates’ poor handling of the Rodney King riots in 1991, the largest  disturbance in LA since Watts, and in the eyes of many, the result of  decades of heavy-handed and blatantly racist policing. On the first day  of the riot, Gates is said to have attended a fundraising dinner for a  police lobbying campaign rather than taking command of the response.  Inside and outside the force, his slow reaction to the riot was deemed  complacent, and his leadership style part of the problem.

After resigning, Gates consulted for several firms, including Sierra  Entertainment, a video game company founded in Oakhurst, California, at  the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range which features in the  company’s logo. Sierra’s fame comes largely from the adventure games it  produced during the 1980s and ’90s, in which the player guides a central  character through various puzzles and tasks by typing instructions, or  in later games, using the mouse to point to objects and suggest actions.  They offered ‘adventures and miserable puns’, one title declared. Its  most famous franchises were several large families: King’s Quest I – VII (1983-1998), Space Quest I – VI (1986-1995), Hero’s Quest I – V (1989-1998) and Police Quest I-III, Police Quest: Open Season and Police Quest: SWAT I & II (1987-2005).

The first Police Quest writer was Jim Walls, a former  optician and then highway patrolman forced into early retirement by  debilitating anxiety attacks. He was responsible for the emphasis on  procedure, and the numerous traffic stops players must negotiate. As his  successor, Gates was not initially a popular candidate, although  producers at Sierra were well aware that the controversy would encourage  sales. Gates joined during the development of the fourth game, which  marks a break in the series. The fictional Californian town of Lytton is  replaced by South Central LA, and Officer Sonny Bonds exchanged for  homicide detective John Carey. The game would be referred to as Police Quest IV fleetingly in the manual, but elsewhere, it was Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: Open Season.  If content had changed, the game mechanics had not. Click on an item,  click on a location in the scene depicted on screen, and hope that  Bonds/Carey has something sensible to do with the combination (or if  not, at least a funny remark to make directly to the player, a hallmark  of the genre).

If the first ‘Gates era’ game was grittier, the subsequent titles  responded as Gates had done, turning to SWAT. And another arms race was  underway. By 1995, home computing had come a long way, and technology  seemed to correspond to commercial success. Police Quest: SWAT  retains the 1980s point-and-click interface, but uses pre-rendered video  (filling four CDs) and ‘first-person’ perspective during missions to  complement ‘third-person’ for administrative tasks and interviews. In  traditional ‘third-person’, you can see the character you control on  screen; in ‘first-person’, you see from the eyes of your character, you  ‘are’ him. SWAT motions towards the ‘first-person shooter’, a  genre which had recently achieved widespread popularity through two  games from Texas-based iD Software, Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 and Doom the following year.

Despite its name, Wolfenstein was, by modern standards,  ‘2½D’: the rooms through which the player progresses are three  dimensional, but the objects and characters are rendered as 2D planes  which always face directly towards the player’s eye so that the missing  sides and depth are never visible. These early first-person shooters  (FPS) largely abandoned the storytelling and jokes of adventure games in  favour of adrenaline and reflex responses, which would become  characteristic of the genre. Since enemies attack without warning, speed  and situational awareness must preside over careful analysis, and  puzzles are relegated to a secondary concern, dealt with in the absence  of aggressive enemies. Their settings (Wolfenstein a series of Nazi headquarters and castles, reminiscent of comic-book adventures, Doom an  apocalyptic world of monsters) became standard, as did the clear  distinctions between player and enemies, the one-man-against-all  scenario beloved of superhero fiction, and the fantasy of the unlimited  potency through firepower.

What these games lacked in narrative and depth they made up for in  technology. As processing power improved through the nineties,  developers implemented intricate 3D models with detailed  texture-mapping, dynamic lighting and shadows, particle effects like  explosions and fire, bump-mapping, and accurate reflections in mirrors  and water, taking advantage of the 3D accelerator chips increasingly  present in home computers, amid fierce competition between manufacturers  such as 3dfx, Hercules, S3, ATi and nVidia (of which only the last two  survive, alongside the giant Intel.)

SWAT II veered in the opposite direction from its elder  sibling, using an isometric, ‘God’s eye view’, a third-person viewpoint  projected from high in the sky. This is the typical view of strategy  games, in which the player has a privileged position from which to  direct the action. It is also a ‘Gates’ eye view’: the impersonal  commander giving orders to men on the ground, without much connection to  the violence. SWAT II (‘The only authentic police tactical sim[ulator]’) would be the last game to carry the Police Quest title, and the last Gates would directly influence. SWAT III and IV,  in 1999 and 2005 respectively, like heirs embarrassed by their  prestigious lineage, dropped the historic title in a bid to modernise. SWAT III was an ambitious but technically limited 3D game, combining police procedure and FPS mechanics for the first time. For SWAT IV,  Sierra licensed the Unreal engine 2.0, software built by Epic Games to  power their popular series of shooters. Not only did it feel like a  modern shooter—now, genetically, it was one.


The FPS seems an odd place for the Police Quest series to  find its final home. For one thing, almost all shooters require one to  shoot (‘joysticks don’t have “don’t fire” buttons’, quips a Terry  Pratchett novel). Like many modern titles, SWAT 4 licences the  likenesses of real weapons (from Colt and Benelli). But while the game  is built around guns, a perfect score is possible only through trigger  restraint. Tentative progression is the order of the day; ‘slow is  smooth, smooth is fast’, the military saying goes.

There is no saving during levels; an entire mission must be played in  a single sitting. Progress only increases the tension, as a single  mistake will require everything to be repeated. There is no real-time  map, which occasionally leads to getting lost and accidentally clearing  the same room repeatedly. The emphasis on procedure remains, undermining  the genre commonplace that all problems can be solved with sufficient  firepower. Even armed suspects must be allowed to surrender. If they do  not fire, or attempt to, the game will punish you for shooting first.  Make more than one or two mistakes of this kind and you will fail on all  but the easiest difficulty setting. At the same time, suspects have  relatively good aim, and even small arms will wound or incapacitate your  officers at close range (the game won’t let them die, just lie  uselessly on the floor). Civilians, with no ballistic vests, are even  more vulnerable. In the cramped, dark spaces in which you operate  (apartments, office blocks, a restaurant, a garage) there is minimal  time to decide whether the suspect is going to attack or surrender. The  game randomly sets the mentality of each suspect; some will comply  merely with a shout of ‘Police!’, others are set on a shoot-out.  Suspects will resist passively, running from you. Some will appear to  comply, then draw a concealed weapon. What makes the game tactically so  compelling is that force—occasionally deadly force—is vital to your  survival, but can very easily be your downfall. The more hesitant you  are, the greater chance you, or someone under your responsibility, gets  hurt. The more aggressive you are, the more likely you will accidentally  hit a civilian or a suspect trying to surrender.

The Tom Clancy franchise Rainbow Six (a counter-terrorism shooter) is the closest comparison to SWAT.  But the game is a good deal simpler: there are no ‘suspects’, only  proven (and visually distinct) terrorists, and all can be shot on sight.  Even the occasional terrorist who surrenders can be summarily executed  without the game so much as tutting. Civilians are always terrified,  thankful and patient. There is no ambiguity. Perhaps this is how the  United States wishes terrorism did look. In SWAT, opponents are  criminals, not combatants. And there is no essential difference between  suspects and civilians; civilians are simply the suspects who are  unarmed. In some cases, such as a raid on a gambling den, or an armed  religious cult, the civilians are as clearly implicated in the crime as  the armed suspects.

This is reflected in the game mechanics: all persons, armed or  otherwise, must be restrained, and their conditions reported  (individually!) to command. ‘Bring order to chaos’ is your eternal  objective. To achieve it, officers must achieve ‘compliance’ from  civilians and suspects alike. There is a button for that. ‘Police! Get  down!’ is the command my player-character gives. Some of my colleagues  are more colourful (‘Get down or I’ll put you down!’) Many civilians  comply immediately. Some, and most armed suspects, do not.

The game provides a range of non-lethal weapons with which to achieve  compliance: OC spray, disorienting gas and stun grenades, Taser  weapons, firearms loaded with beanbag rounds. ‘Active resistance’ can be  safely ended this way without resorting to a risky exchange of live  fire. ‘Passive resistance’, which is to say civilian non-compliance,  muddies the waters. Without securing all civilians, you cannot complete  the mission, and some civilians will not comply without serious force. A  particular scene comes to mind: having picked the lock at the home of a  kidnapping suspect, we entered silently (in SWAT 4, unlike 3,  nobody announces ‘Police!’ as you cross the threshold). We found the  suspect in the basement, with a kidnapped girl and a shotgun. He  complied immediately, as did his victim. More trouble was presented by  his elderly mother, who lived upstairs. As I got into the room, four  officers stood over her, yelling:

‘Police, get down!’ ‘Get down, now!’
She responds. ‘You have no right to be in here!’
‘Get down! On your knees!’ ‘Do it, now!’
‘You’ve got it all wrong! Lawrence wouldn’t hurt a fly.’

Realising that this was going nowhere, and rather than have my own  player-character do it, I delegated. ‘Blue team, deploy pepper.’  Eventually, five heavily armed men overcame the pensioner, and the  mission was complete.

To their credit, civilians are aware of the gross indignity of the whole situation—‘Why are you tying me  up?’ ‘Where’s my lawyer?’—but their complaints are outside the game’s  logic. In fact, the game only distinguishes between three things:  non-lethal force, lethal force and almost-lethal force (if your bullet  incapacitates, usually through an inaccurate shot to the torso). There  is no spectrum of force; everything which is not live ammunition is  equivalent. A perfectly viable strategy in the game is to gas or stun  everything that moves, just to be on the safe side.

This is where the realism ends: someone hit with a beanbag round or  stunned with a Taser are treated as temporarily incapacitated, and then  fit again. You can slap them all you like, because it doesn’t leave a  red mark. In reality, flash grenades start fires, electric shocks cause  heart attacks, tear gas damages internal organs and ‘non-lethal  ammunition’ isn’t always. In July 2013 a 95-year-old man was killed with  a beanbag shot in a retirement home in Illinois.

The game’s fantasy of ‘non-forceful force’ recalls a speculative  report from the eighties, ‘What technologies will be available to SWAT  teams by the year 2000?’, predicting an ‘advanced gas’ which is  ‘effective within five seconds and has literally no harmful side  effects, not even to pregnant women.’ Guns are also less dangerous than  in real life. They never jam, nor fire when dropped. Recently, an  officer tripped and fell during an operation, and his resulting stray  shot killed a woman. In SWAT, the only risk of ‘accidental  discharge’ is the player getting nervy. There are other important points  of realism: we never begin a level at the wrong address. Suspects  always turn out to be guilty. Police negotiation exists only as shouting  (the blurb for a mission usually declares that negotiations have  failed).

It is impossible to know whether this was intended, or even  recognised by developers, but a sinister thing happens if you push the  game’s logic to its extreme. Because force equals compliance, but lethal  force equals likely failure, the optimal strategy is often to  consistently employ the maximum possible force which will not kill or  seriously injure. At the start, you try to ‘keep it smooth’, moving as  slowly as possible, holding back, letting suspects run if they wish. You  never fire live rounds, and try to wait it out with suspects who want  to fight, deploying gas and pulling back. At some point, though, you  overextend, or there are too many angles to cover at once. You encounter  a particularly hostile suspect, maybe several at once. You are shot in  an extremity, or a fellow officer is incapacitated. Feeling vulnerable,  you change strategy. You begin to routinely clear rooms with CS gas, or  ‘stinger grenades’ full of tiny rubber balls. You shoot anything  resembling a person with a pre-emptive beanbag round to the stomach. If a  suspect, coughing and blinded by grenades, is still holding a gun,  rather than wait for him to understand what has happened, and hopefully  surrender, you stun him with a Taser. But the Taser has a short range,  and takes a long time to reload, so soon you just use your service  weapon, making sure to shoot below the waist, where incapacitation is  unlikely. Any resistance is met with overwhelming force. Before a  suspect has even decided whether to resist or surrender, whenever a  civilian is too shocked to respond to instructions, you waste no time in  applying maximum force.

The game exemplifies the strange ambivalence towards violence present  in real policing policy. Units and equipment which should reduce  violence become a way to deliver more force in every situation. And it  is to the game’s credit that this remains obvious. Careless shooting is  punished, although sadism is not. The constraints of genre and  commercial viability on SWAT 4 are clear: there is no  three-month assault charge case, with court-room mini-game. No  corruption, no false leads, no racially-motivated stop-and-search and no  consequences for the routine use of unnecessary force. There are also  no petty drug cases, which account for the majority of SWAT action (and  thus, the majority of lethal mistakes). In a genre renowned for  thoughtless action, it is, however, a genuinely interesting game, and a  more provocative and unapologetic representation of state violence than  any shooter before or since.


All by
Alex Freer