‘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.