Friday, May 14th, 2010
Columbia, Missouri Police Chief Ken Burton is apparently frustrated. At another press conference  yesterday, a reporter asked the chief what he has learned from the international attention generated by the YouTube video  of his department’s SWAT team conducting a drug raid last February.
His reply: “I hate the Internet.”
I’ll bet he does. For two-and-a-half months, Burton and his department were quiet about the raid. That’s likely because, as I wrote yesterday, the raid was really no different from the tens of thousands of similar raids conducted every year, and that are probably conducted by his own department a couple of times per week. Within days of the video hitting the web, Burton was forced to hold several press conferences, and has now laid out several reforms to the way SWAT raids will be conducted in Columbia in the future. I suppose it’s possible those reforms were brewing all along, and the timing of him announcing them after the video went viral was mere coincidence. It seems at least plausible, though, that the dread “Internet” sparked some actual policy changes, here.
Unfortunately the changes—while small steps in the right direction—still miss the point. Burton says his department will no longer conduct SWAT raids at night. They won’t conduct raids in homes where children are present. Suspects will be under constant surveillance until the raid is carried out. And raids will be conducted within a shorter period of time from when police get the initial tip about a suspected drug dealer. But the Columbia Police Department will still conduct volatile, violent, highly aggressive forced-entry raids on people suspected of consensual, nonviolent drug crimes. That is what’s wrong with the YouTube video. Changing the time of day of the raid doesn’t change the wildly disproportionate use of force.
Burton and his department have also criticized web commentary on the video, citing both death threats aimed at members of the SWAT team and an abundance of what Burton calls “misinformation” about the raid.
He’s right. I saw both. In particular, the description that accompanied the YouTube video (which today topped 1 million views) described the pit bull the police killed as crated when it was shot. It wasn’t. (I should disclose that I passed on this bit of incorrect information to several people while discussing the raid before discovering it was incorrect, though I didn’t put it in print). And death threats, even from keyboard commandos posting on Internet discussion boards, are inexcusable.
That said, Burton is deflecting. When the video first went viral, his department’s spokesperson acknowledged that the police didn’t know a seven-year-old boy was in the home, but explained that the department has to carry out drug raids quickly before dealers can move their supply. That was, as Burton would put it, “misinformation.” You might even call it a lie. At the very least, it was another example of a police spokesperson reflexively defending the department before knowing all the facts. Eight days passed between the time the police were tipped off to the alleged marijuana stash and the time they conducted the raid.
As I reported yesterday, according to Brittany Montgomery, the mother and wife in the home at the time of the raid, the police initially gave the family a copy of the video in which the audio and portions of incriminating video had been removed. That sounds like “misinformation,” too. Montgomery also wrote that when her neighbors inquired with the department about the raid, they were initially told it was a drill, and that no shots were fired. That too was “misinformation.” (The department didn’t return my call, so I haven’t been able to get their response to these two allegations.)
“Misinformation” coming from police department officials acting in their official capacity is a hell of a lot more troubling than misinformation disseminated on Internet discussion boards and in blog comment threads.
As for the death threats, yes, they’re an unfortunately ugly part of often-anonymous Internet discourse. But Burton’s men were just captured on video firing off seven rounds into a home just seconds after they’d broken into it. This, despite the fact that there was nothing in the home that posed a lethal threat to them. (Yes, some pit bulls can be dangerous, but not to an armed SWAT team bedecked in full body armor.) One of those rounds missed its intended target (the pit bull) and struck an unintended target (the Corgi). According to Montgomery, there are now bullet holes in the walls of the house. There were other people in that house who weren’t suspects, people the cops weren’t aware of before they started firing their guns, including a child. That seems like a pretty reckless disregard for human life.
But Burton would have us believe that the real outrage here is the faux “if they try to come to my house and do that, I’ll kill them” Internet bravado that came in response to the video, not the very real violence actually depicted in it.