Image courtesy of WIVB news. 
Image courtesy of WIVB news. 

Local Study Calls Zero Tolerance Policing Ineffective

by / Dec. 21, 2016 1am EST

On September 28, a Niagara Falls police SWAT team of nearly 20 officers entered a home on 20th Street, acting on a “no-knock warrant” issued to them. The subject of the warrant was Stacey Lewis, a 33-year-old Niagara Falls man with a record of drug arrests. What exactly happened next is still unknown, but moments after the raid began Lewis was brought out of the home on a stretcher with a bullet in his torso. A bystander grabbed a cellphone video capturing him pleading, “Why’d y’all shoot me?” The Buffalo News reported that, at the time he was shot, Lewis was carrying an open box cutter and a cell phone. 

Lewis’s injury occurred in the execution of police paramilitary unit (or PPU) raid, a practice that has become commonplace across the country as first the war on drugs and then the war on terrorism was outfitted with more equipment and larger budgets, thanks to across-the-board increases in law enforcement spending.  

In Buffalo, PPU raids have become part of the Buffalo Police Department’s overall “zero tolerance” policy, which prioritizes show-of-force response to low-level quality-of-life and drug complaints, theoretically as a deterrent to more serious crimes. But despite the resources put into such raids and the attention-grabbing headlines they engender, a recent study released by local researchers concludes that the raids have almost no deterrent effect on crime, and national studies argue that such raids place both citizens and police at risk. 

Operation Street Sweeper

In Buffalo, raids have become such a common facet of the Brown administration’s public relations that each initiative receives its own name. In June 2012, the BPD launched a two-day effort called “Operation Street Sweeper,” executing 100 search warrants that yielded 76 arrests, 16 guns, and a small quantity of drugs. A Valentine’s Day effort in 2011 called “Operation Heartbreaker” produced similar results: 101 warrants, 54 arrests, 11 firearms.

With each raid, Mayor Byron Brown and/or Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda praise the efforts. After “Operation Power Sweep” in September 2012 (103 warrants, 63 arrests), Derenda was quoted thusly in the city’s press release: “This is the continuation of the mayor’s zero tolerance policy which ultimately helps rid neighborhoods of illegal activity and ensures a better quality of life for residents city wide.”  

One thing never included in the city’s press releases is the number of warrants executed at the wrong address, or the number of pets killed during the raids. Often, a single warrant results in multiple arrests, yet each time the city releases its own figures on the number of warrants executed and number of individuals arrested, the former far exceeds the latter. 

A study of “Operation Street Sweeper” was recently published by two Buffalo State professors, Dae-Young Kim and Scott W. Phillips, and University of Texas at Dallas professor Andrew Wheeler, who investigated the impact of PPU raids. The researchers report that the city used crime statistics to generate targets for “Operation Street Sweeper”: “Raids targeted locations with recent incidents of violence, and the data subsequently showed that these raid locations were in areas of increased levels of violent crime,” the study reads. 

Looking at calls for service data in 35-week blocks before and after the raids, the researchers found not only that the raids did not affect the crime rate for more than one or two weeks afterward, but that they may have actually caused a spike in calls for service. “Overall, we find only limited evidence that the raids reduced Part 1 crimes 1–2 weeks after the intervention,” the study concludes. “Other evidence points to an increase in the total number of calls for service in response to the raids.”

In other words, raids appear to do little to actually reduce crime. In a companion paper published simultaneously, the same author group argues that “it may be just a ceremonial and symbolic action demonstrating that the police are actively engaged in dealing with crime, even if there is no actual crime reduction.”

The city has not responded to requests for data relative to their use of paramilitary raids. 

National scrutiny of zero tolerance policies

Nationally, the use of PPU raids and zero tolerance tactics have come under greater scrutiny in the wake of the scathing Department of Justice report on Baltimore and that city’s adherence to a strategy of the same name and design. 

Further, a June 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union concluded the following:

  • SWAT raids are undoubtedly violent events: numerous (often 20 or more) officers armed with assault rifles and grenades approach a home, break down doors and windows (often causing property damage), and scream for the people inside to get on the floor (often pointing their guns at them). In the 818 SWAT raids studied, seven civilian deaths were recorded. In at least two high-profile incidents, police have been shot and killed by people whose home was being raided after mistaking police for intruders. 
  • Police departments have availed themselves of federal funding to procure military-grade weapons and equipment including battle uniforms, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) and armored personnel carriers. The militarization of policing in the United States has occurred with almost no public oversight.
  • SWAT teams were often deployed—unnecessarily and aggressively—to execute search warrants in low-level drug investigations; deployments for hostage or barricade scenarios occurred in only a small number of incidents. The majority (79 percent) of SWAT deployments the ACLU studied were for the purpose of executing a search warrant, most commonly in drug investigations.
  • The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people of color; when paramilitary tactics were used in drug searches, the primary targets were people of color, whereas when paramilitary tactics were used in hostage or barricade scenarios, the primary targets were white. 
  • Of the incidents studied in which SWAT was deployed to search for drugs in a person’s home, the SWAT teams either forced or probably forced entry into a person’s home using a battering ram or other breaching device 65 percent of the time. For drug investigations, the SWAT teams studied were almost twice as likely to force entry into a person’s home than not, and they were more than twice as likely to use forced entry in drug investigations than in other cases. 
  • Of the cases we studied, in 36 percent of SWAT deployments for drug searches, and possibly in as many as 65 percent of such deployments, no contraband of any sort was found.
  • The SWAT teams studied were much more likely to force entry in drug search cases than in other scenarios. When SWAT was deployed to search a home for drugs, the squad forced entry in more than 60 percent of incidents
  • Use of SWAT teams receives almost no oversight at the state or local level and police departments resist transparency. 

It’s not just the left-leaning ACLU: In 2006, Brown’s first year as mayor, the BPD’s strategy of favoring no-knock warrants and PPU raids was called out by the conservative Cato Institute as Buffalo’s “stampede against privacy.” Zero tolerance policing in Buffalo has often been the bailiwick of the city’s Strike Force division, and Strike Force has played an integral role in PPU raids, according to City Hall press releases.