The unintended consequences of militarized police in Massachusetts homes
At 5 a.m. on a hot August night in 2015, a van carrying the Worcester SWAT team pulled up outside a triple-decker on Hillside Street. The officers were wearing body armor, ballistic helmets and camouflage clothing. They came bearing shotguns, handguns and at least one .45-caliber sub-machine gun.
Their target was Shane Jackson, an individual with a violent past, wanted for illegal possession of a firearm. An informant had told State Police Jackson was residing on the third-floor apartment. That, apparently, was enough for police to secure a warrant from a magistrate allowing the SWAT team to conduct a “dynamic entry” of the apartment, at night, without knocking.
But Jackson no longer lived there. In fact, according to Brad Petrishen — a Telegram & Gazette reporter who has covered the case extensively — courthouse records show Jackson had been arrested on a theft warrant two weeks before the raid. A simple check at the Registry of Motor Vehicles would have revealed the apartment was by then occupied by Marianne Diaz, her fiancée Bryant Alequin and their two young children. (A family friend, Joshua Matos, was also living in the apartment at the time).
As Alequin was in the bathroom getting ready for work, he heard officers push through the apartment door. Detective John Morrissey then kicked in the bathroom door with such force it flew off the hinges, forcing Alequin to duck to avoid getting hit. A wall mirror crashed to the floor in the ensuing chaos.
With Alequin handcuffed, Matos–who was sleeping on the couch when the doors caved in–awoke to find Officer Terence Gaffney’s handgun in his face. Matos claims police then handled him roughly, refracturing a bone in his hand that had been previously injured.
It was left to Detective Ron Remillard, carrying his department-issued shotgun, to enter the bedroom. There he found a nude Diaz sitting upright in bed, her children with her.
According to multiple press reports, as Ms. Diaz tried to comfort her terrified children, she was not allowed to clothe herself for at least 10 minutes while police searched the room. Her older daughter, 7 at the time, was “freaking out,” Diaz told the press in the days after the raid. “She was just shaking, and she couldn’t stop.”
An analysis of police agency records by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism revealed SWAT raids to serve search warrants in Massachusetts frequently involve children. While sometimes, as in the Hillside case, children are an unexpected element officers encounter, SWAT raids in the state are also routinely planned and carried out even when police know in advance the suspect’s children will be present and possibly placed in harm’s way. This concerns psychologists, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, and even some in law enforcement, who worry SWAT teams may overlook the potential harm done to children by paramilitary, pre-dawn raids on family homes.
What’s more, the absence of statewide standards on when and how a SWAT team should operate creates a patchwork situation where children in one part of the Commonwealth appear to be better protected than those in another.
Citing an ongoing lawsuit involving the Hillside Raid, Worcester Police declined to comment for this story.
The SWAT concept dates back to the 1960s, when urban riots and a mass shooting at the University of Texas demonstrated that law enforcement needed to prepare to respond to emergency situations involving hostages, terrorists or crazed gunmen. The following decade saw the development of the first tactical teams in New England. By the 1980s, the war on drugs led the federal government to start channeling more resources to local and state law enforcement agencies, leading to a major expansion of SWAT raids and a drift away from the original purpose of SWAT. For example, the Massachusetts State Police Special Tactics and Operations team was rarely activated during the 1970s, and then only for extreme incidents like airplane hijackings. The number of operations has since increased from around 17 per year in the mid-1970s to 180-200 times per year today.
A 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, based on nearly 4,000 public records obtained from police departments across the country, found about 80 percent of all SWAT deployments were for the purposes of executing a search warrant — usually for drugs. In Worcester, police records show more than half of all deployments by the Worcester SWAT team between 2015-2017 were warrant-related.
What is almost never mentioned in the public debate about SWAT operations and police militarization is the impact all these raids have on children. Betty Taylor, a former tactical officer from Missouri who has since become an advocate for more sensible drug laws, told an NPR interviewer in 2016 she knew of a girl and her brother who had experienced years of nightmares after a SWAT team burst into their home. Taylor has since become an advocate for more sensible drug laws, calling children the “voiceless victims” of militarized policing.
Those tiny victims are, apparently, quite numerous. Of the 818 SWAT deployments studied by the ACLU, the organization found that at least 14 percent involved the presence of children. Police records reviewed by the BINJ suggest, when some Bay State tactical teams burst through the doors of a home to serve a search warrant, they have a 25-50-percent chance of finding children. In 2014, Brockton’s Special Reaction Team deployed 25 times, entering homes where children were present on at least seven separate occasions. In 2015, Berkshire County Special Response Team encountered children on six of their nine operations.
10 minutes of terror
When SWAT shows up to serve a search warrant, they usually manage to complete their work in a short amount of time. After-action reports on SWAT raids in the state show teams typically take 10-15 minutes to enter and secure the target residence before then turning over the site to narcotics detectives, or — as in the Hillside case — a combination of local and state police investigators.
As the Hillside Street operation shows, SWAT deployments for drug warrants routinely involve battering rams, splintered door frames and bellowing, heavily armed men barging into a suspect’s home. Not to mention the use of “flash bangs” or “diversionary devices,” a law enforcement term of art for concussion grenades.
The typical SWAT raid on a family home “sounds like it could be quite traumatic to young children, particularly if they have no expectation of it,” according to Dr. Frederick Stoddard, a board-certified child psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School. He is the editor of the forthcoming book, “Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders.” “Traumatic exposure that children would suffer in this context would include fear that they might be killed or fear for the lives of their parents or loved ones.”
SWAT team members made their way into a house in Wareham as part of 2015 raid.
When asked to consider how his officers’ early-morning raids might affect children, Lt. Dan Fleming, the operational commander of the tactical team in Lawrence, said: “I can only imagine. It must be horrific for them.” But he was quick to add that, even though a SWAT raid can be scary for youngsters, scarier still are the family dynamics that lead to his team being there in the first place. This sentiment was echoed by Bridgewater Police Chief Christopher Delmonte, president of the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council — a mutual aid consortium whose SWAT team deploys an average of six to eight times per year.
“When you encounter children during a SWAT operation, they’ve probably endured much more through the course of their lifetime,” Delmonte said, “and it may in some cases mark a road to some kind of recovery or maybe even Department of Children and Family supervision for them.”
Despite the potential for a positive outcome for the youth involved, at every stage of a SWAT deployment — from planning to performance — it is important, Stoddard stressed, that police tactical teams minimize the psychological harm they might inflict on youngsters.
The end and the means
In the days and weeks leading up to an operation to serve a search warrant, police gather “pre-raid intelligence” on the target location — usually a home or apartment. This intelligence-gathering might consist of physical surveillance — “drive bys” carried out by plainclothes officers, who scrutinize such details as where the entryways of a residence are located. Toys in the yard or on the front porch would suggest the presence of children in the home. Police might also check in with other city agencies, such as DCF.
The information is then given to SWAT officers in a pre-raid briefing given by the team’s commander.
According to Thor Eels, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, intelligence-gathering is “a critical aspect of assessing the risks of activating a SWAT team.” Founded in 1983, the NTOA is the primary trade group for SWAT officers; its activities include holding conferences, publishing a quarterly journal, and sending instructors across the country to train local teams.
Eels, who assumed his role in 2017 after more than 30 years of service with the Colorado Springs Police Department, said police can never rule out using SWAT to raid a home where children are known to be present. However, through training seminars and other forms of outreach, his organization teaches tactical officers to weigh the pros and cons of executing a search warrant.
“Responding to a terrorist incident is one thing,” Eels said, referring to when it is appropriate for a SWAT team to put children at risk. “But if it’s a drug warrant we’d say to the personnel we teach that they should execute that search warrant some other time, some other place. It’s a case where the end may not justify the means.”
Records from Massachusetts police agencies, however, show that, despite the inherently dangerous and chaotic nature of SWAT raids, few teams allow pre-raid intelligence about finding children in the home to alter their strategy. Details of several hair-raising incidents in the state, hint at the emotional and psychological toll tactical operations may have on children.
- In June 2013, a “no-knock” drug raid was carried out by the Berkshire County Special Response Team (SRT), a regional unit composed of officers from Pittsfield, Lee and surrounding towns in far-Western Massachusetts. Pre-raid intelligence revealed officers could expect to find “several teenagers” and “at least one young child” at the location — a duplex on Pittsfield’s West Side, where both apartments were considered targets. Despite knowing children would be present, at 6 a.m. the team decided to move in. At the first apartment, an officer forced entry using a heavy portable ram, finding he had just barged in on the suspect’s sleeping family. An officer would later write in his after-action review of the incident: “Just inside the door was a bed,” where the suspect and his two young children had been sleeping only moments before. Two more children would be found in another room, and still another in the adjoining unit. One suspect was “not handcuffed and allowed to care for the children” who were presumably upset by the commotion.
- On the other side of the state, in August 2015, officers from the Lawrence Police Department’s Emergency Response Team (ERT) split into two groups to conduct another “no-knock” raid for distribution of heroin and illegal firearm possession. According to an affidavit written by a Lawrence detective in support of the search warrant, the Water Street apartment was home to two women and two young children. Utilizing a portable ram, the ERT broke down one of the apartment’s doors and detonated a flash bang explosive after entering another. “Both teams cleared the apartment,” the after-action review notes, finding the two small children “alone in the front bedroom.” The adult suspect, who had fled the scene before the team’s arrival, was captured soon thereafter.
- Sometimes the law enforcement imperative to gather evidence for their case against a suspect overrides the duty to minimize potential harm to children. Case in point: a June 2015 “no-knock” raid in North Adams by Berkshire County SRT. Police were sure the suspects, wanted for distribution of heroin, would also have a firearm. In a pre-raid briefing, officers were told to expect to find children, including an infant, in the home. While the SRT was en route to the target residence, however, team members were notified the suspects in the case were not at home. In fact, they had just been pulled over and were by that time in State Police custody. Instead of cancelling the raid, however, the tactical team, a recipient of more than $400,000 in homeland security grants since 2012, continued to the suspect’s home. In an email, Chief Michael Wynn of the Pittsfield Police Department, BCSRT’s sponsoring agency, explained: “Despite the fact that the suspect had been arrested, the firearm had not been accounted for.” So, the operation continued, with officers using a heavy metal ram to break through the front door and “clearing” the home with weapons drawn. Eventually, they encountered a “tall female” who was ordered to the ground. When the responding officers learned that she was, in fact, 16 years old, the girl was allowed to get up from the floor and care for the other children who were present: an 8-year-old boy and an infant.
A patch-work situation
Analysis of hundreds of pages of reports from Bay State police departments revealed only a few SWAT teams moderate their tactics to minimize harm to children. This creates a patchwork situation where kids in one part of the Commonwealth appear to be better protected than those in another community.
A review of after-action reports filed by the Central Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council SWAT team revealed their officers routinely use what they call “scaled-down” operations if they anticipate encountering children. For example, before a May 2013 search warrant operation in Boxborough, the team, which operates mostly in Worcester County, knew children might be present in the target residence. Therefore, officers decided to reduce risk of injury to children by deploying their flash bangs outside, rather than inside the home.
But even when such tactical shifts are employed, SWAT raids may still place children at risk of harm.
In May 2016, days before executing a “no-knock” search warrant at a ranch-style home in East Wareham, members of the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council SWAT team were still trying to determine whether they would encounter any children. It was supposed to be a routine drug bust; according to a police informant, the suspects in the case were in possession of heroin, crack cocaine, and a firearm. But once officers learned two young children — an 8-year-old girl and another child in the 5- to 6-year-old range — might also be home at the time, they ruled out the use of flash bangs as a safety precaution. However, documentation of the raid shows SEMLEC SWAT still employed what many would consider overwhelming force, sending more than two dozen officers to the scene armed with assault rifles, breaching tools and a tactical robot system. In the predawn hours, officers stationed in turrets atop SEMLEC SWAT’s two armored vehicles trained rifles at the home as a pair of “entry teams” broke down doors. An after-action report notes a total of four doors in the home were damaged during the operation, including one leading to a bedroom that was knocked off its hinges. While neither drugs nor a gun — the reasons for executing such a violent entry in the first place — were recovered by police, officers did find at least one young child. A series of photographs released by SEMLEC under the public records law show the extent of damage to the home, as well as an image of the team après-raid, milling about in full tactical gear on the front lawn while a toddler, looking bewildered and swaddled in a pink princess blanket, is carried by a camo-clad paramedic.
Although Worcester police did not comment for this story regarding department policies and procedures, evidence suggests its SWAT team may adopt less violent techniques when officers expect to encounter children. For example, in June 2016 a multi-agency investigation into drug trafficking culminated in a SWT raid at an Ingleside Ave. apartment. Police avoided using the “no-knock” method of executing their search warrant, instead first knocking and announcing their presence before prying open the door. This shift in tactics may have been because officers anticipated finding children in the apartment. Upon entry, SWAT officers took positions behind heavy ballistic shields, and with guns aimed at the rear of the residence, called on the occupants to surrender. After the target of the warrant came forward, a woman and two young children also appeared and were “detained without incident,” according to the WPD’s after-action review of the incident.
In a recent interview, Hector Pineiro, a Worcester attorney representing the Diaz family, noted one of the more alarming things he had learned after the Hillside operation.
“Nowhere in the Worcester SWAT operations manual were there any instructions on how to handle children,” he said.
An analysis of nearly two-dozen written SWAT policy manuals used by police in Massachusetts reveal few guidelines on how to treat children encountered on a SWAT raid. Nor are there many written instructions on whether or not to carry out a raid once it is known children will be present at a suspect’s home.
Despite the apparent absence of written protocols, SWAT officers in some communities appear to receive guidance on how to keep children calm.
In an email, Wynn said if his Berkshire County SRT officers encounter children during an operation they are to speak to them in a soothing tone of voice.
“Once the target residence is secure,” he added, “children are relocated to one room, under the supervision of one officer. That officer is then instructed to remove their protective equipment as soon as possible and to continue to talk to the children, until the children can be turned over to a responsible adult or agency.”
In Lawrence, Fleming said his team follows a similar procedure: once kids are cordoned off to one area of house, a SWAT officer will remove their headgear and try to talk with and distract the children.
“We’re a seasoned team and we all have children ourselves,” Fleming said. “So, we try and minimize the psychological harm to kids.”
According to Stoddard, the child psychiatrist at Harvard, such protocols as the ones practiced by SWAT teams in Lawrence and Berkshire County can be an important means of mitigating the potential harm of a police raid.
“It’s better than if they didn’t do it, that’s for sure,” he said.
Yet, even when such safeguards are in place, the unexpected penetration of heavily-armed officers into the private domain of the home can leave lasting trauma.
After they realized their mistake in the Hillside raid, Worcester SWAT officers sat down with Marianne Diaz’s oldest child and tried to help calm her jangled nerves. Incident reports released by the department show more than one officer had conversations with the 7-year-old around such topics as whether she’d been to the city pool that summer. The SWAT team and the young girl had apparently developed such a rapport that, by the time they had gathered their gear and were getting ready to leave, one officer wrote, “I extended my open hand … and she slapped me five.” But, according to a federal lawsuit against city and state police officials filed by Diaz and her family, the children’s experience that morning would have a lasting and negative impact.
The emotional and mental distress suffered by the couple’s two girls — the youngest was 18-months-old at the time of the raid — figure prominently in their complaint.
“As a result of the raid,” the older daughter “refuses to sleep alone and has treatment for anxiety and fear that, in her words, ‘army men’ will again invade her home.”
The complaint also notes the SWAT operation led the younger daughter to suffer from night terrors and sleep disruption. Given the inherently-risky nature of SWAT raids, some in the law enforcement community believe children should be better protected from such trauma.
According to Tom Nolan, a former SWAT officer and 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who now teaches criminology at Merrimack College,
“If I were the SWAT commander I would be extremely reluctant to put my team through the door when I have reason to believe that there are innocent people, particularly children, on the other side.”
This is echoed by the 2014 ACLU report, which advised police departments to “avoid subjecting children to SWAT deployments whenever possible.”
Do no harm
As the national organization for SWAT officers, the NTOA sets standards for training and preparation of tactical teams. But few law enforcement leaders interviewed for this story want to see standards apply to the question of when and how teams should operate. Even when children may be at risk, they emphasize every situation is different, thus no tactic can be ruled out beforehand.
“We don’t divulge tactics as to specifically why we would or would not do something,” said SEMLEC’s Delmonte when asked about whether his team would ever try to find a safer means of serving a warrant if it knew beforehand that kids would be at risk. “It’s a tactical decision and so would depend on the circumstances of each case.”
Eels, the NTOA executive director, agrees.
“There is no way for us to pen a policy that covers all of the potential idiosyncrasies or nuances of a particular situation,” he said.
Still, the leader of the country’s largest association of tactical officers stresses that a SWAT team’s responsibility should at all times be to shield children and other vulnerable parties from harm.
“All we can do as an organization,” he added, “is teach a method that won’t be putting innocent lives in danger. We should not make a situation more dangerous for those we’re there to protect.”