“Showtime Syndrome” in Evansville: Online Trash Talk about Cops Triggers SWAT Raid
[W]e are bound by our oaths and by our loyalty to the State and to society to meet force with force, and cunning with cunning… We have a government worth fighting for, and even worth dying for….
Chicago Police Captain Michael J. Shaack, in his overcooked “expose” Anarchy and Anarchists (1889)
“The community absolutely has to have law and order. If that’s removed, all kinds of chaos and violence will result,” insisted Evansville, Indiana Police Captain Andy Chandler in an interview with Pro Libertate.
For example: Absent the heroic intervention of the State’s oath-bound servants, an innocent senior citizens and her teenage granddaughter might be terrorized in their home by men armed with assault weapons and flash-bang grenades.
Actually, the armed marauders who attacked the Evansville home of Ira and Louise Milan on June 21 were oath-bound servants of the State. The assault was conducted by the local SWAT team, in the company of an impossibly sycophantic local television reporter named David Shepherd, who had been brought along to chronicle the daring raid.
The purpose of the operation was not to protect the “community” from criminal violence, but to arrest and punish an unidentified individual who had posted what were described as “specific threats” against the police in an online forum.
The assailants employed a “knock and announce” procedure in which the incantation “Police search warrant” was shouted three times before the front door was broken down with a siege engine and two flash-bang grenades were hurled into the home.
None of this was necessary, but it certainly looked bitchin’ on camera.
“The front door was open,” a shaken and most likely disgusted Ira Milan commented later to the Evansville Courier-Press. “It’s not like anyone was in there hiding. To bring a SWAT team seems a little excessive.”
Acting as the voice of the Evansville PD, television correspondent Shepherd explained that the armored assault team took “extra precautions because of the severity of the threats.”
It’s impossible to make an objective assessment of the nature and credibility of those threats, since Vanderburgh Superior Court Judge David Kiely sealed both the initial warrant and a second one issued after the SWAT team had wrecked the Milan family’s home. This was done in defiance of the Indiana State open records act, which requires that the results of a search warrant be made public.
Press accounts claim that “specific threats” were made against police officers and their families by an anonymous poster to the topix.com on-line forum. One of the posts declared: “Cops beware! I’m proud of my country but I hate police of any kind. I have explosives … Made in America. Evansville will feel my pain.” Another claimed that the home addresses of Evansville police officers had been leaked to the public.
“It said `EPD leak: Officers’ addresses given out,’ or something along those lines,” explained department spokesman Sgt. Jason Cullum. Although one post reportedly mentioned the Evansville Police Chief, no other officers were named, and no addresses were listed. Although Cullum asserted that a SWAT raid was necessary because “the threats were specific enough, and the potential for danger was there,” his casual description suggests that the investigation wasn’t particularly rigorous – especially in light of the fact that the assault on the Milan home took place roughly a day after the messages were posted.
The Milans were questioned, some computers and cell phones were seized, but no arrests were made. Shepherd concluded his report by intoning that the continuing investigation “hits close to home for many of these brave officers.”
Those “brave officers,” of course, had just conducted a military raid against a harmless elderly couple and their teenage granddaughter in reaction to nasty things said about the police by a blogger who had apparently piggybacked on the home’s Wi-Fi signal.
“This is the first SWAT entry we’ve done that involved in serving a warrant addressing a threat against a public security officer,” Captain Chandler – a well-spoken, candid, and personable 24-year veteran who until recently commanded the SWAT team – told Pro Libertate.
Asked if the department would react with the same zeal in addressing similar online “threats” against a private citizen, Chandler replied: “Absolutely we would use a SWAT team to deal with this kind of threat against anybody. We have taken action to deal with threats and harassment of this kind.”
“Our population is about 120,000, and the larger urban area is about a quarter of a million,” Chandler observes. “People would be astounded by the number of reports we get of intimidation and threats arising out of domestic violence situations or other conflicts.”
According to Chandler, the Evansville SWAT team does an average of five call-outs a month. At the risk of making what could be construed as a disastrous policy recommendation, I’m constrained to ask: If a SWAT call-out is justified for every “credible” threat of aggravated violence, shouldn’t the team be deployed every day in defense of the besieged citizens of Evansville?
By Chandler’s account, the investigation that led to SWAT operatives beating down the open door of an elderly couple’s home was a model of urgent efficiency prompted by an exigent threat to Evansville’s intrepid defenders.
“We got notified by informants on the street about postings on a website that threatened officers,” he recalls. (Those “street” informants were people who read the internet posts and called the department.) “We get a lot of criticism, some of it profane, which is just an exercise of free speech. But then the comments crossed the line by actually starting to call out the police chief, with the poster claiming that he had access to weapons that would penetrate our tactical vests – all officers on our force are required to wear the vests – and that he and his `boys’ were coming for officers and their families.”
“We obtained a number of subpoenas associated with that address,” Chandler continues. After conducting “surveillance and intelligence collection” on the suspect and the neighborhood, the department “found that there had been over a dozen shootings in the area since the beginning of the summer, some of them gang-related.”
All of this information was used to conduct an assessment using a “Threat Matrix.”
“We have a document – a checklist – that we review. We fill in the blanks, and every answer has a score associated with it. Is the suspect a known offender? Was it a violent offense? Did he resist arrest? Is there drug trafficking in the area? The scores are tallied up and the threat is placed in an appropriate range of responses.”
A “Threat Assessment Score” is then compiled, and the appropriate response is chosen from three options. The higher the “Matrix” score, the more militarized the response.
A total of 1-16 points means that the supposed threat is considered “SWAT optional”; 17-24 points means that the SWAT commander should be consulted; if the score is 25 points or higher, SWAT deployment is “mandatory.”
The standardized “Threat Matrix” form lists a number of individual criteria dictating “mandatory” SWAT deployment; for instance, if the subject is believed to possess an automatic, semi-auto, or bolt/lever action rifle, or explosives. In the fashion of a Scrabble game, the use of home “fortifications” – such as burglar bars – is awarded “double point value.” The same is true if the subject has a military or police background, or a record that includes “resisting arrest” or “assault on a police officer” (which are weighted more heavily than crimes of violence against Mundanes, such as homicide, armed robbery, and assault).
The purpose of the “Threat Matrix” is to assess the danger to officer safety – not the potential threat a subject poses to the public at large. As Chandler puts it, “Every SWAT raid involves an element of risk, and we chose the method that would ensure the safety of the officers serving that warrant.”
A less self-congratulatory assessment might be that the department chose a SWAT team as a way of “sending a message” – a conclusion amply justified by the involvement of an “embedded” reporter and camera crew. This wasn’t a case of a police department isolating and neutralizing an identifiable threat; it was another example of the notorious — and frequently lethal — “Showtime Syndrome” at work.
The role played by the “Threat Matrix” in justifying a military raid on an elderly couple’s home underscores the distant but unmistakable kinship between domestic paramilitary operations and “counter-terrorism” strikes conducted by the military and CIA overseas. The “Matrix” operates in a fashion similar to the formula used to justify “signature strikes” against suspected “militants” in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.
As human rights activist Marcy Wheeler points out, “signature strikes” are conducted against “patterns, rather than people”: Someone who is “associated” with a “suspected militant” through a cell phone conversation, or mere geographic proximity, can be considered an appropriate target for a drone-fired missile strike. According to the Obama administration, anyone who meets the undemanding “threat” criteria is considered a “militant” by default until he or she is posthumously exonerated.
In comparable fashion, the home of Ira, Louise, and Stephane Milan, was targeted for a military strike on the basis of a “threat assessment” that had nothing to do with them.
Asked to address this perceived similarity, Capt. Chandler observed that “The military has a built-in loss factor. Whenever they carry out a mission, lives will be lost, including those of innocent people. Law enforcement cannot do that; `collateral damage’ isn’t acceptable.”
Of course, “collateral damage” isn’t limited to fatalities – as the terrorized elderly couple and teenage girl victimized by the utterly unnecessary SWAT raid on June 21 can testify. Given the indecent eagerness of police departments to acquire military-grade drone technology, future “Threat Matrix” assessments could well result in drone strikes, rather than SWAT raids.
According to a local TV news account, the Evansville PD maintains that the invasion of the Milan home “was well worth it to keep everyone safe.” But even if we were to describe juvenile online comments as a “threat,” it’s nonsense on stilts to claim that “everyone” in Evansville was endangered by them.
According to Sgt. Jason Cullum, the police embody the “community,” and they can be paralyzed with fear by an anonymous, solitary internet Troll. “We’re not going to let these type [sic] of people take over and have us scared in our own homes,” he told the local Fox affiliate. From this perspective, the SWAT team’s home invasion was not a grotesque act of overkill reasonably described as an act of state terrorism, but a pre-emptive strike against forces that threatened the existence of law and order itself.
One element that played a tacit but unmistakable role in the decision to deploy the SWAT team was the recent enactment of Indiana Senate Bill 1, which recognized the innate right of citizens to use lethal force to repel “unlawful entry into their homes by law enforcement officers or persons pretending to be law enforcement officers.” That measure, which was signed into law just weeks ago, was denounced by police unions as a measure announcing “open season on law enforcement.”
It’s quite likely that the purpose of the June 21 attack on the Milan home was intended as a show of force – a demonstration that the police were willing to deploy overwhelming force to assert their continued dominance. This would certainly comport with the paramilitary mindset described by Gabe Suarez, who spent 12 years as a police officer in Santa Monica: “When I was on [the] SWAT [team] our view [was] that `We will always win….even if we have to burn down your entire house by bombing it….we will win’.”