Drug addiction and drug trafficking are undoubtedly among society's most intractable and debilitating problems. They have resisted all efforts by law enforcement. Drug use seems to increase no matter what is done. In frustration, the Los Angeles Police Department has now unveiled a new weapon in the fight. The police call it a motorized battering ram, but everyone else calls it a tank. As demonstrated last week, it can knock down the wall of a house, catch the occupants by surprise and prevent them from destroying evidence. But at what cost to the rights of individuals?
One night last week, with great fanfare, the police employed their motorized battering ram to break into a house in Pacoima that they suspected was a well-fortified center of drug dealing. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates was so proud of the event that he personally christened the new tank and then rode inside it, while cameras rolled, as it did its dirty work. Afterward he boasted that the battering ram went through the wall "like butter," and the police swat team was inside the house in six seconds.
As things turned out, there was no evidence that the place was a major "rock house." The occupants included two women and three children, some of whom were eating ice cream when the police showed up. Despite their claims of having bought drugs earlier in the house, the police appear to have picked the wrong place to try out their new toy. A simple knock on the door would have gained them entry.
On Tuesday sheriff's deputies used tow trucks to rip the front doors from three suspected rock houses on Imperial Highway, and in an ensuing shootout one of the people inside one of the houses was killed. The incident underscores the real danger that rock houses present. It also demonstrates that the police have other ways to get inside these places.
The police have a job to do, and many people believe that they should be given all the tools to do it. But as usual the rights of individuals must be balanced against the rights of the group. Gates says that the tank is nothing more than an extension of the manual battering rams that have long been a standard part of the police arsenal. We think that it is a military weapon having little place in an urban environment, and we think that the police exercised insufficient care and attention in putting it to use last week. Those who argue that innocent people have nothing to fear should look again at what happened in Pacoima.
The Police Commission has now taken the tank under advisement, and is considering whether to issue guidelines for its use. This is the least that it should do, and the guidelines should be strict. Gates' tank should be used only in the most unusual and carefully considered circumstances.