Abetting Police Aggression: The 'COPS Effect'


They really didn’t have to wreck the house, but they did it anyway.

There was no tactical advantage to be gained by perforating the house with tear gas grenades (one of which remained, for a long time, embedded in an attic vent), blowing out five windows, leaving part of the ceiling collapsed and the whole house uninhabitable because of the suffocating residue left by the gas attack.

As the residents of the home on South Oak Cliff drive in Dallas insisted, the murder suspect sought by the SWAT team — 18-year-old Cristobal Jaimes — wasn’t there. As Cristobal’s father Francisco pointed out to the local ABC affiliate, the family cooperated fully with the SWAT team, consenting to a search of the home and staying out of the way.

For their part, the SWAT operators followed established procedures. This meant that, despite being clad in body armor, carrying high-performance weapons, and dramatically outnumbering their quarry, the officers proceeded at a glacial pace. For more than a half hour, they ran remote cameras into several rooms of the house and otherwise took care to avoid a direct confrontation with an individual they believed to be armed and potentially dangerous.

It was only after they had established, to something approximating a moral certainty, that Cristobal wasn’t in the home, that the SWAT team began the tear gas fusillade. When that failed to flush out the suspect, the officers gathered their gear and drove away, leaving the Jaimes family with a devastated and uninhabitable home and without a word of apology.

As far as the Dallas PD was concerned, the department had no moral or ethical responsibility to repair the damage done to an innocent family’s home. That is — cue voice of chastened reverence — Official Policy. Accordingly, the SWAT team, after trashing the Jaimes’ home, simply gave the family the equivalent of a High School bully’s distracted shrug and left in search of the nearest donut emporium.

Between January 1, 2007 and late June of this year, when the raid took place on the Jaimes’ residence, “ten other property owners filed similar claims against the city for SWAT damage,” reported WFAA-TV. “But Dallas has never paid a dime for the kicked in doors and other property damage. It likely won’t go back and pay it now, either.”

However, in a minuscule concession to public outrage provoked by media coverage of the Jaimes raid, “SWAT officers will at least let victims like the Jaimes know where to turn for help to decontaminate after [a] tear gas [assault]. It’s a small gesture no other department in the state has done. In fact, DPD said it only found two other departments in the nation with similar programs” — one in Detroit, the other in Las Vegas.

So if your house is needlessly trashed in a SWAT raid, it’s all but certain that the people responsible for leaving your abode a smoking, choking ruin won’t even condescend to tell you the name of a local company that can clean up the mess.

The Dallas Police, seeking to contain the PR damage, referred the Jaimes to a local non-profit called Victim Relief, which offered to clean up the house at its expense. The group’s founder, an apparently decent man named Gene Grounds, tried to depict the Police Department’s actions in the best possible light: “We understand that [the police] have a job and their job ends when they complete their assignment,” he observed.

The “assignment” here, recall, was to arrest 18-year-old murder suspect Cristobal Jaimes. One would expect this to be a matter of some urgency, given that a SWAT team was dispatched to take him into custody.

But oddly enough, within a few days of the assault on the Jaimes residence, the police blew an opportunity to arrest Jaimes without violence: When the young man called 911 in an attempt to turn himself in, he was told by the operator that he would have to arrange for his own transportation. “[T]ake a car, bus whatever … but [the police] won’t come and pick you up,” the operator told a no doubt puzzled and frustrated murder suspect, who reacted by calling 911 again, getting a second operator, and eventually arranging for his own arrest.*

So … arresting this murder suspect wasn’t a sufficiently high priority to warrant the dispatch of a regular black-and-white, but at the same time it was urgent enough to justify a paramilitary assault on the home of his innocent family?

Behind that contradiction lurks another important question: What effort, if any, was made to find and arrest Cristobal through conventional police methods? I suspect the answers would run the spectrum from “very little” to “none at all.”

For decades prior to the introduction of the militarized police units called SWAT teams forty years ago, street officers and detectives routinely tracked down and arrested dangerous murder suspects, and I’m sure that this is still done today, at least in some jurisdictions. But now that practically every community is occupied by a federally subsidized SWAT outfit, it has become common to use those teams for routine missions — not just arresting potentially violent suspects, but serving warrants and other non-crisis situations.

In the case of the Dallas SWAT team, the apparently irresistible temptation for the promiscuous use of SWAT teams is exacerbated by the distorting influence of “reality” television. The Dallas SWAT team, after all, isn’t just a law enforcement agency. Its members are also television stars in search of the proper setting in which to display themselves.

In physics, the phrase “Observer Effect” refers to the way in which the act of observing something changes the behavior of the object under observation. A similar phenomenon can be found in the entertainment genre called “reality” television. No intelligent person can believe that human interactions caught on a less-than-candid camera are spontaneous and unaffected.

The worst and most troubling version of “reality” television programs are those chronicling the experiences of law enforcement agencies — the decades-old Fox program “COPS” and its imitators, one of which is Dallas SWAT (which has engendered its own regional spin-offs, as well).

Police work is carried out by armed people invested with the power to commit discretionary lethal violence; it’s a monumentally bad idea to appeal to the vanity of such people and to encourage them to act in ways calculated to enhance their image.

“Reality” programs involving police tend to emphasize photogeneity over professionalism, not only in terms of the personnel chosen to represent a given department but also in terms of the decisions made in a given situation. Chases and confrontations make for dramatic television; patient de-escalation does not.

Perhaps this is why Dallas SWAT — which lost one of its cast members when he was found consorting with a groupie who turned out to be a prostitute — seems to favor high-publicity operations of exceptionally dubious merit, such as raiding underground poker games.

Yes, these armored paladins of public order are bold as Achilles when storming a card game — but timid as church mice when surrounding the home of a teenager believed to be armed and dangerous. That contrast, I think, throws into sharp relief the priorities of a law enforcement body that is also — or perhaps primarily — a propaganda instrument.

A legitimate documentary featuring the work of genuine peace officers would yield little of the adrenalized melodrama peddled by Fox and its imitators. Showing the routine arrest Cristobal Jaimes on the streets, or his booking after the young man turned himself in, wouldn’t play on the Idiot Box. Showing him being dragged out of a house by an amped-up SWAT team, on the other hand, is Good Television.

What we might call the “COPS Effect” is intimately related to the mindset I call the “Showtime Syndrome, which manifests itself whenever a police officer threatens, or indulges in, unnecessary violence. But this lethal mimicry isn’t limited to law enforcement.

Private sector thugs watch the same “reality” programs, after all, and it’s becoming increasingly common for criminals to stage home invasion robberies while disguised as SWAT operators or other police personnel carrying out armed raids.

In fact, Dallas police just recently broke up an urban gang that specialized in home invasion robberies of that kind. For more than two years, that gang rampaged across several counties, stealing enough to branch out into the nightclub business and real estate ventures (including mortgage fraud — of the unofficial variety, that is).

The crooks often posed as SWAT operators; on a few occasions, following the Bush Regime’s lead, they used “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding to break down the resistance of victims trying to conceal the location of cash and other valuables.

Home invasions of that variety work best when they’re carried out without resort to gunplay, which can attract the attention of neighbors and passersby. This leads me to wonder if some of those robberies could be thwarted if people weren’t indoctrinated to see armed assaults as an increasingly routine form of police work. Again, we see evidence of the distorting influence of the “COPS Effect” at work.

Commentator Charles Featherstone describes COPS and its offspring as “the perfect morality tale for the evolving American police state…. It’s 30 minutes — minus commercials — of moral superiority and vicarious entertainment at the expense of people who won’t amount to much anyway.”

That “morality play” is lethal, as it cultivates within the viewer a sense of identification with armed agents of State power and a sense of distance from the unsavory criminal suspects on the receiving end of State-sanctioned violence.

“The watcher of COPS gets to marvel at the stupidity of everyone detained, the pettiness of their crimes, and more importantly — the fact that we are watching, which means we aren’t being apprehended ourselves,” continues Featherstone. “In fact, we’re quite convinced we’re not the kind of people who would ever wind up on the wrong side of a loaded police officer, and can laugh and shake our heads at the pathetic folks who are.”

Of course, police work is hardly the incessantly dangerous occupation depicted on television. And thanks in some considerable measure to the attitudes cultivated by Police State Television, the odds are improving that each of us, no matter how hard we try to avoid it, will find ourselves on the “wrong side of a loaded police officer” at some time in our lives.

*A few years ago, a 911 dispatcher in Watuga — a suburb of Ft. Worth — reacted to an anguished mother’s call describing a destructive tantrum by a 12-year-old child by sneering: “OK — do you want us to come over and shoot her?” I don’t think the intent here was to underscore to the mother that all police interactions involve the implicit threat of lethal violence.