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John Oliver argues for an end to drug raids

John Oliver on this week's episode of "Last Week Tonight."
John Oliver on this week's episode of "Last Week Tonight."HBO

John Oliver tackled the topic of police raids on his show “Last Week Tonight” on Sunday — arguing that drug raids should be permanently stopped, and the general practice only used as a last resort to “save lives that are in immediate danger.”

Throughout the segment, Oliver outlined how few guardrails are in place for when and how law enforcement is able to execute a raid, along with the mistakes often made that sometimes result in fatal consequences, as with the case of Breonna Taylor.

“As we’ve discussed on this show before, the past and present of policing in America is very much tied up with racism,” Oliver said.

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Taylor, an emergency medical worker, was killed during a drug raid gone wrong in March 2020. She was shot multiple times by officers who entered her home on a no-knock warrant. A Kentucky grand jury in September declined to bring charges against Louisville police for the fatal shooting.

“If it is somehow nobody’s fault that an innocent woman was killed in the middle of the night in her own home, there might be an issue with police raids,” Oliver said.

Oliver said while data available on raids is “pretty scarce,” estimates point to tens of thousands occurring per year. And nearly anyone in law enforcement can carry out a raid, he said, from federal agents to patrol officers.

The tactics were initially intended for “life or death scenarios like active shooters or hostage situations,” Oliver explained, but over time, the purpose for raids being executed has widened greatly.

“One analysis found that only 7 percent of SWAT deployments met that criteria, while more than 60 percent of the cases involved searches for drugs,” Oliver said. “And that shift was the result of intentional policy choices.”

The “war on drugs,” a tough-on-crime policy agenda set in motion by President Richard Nixon in 1971, “supercharged” the use of police raids, Oliver said, adding that such raids can “have dire consequences,” with one investigation from the New York Times finding that from the period of 2010 to 2016, “at least 81 civilians were killed in them.”

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“And these tactics are rarely proportional to the alleged crimes being targeted,” Oliver said, proceeding to play one news clip highlighting the story of a family who said their children were “held at gunpoint” after more than a dozen SWAT officers burst into the family’s home because a “detective smelled marijuana.”

Oliver also pointed to news stories about the racial disparities found in places like Louisville, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, where one investigation completed by CBS 2 in Chicago that examined several years worth of search warrants found that the neighborhoods hit the most were all “nearly 90 percent or more Black and Latino.” Meanwhile, only a small percentage of the raids happened in white neighborhoods.

Oliver also noted how police departments have become increasingly militarized and said “there are questions over whether or not police officers really need access to that kind of equipment.” To demonstrate the danger of fostering a militarized police culture, he played numerous clips of members of law enforcement expressing joy that they were able to use such equipment during raids.

He also played a news clip that described how officers carrying out a drug raid threw a flash grenade into a toddler’s crib. The police did not find any drugs, and the child was not injured.

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Police often do not find what they are looking for during raids, Oliver said, yet “troublingly, police don’t have to work very hard to get a warrant to blow someone’s door open.”

“Judges have to sign off on warrants. And ideally, they would function as a check here, but in practice, they often don’t spend much time scrutinizing police justification,” Oliver said.

One investigation of more than 10,000 electronically submitted warrants from the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah found that judges approved warrants in less than three minutes “half the time,” and that hundreds were “signed off in less than 30 seconds.”

“And the bar for getting a judge to sign off on a search warrant is pretty low,” Oliver said. “All you need is probable cause or a reasonable belief that evidence of a crime will be found in the place you want to search.”

That belief, Oliver said, “can come from anywhere” — whether it’s the “smell of marijuana” or a “confidential informant who might be trading tips for money or leniency.” Such tips, he said, are also often bogus.

And once police have a search warrant, there “really aren’t a lot of limits on what they can do,” Oliver said. “Just about every search warrant gives officers permission to break down a door to conduct a search,” he said, adding that the distinction between a “knock” and “no-knock” warrant is “very thin.”

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Oliver outlined a series of court rulings demonstrating the ease through which law enforcement is able to execute raids.

“There is often no meaningful consequences to busting right through your door,” he said, adding that there is “just case after case of the police messing up the execution of a raid that range from the horrific to the almost cartoonishly idiotic.”

Oliver added: “Officers are rarely criminally charged and even more rarely convicted. Botched raids usually aren’t even investigated unless someone is killed, the media gets involved, or there’s a lawsuit — and even when they happen, police officers are protected from civil liability by the doctrine of qualified immunity.”

Departments also are not responsible for paying to “repair a broken front door or compensating residents for any other losses or damages, even when they raid the wrong residence,” Oliver said.

Lives are “getting destroyed through police raids,” Oliver said.

“Even if nobody gets physically hurt, that does not mean that no damage is done,” he said. “Having your home violated is a traumatizing experience often exacerbated by how targets of raids are treated.”

Oliver said when it comes to police raids, small changes alone are “not nearly enough” to alleviate the issues he described. Even reforms that can appear “sweeping” can be “pretty limited,” he said.

“I’d argue that there’s a big solution here that’s actually staring us right in the face, and that is: Stop doing drug raids. Just stop it,” Oliver said. “Raids, in general, should only be used as a last resort to save lives that are in immediate danger because busting into someone’s home is never going to be safe for anyone involved.”

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He continued: “Right now, raids are being used far too widely, and are destroying lives both for the individuals who are killed, injured, or traumatized, and all the Black and brown people who have no choice but to internalize the lessons of that trauma. They deserve the respect and consideration of a police force that’s supposed to protect them.”

Watch the full segment:



Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shannonlarson98.