A raid seen from the other end of the gun

Iraq vet Alex Hor­ton saw him­self in the cops who stormed his home

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @AlexHor­tonTX Alex Hor­ton is a mem­ber of the De­fense Coun­cil at the Tru­man Na­tional Se­cu­rity Pro­ject. He served as an in­fantry­man in Iraq with the Army’s 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd In­fantry Di­vi­sion.

Igot home from the bar and fell into bed soon af­ter Satur­day night bled into Sun­day morn­ing. I didn’t wake up un­til three po­lice of­fi­cers barged in­tomy apart­ment, bark­ing their pres­ence at my door. They sped down the hall­way to my bed­room, their ser­vice pis­tols drawn and lev­eled at me.

It was just past 9 a.m., and I was still un­der the cov­ers. The only vis­i­ble tar­get was my head.

In the shout­ing and com­mo­tion, I felt an in­stant fa­mil­iar­ity. I’d been here be­fore. This was a raid.

I had done this a few dozen times my­self, 6,000 miles away from my Alexandria, Va., apart­ment. As an Army in­fantry­man in Iraq, I’d al­ways been on the trig­ger side of the weapon. Now that I was on the bar­rel side, I re­called ba­sic train­ing’s most im­por­tant firearm rule: Aim only at some­thing you in­tend to kill.

I had con­ducted the same kind of raid on sus­pected bomb­mak­ers and high-value in­sur­gents. But the Fair­fax County of­fi­cers in my apart­ment were aim­ing their weapons at a tar­get whose rap sheet con­sisted only of park­ing tick­ets and an over­due li­brary book.

My sit­u­a­tion was ter­ri­fy­ing. Ly­ing face­down in bed, I knew that any move I made could be viewed as a threat. In­stinct told me to get up and pro­tect my­self. Train­ing told me that if I did, these of­fi­cers would shoot me dead.

In a panic, I asked the of­fi­cers what was go­ing on but got no im­me­di­ate an­swer. Their tac­tics were sim­i­lar to the ones I used to clear rooms dur­ing the height of guerilla war­fare in Iraq. I could al­most ad­mire it — their fluid sweep from the bed­room door­way to the dis­tant cor­ner. They stayed clear of one another’s lines of fire in case they needed to empty their Sig Sauer .40-cal­iber pis­tols into me.

They were well-trained, their su­per­vi­sor later told me. But I knew that means lit­tle when adren­a­line gov­erns an im­mi­nent-dan­ger

sce­nario, real or imag­ined. Trig­gers are pulled. Mis­takes are made.

Ispread my arms out to ei­ther side. An of­fi­cer jumped onto my bed and locked hand­cuffs onto my wrists. The of­fi­cers rolled me from side to side, search­ing my box­ers for weapons, then yanked me up to sit on the edge of the bed.

At first, I was stunned. I searched my mem­ory for any in­ci­dent that would jus­tify a po­lice raid. Then it clicked.

Ear­lier in the week, the man­agers of my apart­ment com­plex moved me to a model unit while a crew re­paired a leak inmy dish­washer. But they hadn’t in­formed my tem­po­rary neigh­bors. So when one res­i­dent no­ticed the door slightly cracked open to what he pre­sumed was an un­oc­cu­pied apart­ment, he looked in, saw me sleep­ing and called the po­lice to re­port a squat­ter.

Sit­ting on the edge of the bed dressed only in un­der­wear, I laughed. The sit­u­a­tion was lu­di­crous and em­bar­rass­ing. My only mis­take had been fail­ing to make sure the apart­ment door was com­pletely closed be­fore I threw my­self into bed the night be­fore.

I told the of­fi­cers to check my driver’s li­cense, nod­ding to­ward my khaki pants on the floor. It showed my ad­dress at a unit in the same com­plex. As the fog of their chaotic en­try lifted, the of­fi­cers re­al­ized it had been an un­for­tu­nate er­ror. They walked me into the liv­ing room and re­moved the cuffs, though two con­tin­ued to stand over me as the third con­tacted man­age­ment to con­firm my story. Once they were sat­is­fied, they left.

When I later vis­ited the Fair­fax County po­lice sta­tion to gather de­tails about what went wrong, I met the shift com­man­der, Lt. Erik Rhoads. I asked why his of­fi­cers hadn’t con­tacted man­age­ment be­fore they raided the apart­ment. Why did they clas­sify the in­ci­dent as a forced en­try, when the in­for­ma­tion they had sug­gested some­thing in­nocu­ous? Whynot eval­u­ate the sit­u­a­tion be­fore es­ca­lat­ing it?

Rhoads de­fended the pro­ce­dure, call­ing the of­fi­cers’ ac­tions “on point.” It’s not stan­dard to con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions be­fore­hand be­cause that de­lays the ap­pre­hen­sion of sus­pects, he told me.

I noted that the of­fi­cers could have sought in­for­ma­tion from the apart­ment com­plex’s se­cu­rity guard that would have re­solved the mat­ter with­out vi­o­lence. But he played down the im­por­tance of such in­for­ma­tion: “It doesn’t mat­ter what­so­ever what was said or not said at the se­cu­rity booth.”

This is where Rhoads is wrong. We’ve seen this trou­bling ap­proach to law en­force­ment na­tion­wide, in mil­i­ta­rized po­lice re­sponses to non­vi­o­lent protesters and in fa­tal po­lice shoot­ings of un­armed cit­i­zens. The cul­ture that en­cour­ages po­lice of­fi­cers to en­gage their weapons be­fore gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion pro­motes the mind-set that noth­ing, in­clud­ing citizen safety, is more im­por­tant than of­fi­cers’ per­sonal se­cu­rity. That ap­proach has caused public trust in lawen­force­ment to de­te­ri­o­rate.

It’s the same cul­ture that char­ac­ter­ized the early phases of the Iraq war, in which I served a 15-month tour in 2006 and 2007. Sol­diers left their sprawl­ing bases in ar­mored ve­hi­cles, lev­el­ing build­ings with mis­sile strikes and shoot­ing up en­tire blocks dur­ing gun bat­tles with in­sur­gents, only to re­turn to their pro­tected bases and do it all again hours later.

The short-sighted no­tion that we should al­ways pro­tect our­selves en­dan­gered us more in the long term. It was a flawed strat­egy that could of­ten cre­ate more in­sur­gents than it stopped and inspired some Iraqis to hate us

rather than help us.

In one in­stance in Bagh­dad, a stray round landed in a com­pound that our unit was build­ing. An overzeal­ous of­fi­cer de­cided that we were un­der at­tack and or­dered ma­chine guns and grenade launch­ers to shoot at dis­tant rooftops. A row of build­ings caught fire, and we left our com­pound on foot, seek­ing to cap­ture any in­jured fight­ers by en­ter­ing struc­tures choked with flames.

In­stead, we found a man fran­ti­cally pulling his fur­ni­ture out of his house. “Thank you for your se­cu­rity!” he yelled in per­fect English. He pointed to the bil­low­ing smoke. “This is what you call se­cu­rity?”

We didn’t find any in­sur­gents. There weren’t any. But it was easy to imag­ine that we forged some in that fire. Sim­i­larly, when U.S. po­lice of­fi­cers use ex­ces­sive force to con­trol non­vi­o­lent cit­i­zens or re­spond to mi­nor in­ci­dents, they lose sup­port­ers and public trust.

That’s a prob­lem, be­cause law en­force­ment of­fi­cers need the co­op­er­a­tion of the com­mu­ni­ties they pa­trol in or­der to do their jobs ef­fec­tively. In the early stages of the war, the U.S. mil­i­tary over­looked that re­al­ity as well. Lead­ers de­fined suc­cess as in­creas­ing mil­i­tary hold on ge­o­graphic ter­rain, while the hu­man ter­rain was the real bat­tle. For ex­am­ple, when our pla­toon en­tered Iraq’s volatile Diyala province in early 2007, chil­dren at a school plugged their ears just be­fore an IED ex­ploded be­neath one of our ve­hi­cles. The kids knew what was com­ing, but they saw no rea­son to warn us. In­stead, they watched us drive right into the am­bush. One of our men died, and in the sub­se­quent cross­fire, sev­eral in­sur­gents and chil­dren were killed. We saw Iraqis cheer­ing and danc­ing at the blast crater as we left the area hours later.

With the U.S. ef­fort in Iraq fal­ter­ing, Gen. David Pe­traeus un­veiled a new coun­terin­sur­gency strat­egy that year. He be­lieved that show­ing more re­straint dur­ing gun­fights would help foster Iraqis’ trust in U.S. force­sand that form­ing bet­ter re­la­tion­ships with civil­ians would im­prove our in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing. We re­fined our war­rior men­tal­ity — the one that di­rected us to pro­tect our­selves above all else— with a com­mu­nity-build­ing com­po­nent.

My unit be­gan to pa­trol on foot al­most ex­clu­sively, which was ex­cep­tion­ally more dan­ger­ous than stay­ing in­side our ar­mored ve­hi­cles. We re­lin­quished much of our per­sonal se­cu­rity by en­ter­ing dimly lit homes in in­sur­gent strongholds. We didn’t know if the hand we would shake at each door held a det­o­na­tor to a sui­cide vest or a small glass of hot, sug­ary tea.

But as a re­sult, we bet­ter un­der­stood our en­vi­ron­ment and earned the al­le­giance of some peo­ple in it. The ben­e­fits quickly be­came clear. One day dur­ing that bloody sum­mer, in­sur­gents loaded a car with hun­dreds of pounds of ex­plo­sives and parked it by a school. They knew we searched ev­ery build­ing for hid­den weapons caches, and they waited for us to gather near the car. But as we turned the cor­ner to head to­ward the school, sev­eral Iraqis told us about the dan­ger. We evac­u­ated civil­ians from the area and called in a he­li­copter gun­ship to fire at the ve­hi­cle.

The re­sult­ing ex­plo­sion pul­ver­ized half the build­ing and blasted the car’s en­gine block through two ce­ment walls. Shrap­nel dropped like jagged hail as far as a quar­ter-mile away.

If we had not risked our safety by pa­trolling the neigh­bor­hood on foot, trust­ing our sources and gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence, it would have been a mas­sacre. But no one was hurt in the blast.

Do­mes­tic po­lice forces would ben­e­fit from a sim­i­lar change in strat­egy. In­stead of re­ly­ing on ag­gres­sion, they should rely more on re­la­tion­ships. Rather than re­spond­ing to a squat­ter call with guns raised, they should knock on the door and ex­tend a hand. But un­for­tu­nately, my en­counter with of­fi­cers is just one in a stream of re­cent ex­am­ples of po­lice plac­ing their own safety ahead of those they’re sworn to serve and pro­tect.

Rhoads, the Fair­fax County po­lice lieu­tenant, was up­front about this mind-set. He ex­plained that it was stan­dard pro­ce­dure to point guns at sus­pects in many cases to pro­tect the lives of po­lice of­fi­cers. Their firearm rules were dif­fer­ent from mine; they aimed not to kill but to in­tim­i­date. Ac­cord­ing to re­port­ing by The Washington Post, those rules are es­tab­lished in po­lice train­ing, which of­ten em­pha­sizes a vi­o­lent re­sponse over deesca­la­tion. Re­cruits spend an av­er­age of eight hours learn­ing how to neu­tral­ize tense sit­u­a­tions; they spend more than seven times as many hours at the weapons range.

Of course, of­fi­cers’ safety is vi­tal, and they’re en­ti­tled to de­fend them­selves and the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. But they’re fail­ing to see the con­nec­tion be­tween their ag­gres­sive pos­tures and the hos­til­ity they’ve en­coun­tered in Fer­gu­son, Mo., Bal­ti­more and other com­mu­ni­ties. When you level as­sault ri­fles at protesters, you cre­ate an­i­mos­ity. When you kill an un­armed man on his own prop­erty while his hands are raised— as Fair­fax County po­lice did in 2013— you sow dis­trust. And when you threaten to Taser a woman dur­ing a rou­tine traf­fic stop (as hap­pened to 28-year-old San­dra Bland, who died in a Texas jail this month), you cul­ti­vate a fear of po­lice. This makes polic­ing more dan­ger­ous for ev­ery­one.

I un­der­stood the risks of war when I en­listed as an in­fantry­man. Po­lice of­fi­cers should un­der­stand the risks in their jobs when they en­roll in the academy, as well. That means know­ing that per­sonal safety can’t al­ways come first. That is why it’s ser­vice. That’s why it’s sac­ri­fice.


Alex Hor­ton out­side his apart­ment in Alexandria, Va. He re­cently found him­self the tar­get of a po­lice raid af­ter a mis­taken tip about a squat­ter. A Fair­fax County lieu­tenant later told him that the of­fi­cers were cor­rectly fol­low­ing pro­ce­dures.


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