It was a late Tuesday morning last December, and Erin Sullivan had been home with her newborn baby for just a day. As she sat down in her front living room to feed her four-day-old son, there was a pounding on the door.
According to Sullivan’s account of the story, she got up, baby in her arms, and walked toward the door. Just before she could reach for the knob, the house was rocked, the windows crashed in, shots were fired at the door and she heard two disorientingly loud bangs.
Sullivan says she ran to her nearby kitchen to squat behind a counter as Johnson County cops in SWAT gear stormed inside equipped with long guns, all-black clothes and headgear. Her repeated pleading, “I have a baby,” was met with officers yelling at her to get on the ground. After what seemed like a full minute of chaos, an officer noticed the infant, announced it to his colleagues and Sullivan and her son were escorted out the back door to the unheated garage.
The young mother says she sat in the garage for nearly an hour as cops searched every inch of her home. They eventually brought her inside as they finished the search, asked her some questions and told her they were taking a few of her things, including her legally possessed firearm.
After the two-hour ordeal, Sullivan was left to piece together her ravaged home—no front door, no living room windows, burns on the carpet and belongings strewn about. It would take two months and roughly $3,000 to get her home mostly back to normal.
“Everything in every cupboard, every closet, every drawer, was no longer in its place. They did a total search of the house,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan learned that the raid was part of a Johnson County Drug Task Force investigation on the father of her son. He has a lengthy legal history and there are charges against him now, but Sullivan says he wasn’t living in her home, there wasn’t anything illegal going on at the home and no contraband was found there.
“I don’t understand why they decided to come into my house the way they did and put me and my son in danger the way that they did,” Sullivan said.
She wonders why police are going into family neighborhoods without caution for children. If cops were investigating the home, didn’t they notice the pregnant woman or newborn baby?
The Iowa City Police Department uses a “risk matrix” to determine situations that require the department’s Special Response Team. For instance, the team may be called in if a suspect or someone “associated with the address” has a history of violence.
Iowa City cops say they do take care to avoid harm to children or other innocent bystanders, but since they won’t comment on open and pending cases like Sullivan’s, it’s not clear whether cops knew there was a baby in the home or whether they took specific precautions in this case.
“A significant amount of intelligence goes into that to determine when the least number of people will be home, try to make sure kids aren’t there, try to get people outside the residence,” Iowa City Sgt. Scott Gaarde said.
Special Response, or Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), teams are common across the country and have been around for a few decades. They began as a tool for responding to urgent threats like hostage situations and active shooters, but are now usually used for planned operations, like to serve search warrants, often for drugs.
Special Response Team officers carry much more powerful gear than a cop on the street: ballistic coverings, tactical weapons, breaching shotguns, chemical munitions and more. Local cops also have access to a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles—military surplus from Kuwait, acquired as part of the federal government’s 1033 program.
A report from the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year analyzed 800 domestic SWAT deployments between 2011 and 2012 (that’s a lot, but not all, of the SWAT raids in those years, and it’s unclear how the ACLU gathered the police department data). In the vast majority of cases the ACLU studied, 79 percent, special response teams were used to search homes rather than to respond to an imminent violent threat.
“What constitutes a ‘high-risk’ scenario depends largely on the subjective beliefs of the officers involved. This lack of clear and legitimate standards for deploying SWAT may result in the excessive and unnecessary use of SWAT deployments in drug cases,” the authors of the ACLU report wrote.
Here in Iowa City, the SWAT team is used relatively rarely. Most recently, the Special Response Team was called in for a standoff situation in mid-October when a man allegedly made threats to hurt his neighbors. That situation was resolved without injury as the man exited the home after talking with crisis negotiators.
The local SWAT team was used just seven times over the course of 12 months in records obtained through an open records request. Between June 2013 and this past May, Iowa City used its Special Response Team in four drug searches and three potential weapons threats.
More attention has been paid to this style of policing since Ferguson, Missouri, cops drew criticism over the summer for their aggressive response to citizen protests. Sullivan said she’s paid attention to the issue and she’s hopeful more Americans are growing concerned too.
Still, the myriad law enforcement controversies swirling around have her questioning whether she feels safe raising her son here in Iowa City.
“If I’m at home and I see a police officer driving around the neighborhood, cars driving around slowly, especially at nighttime, it makes me very nervous,” Sullivan said. “Unless there’s something really big, I don’t know if I would ever call the police and come assist me.”