By Matt Smith
Many Americans have been shocked by scenes out of Portland, Ore., where federal agents dressed in military-style combat gear clashed with protesters. Oregon’s governor, Portland’s mayor and a raft of Democratic senators have launched stinging attacks on the operations.
But the use of heavily armed law-enforcement task forces, such as have been drafted into Portland, has for years been supported by U.S. mayors and other politicians, both Democratic and Republican, despite allegations of police overreach and a lack of evidence they lead to improvements in public safety.
“They come in with tanks. They come in dressed for combat. The methods themselves look so much like what you’re seeing in Portland,” said Judith Green, director of Justice Strategies, a research organization in New York. “If you were standing outside a housing project in the middle of one, you wouldn’t know the difference.”
The Justice Department has acknowledged some task-force failures in studies and reports, but it posits these as management problems rather than the failure of a strategy that, when it works, can bring federal and state funding, information sharing, and other benefits to local policing.
Critics, though, say agencies sometimes exaggerate problems to justify launching a multijurisdictional task force, and then overreach in their efforts to record a success. “For exchange of information and resources, I think they are great,” said James Hernandez, a California State University at Sacramento criminal-justice professor specializing in gangs. But “some are hokey as hell.”
In April 2012, Carlos Gamino had just arrived at his Sacramento park maintenance job when he had to rush back home because he learned his daughters had been harmed by a stun grenade thrown by police raiding his house.
“They have an army vehicle. They have cops, and sheriff’s deputies. My one daughter is sitting outside, and she’s had a panic attack where she can’t breathe. She’s handcuffed. I’m trying to get inside, and I’m like, ‘Show me the warrant.’ They say, ‘We don’t have to show you anything,’ ” said Gamino, describing the scene in a recent interview.
Police arrested Gamino as a suspected gang member before releasing him from jail without charges that day, and sent his 16-year-old daughter to the hospital with burns on her legs from a stun grenade. Officers had mistakenly identified Gamino’s home as the residence of his brother, who had left the country years earlier.
This was part of the culmination of “Operation Red Sash,” focused on the largely Hispanic Broderick neighborhood of West Sacramento. It involved an anti-land-mine vehicle obtained from the military, SWAT snipers, more than 100 officers from a dozen agencies — including the Yolo Narcotic Enforcement Team; the Davis, Woodland and West Sacramento police departments; the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department; and the Yolo Gang Task Force — who served 12 arrest warrants and 16 search warrants, according to a press release from the office of Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general at the time.
Harris, now Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick, had been battling proposals from Gov. Jerry Brown to slash funding supporting regional law-enforcement task forces. And she billed Operation Red Sash as a success in her initiative to battle what her office called “transnational gangs.”
“Today’s operation will cripple these criminal street gangs and their criminal enterprise network,” Harris said in a statement at that time.
In the case of Operation Red Sash, the D.A. sought tough sentences based on the idea that the alleged crimes of those charged were gang-related. However, juries rejected the idea of gang involvement, and those convicted were mostly given lesser sentences for crimes such as drug dealing.
Harris was hardly unique in putting gloss on a task-force operation. Politicians nationwide have claimed that task forces have routed, crippled or eliminated a particular type of misfeasor.
“It’s a political thing,” said John Raphling, a criminal-justice researcher with Human Rights Watch. “They’re using the shock value, the visceral reaction to ‘gang’ to justify funding these useless, and ultimately harmful, operations.”
For local officials, a multijurisdictional law-enforcement task force is often seen as all bonus, no onus. Typically, such an operation “adds resources and removes accountability,” said Raphling.
Rick Gore, a former investigator with the district attorney’s office in Yolo County, which had led Operation Red Sash, described task-force operations there as a way to grow budgets: “Grant money is a huge incentive to grow departments. When you hire more detectives, more supervisors, more cases, [you] need more assistant district attorneys, you need more supervising district attorneys, your office grows, and you can put on your résumé that you went from a 40-person office to 650.”
Patrick Jaicomo, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, said politicians “have to justify the funding, and so they have to be active on this issue,” he said. “If your task force is tasked with arresting a certain number of people, or finding a certain amount of drugs, you don’t think twice about raiding someone’s house at 3 a.m. Why not raid five houses? It leads to a mind-set where you do whatever it is you can think of to achieve the goal.”
Through a spokeswoman, Yolo County’s sheriff declined to comment on Operation Red Sash. Yolo County’s district attorney, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment, saying Kamala Harris was responsible for the operation.
Sen. Harris’s office didn’t respond to phone calls nor emailed questions.