John Oliver presented another damning critique of American law enforcement on Sunday night with a focus on police raids. The practice attracted significant attention last year after police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, mistakenly broke into the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a black woman, in the middle of the night and fired 32 shots into her home, killing her.
None of the officers were indicted for her death, “and if it is somehow nobody’s fault that an innocent woman was killed in the middle of the night in her own home”, said the Last Week Tonight host, “there might be an issue with police raids”.
Data on police raids is scarce, Oliver explained, though it’s estimated police carry out tens of thousands per year, disproportionately targeting black and brown residents. Though the practice was designed to combat active shooters, one study found that over 60% of American police raids were for suspected drug offenses, with evidence as thin as an officer smelling marijuana from outside a home.
Given that police are usually armed with military-grade weapons, raids frequently end in unnecessary tragedy; a New York Times investigation found that between 2010 and 2016, 81 civilians were killed in police raids.
Oliver also tore into the flimsiness of evidence used as justification for raids, with many electronic warrants for drug searches signed in less than three minutes or an even more cursory 30 seconds. “That is absurd! Even the cases on Chrissy’s Court were longer than 30 seconds, and it was a show on Quibi, a platform we all collectively fever-dreamed,” Oliver joked.
While, in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, some have called for the reform of so-called “no-knock warrants”, in which officers don’t announce their presence before entering a home, “it’s worth noting that the line between knock and no-knock is very, very thin,” said Oliver. That’s thanks to a series of court rulings which allow police to wait no longer than 20 seconds to knock down someone’s door, since any longer would allegedly allow suspects to flush evidence down the toilet.
The ruling “does raise the obvious question”, said Oliver, of “why the fuck are we raiding people’s homes for an amount of evidence that can be flushed away in 20 seconds? Unless someone is accused of trafficking Smurfs or stealing the world’s most valuable goldfish, maybe we should be finding a different way to do this.”
Oliver also touched on the potential costs of defending oneself from armed intruders in the middle of the night – Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker, who believed the officers were intruders, was charged with attempted murder for shooting at the police (the charges were later dropped after national attention on Taylor’s killing).
“Lives are getting destroyed through police raids,” said Oliver. “And even if nobody gets physically hurt, that does not mean that no damage is done. Having your home violated is a traumatizing experience often exacerbated by how targets of raids are treated.”
Oliver pointed to a final egregious example that of Anjanette Young in Chicago, who was handcuffed completely naked by officers who mistakenly invaded her home in the middle of the night, and then told “you don’t have to shout” as she protested. “Shouting is not the drastic measure being taken here,” Oliver fumed.
“People shout for many reasons – because they want peanuts, because they don’t want to get up, or just because the song told them to. When you are handcuffed naked in your own home, because the police screwed up a search warrant, shouting should be in your fucking Miranda rights.
“When you treat people like that, it is clear that you have no interest in forging a healthy relationship with the community you’re supposed to be serving,” he continued. “Instead, the community has to live with the knowledge that no space is truly secure from the threat of police violence. That is a message that is received loud and clear from a very young age.”
Oliver concluded with a call for drastic reform, and particularly an end to drug raids. Police raids “should only be used as a last resort to save lives that are in immediate danger”, he said.
“Because busting into someone’s home is never gonna be safe for anyone involved. Right now, raids are being used far too widely and it’s 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,” he added, “not one that merely sees their lives as an opportunity for,” to cite several of his archival video examples, “action movie cosplay, a thrilling TV special, or the re-enactment of a misremembered nursery rhyme with a souped-up battering ram”.