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How Traumatic Are Law Enforcement Raids?

A new study examines the impact of an armed police raid on immigrants.

Though the actual number of raids by various law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents carried out remains unknown, tens of thousands of these raids are estimated to occur each year across the United States. In recent years, the growing militarization of most police forces had led to the increased use of "no knock" warrants permitting law enforcement to enter homes without needing to announce their entry.

The procedure followed by these raids is often the same: Teams of five to 20 officers in body armor and carrying military weaponry, including assault rifles, tear gas, and flash-bang grenades approach the home in question, often in armored personnel carriers. Once inside, inhabitants of the house are forced to the ground at gunpoint, including elderly residents and small children.

While police agencies routinely defend the use of such tactics to combat drug offenses or other violent crimes, as well as to arrest illegal immigrants, civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argue that the harm from these raids far exceeds any potential value. Critics also note that a disproportionately high number of these raids occur in minority neighborhoods and that such violent encounters with law enforcement have fostered a deep sense of mistrust towards police among many ethnic and minority groups.

Despite all the raids that have occurred in recent years, there is surprisingly little research into the psychological impact of these raids on the people directly affected.

But a new exploratory report published in the journal Traumatology may present some answers. A team of researchers led by William D. Lopez of the University of Michigan's National Center for Institutional Diversity interviewed four individuals who were directly involved in a 2013 raid about their experiences.

The raid took place in a small town in the Midwest when agents from a SWAT unit and ICE raided an apartment and attached automotive workshop. One of the occupants of the apartment was suspected of dealing drugs and the purpose of the raid was to gather evidence. Three women, one man, and four children under the age of 5 were in the apartment when agents kicked in the door without identifying themselves or asking for consent to enter. While pointing assault rifles at residents (including children), according to the report, the agents then corralled everyone into the central living room while shouting commands in English (which some of the residents did not speak). Though the outcome of the raid isn't recorded, none of the participants were determined to have committed any crime.

For the purposes of the research, all four participants were interviewed over the course of a year to get a clear description of what occurred as well as the emotional problems that developed during the two-year period following the raid. This allowed the researchers to evaluate the participants to see whether their experience of the raid met clinical criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder as specified by the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

While the names and some identifying details were changed to protect anonymity, the participants were described as three women and one male ranging in age from 16 to 25. The youngest of the participants, Christina, was born in the United States while the others were legal immigrants—one had been in the U.S. for six years, another for two years, and the third for only two months at the time of the raid. After the interviews were completed, all 174 hours of audio was subjected to a content analysis with independent ratings for traumatic symptoms reported.

Based on their analysis, the researchers determined that all four participants were in fear of their lives when the raid occurred with officers pointing assault rifles at them multiple times. Three participants reported wondering whether they would be shot or killed on the spot. One of the participants, "Gloria", also described how she felt when officers pointed weapons at the head of her daughter (who was less than 2 years old at the time). So participants didn't just fear for their own lives but for their family members as well.

In the months following the raid, interviewees reported persistent feelings of fear whenever they went about in the community. One of them, Camilla, reported that "my body and skin would go cold (me pone fría el cuerpo, la piel)" whenever she saw a police officer and all of them described different ways that they avoided, not only police, but all government agencies as well out of fear. This often meant refusing to apply for benefits or other services to which they were legally entitled due to their fear. Though not all of the participants were affected to the same extent, several of them were so devastated by their experience that they were unable to function as they normally did. For Gloria, this meant that she was less able to care for her two small children, something that even her social worker commented upon.

And these symptoms persisted long after the raid. In a final interview more than two years later, Gloria continued to describe her sense of dread at seeing police in the community. She also remained fixated on the events of the raid and openly wondered whether they would have all been killed if the English-speaking Christina had not been there to talk to police. All of the participants strongly believed that their experiences would always remain with them, possibly indefinitely.

While it wasn't possible to make a formal diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder based solely on what the participants said when interviewed, they all described problems with persistent flashbacks, hypervigilance, and avoidance behavior that persisted for years after the raid occurred. It appeared to have a lasting effect on their views about law enforcement officers, as well as any authority figures they might happen to encounter in the community.

Granted, there are serious limitations to this study, most notably that it involved only four participants who were all exposed to the same traumatic event. Though much more research is needed, the increasing militarization of police forces, not to mention the greater likelihood of this kind of force being used in low-income minority communities, is already rapidly dividing the United States. The physical and psychological damage from these police raids needs to be recognized as a public health concern with better care provided for people experiencing posttraumatic stress as a result.

Considering the current political situation across the United States, this is a problem that will certainly grow worse with time. Unless better solutions are developed, the health consequences could be profound.


Lopez, W. D., Novak, N. L., Harner, M., Martinez, R., & Seng, J. S. (2018). The traumatogenic potential of law enforcement home raids: An exploratory report. Traumatology, 24(3), 193-199.