National Police Misconduct Reporting Project

The Waco Incident – 20 Years Later

Since this web site is all about police misconduct, we cannot let the twentieth anniversary of the Waco incident pass without comment.

April 19, 1993 marks the worst police action in modern American history.   Here are the main things to know:

  •   76 people, including 27 children, died that day.  That loss of life is a sufficient explanation as to why this incident is important and worth remembering.
  • The federal police operation did not involve a handful of “rogue” agents.  The incident is disturbing because it supposedly involved the best units of the ATF and the FBI.  And much of the decision-making was done by the top people at headquarters facilities in Washington, DC.
  • Make no mistake, crimes were committed by federal agents at Waco.  And those crimes were covered-up.
  • If the feds can successfully cover-up the worst police action in modern American history–an event that was highly publicized and that eventually brought extensive congressional hearings and the appointment of a special prosecutor– it is frightening to consider what police agencies would be able to get away in instances where there is no media scrutiny or legislative oversight.

For those interested in the details, read this paper that we published in 2001 (I also recommend the documentary film, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1997).  For today, let me just highlight some facts for all the people who do not have the time or inclination to study the details.

  • When the Branch Davidian residence burned to the ground and it became apparent that the FBI tank assault on April 19 backfired–resulting in almost everyone losing their lives, Attorney General Janet Reno told the media that the reason she ordered the assault was because “babies were being beaten” –  so the feds had no choice–they just had to move in.  About a week later, Reno testified before Congress.  Under oath, she admitted she had no evidence that babies were being beaten!  What!?
  • The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team kept saying they were there to save lives and that they were especially concerned about the safety of the children in the residence.   But their tanks drove into the side of buildings even as the agents admitted they did not know the whereabouts of the children.
  • Some of the Branch Davidians survived the inferno of April 19.  They were arrested and charged with “murdering ATF agents.”  In a stinging rebuke to the federal prosectors, the jury acquitted the Davidians of those very serious charges.
  • One of the primary reasons the cover-up was successful was that government officials kept deflecting attention away from their actions to the Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh.  And, later, the feds would deflect attention by pointing out the crimes of the Oklahoma City bombers.   The feds seemed to taunt everyone with the question, “Who are you going to side with? Koresh?  McVeigh and Nicols?”  That was always a false choice.  One can, for example, condemn excessive force against a shoplifter without “siding with” shoplifting.
  • There are, to be sure, some wild conspiracy theories out there about the feds and Waco.  But the existence of a conspiracy theorist(s) does not make all government conduct lawful and ethical, at least in logic.

What’s the takeaway from all this?  First, recognize that this awful incident really did happen.  Crimes were committed and then the government tried to deceive everyone about what actually happened there.  Second, when it comes to government power, especially police power and the use of deadly force, be impartial, ask questions, and follow the evidence.  We must remember that, in a free society, police agents may not use the “color of their office” to commit crimes.

Update:  Podcast interview here.

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