SWAT! — Is There a Problem Here?

swat teams Police “Special Weapons and Tactics” Units/Teams (SWAT)

One of the important tasks that a profession does is to examine its practices and procedures and see if they are doing what was intended and if corrections need to be made to make them.

Perhaps this is the time to take a good look at SWAT teams and the militarization of our nation’s police.

This week’s issue of The Economist, a well-known and regarded news magazine based in the U.K., reports on what they see to be a problem in our nation’s police.

“EARLY one morning a team of heavily armed police officers burst into the home of Eugene Mallory, an 80-year-old retired engineer in Los Angeles county. What happened next is unclear. The officer who shot Mr Mallory six times with a submachine gun says he was acting in self-defence—Mr Mallory also had a gun, though he was in bed and never fired it. Armed raids can be confusing: according to an investigation, the policeman initially believed that he had ordered Mr Mallory to ‘Drop the gun’ before opening fire. However, an audio recording revealed that he said these words immediately after shooting him. Mr Mallory died. His family are suing the police.

“Such tragedies are too common in America. One reason is that the police have become more militarised. Raids by Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units used to be rare: according to Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University there were only about 3,000 a year in the early 1980s. Now they are routine: perhaps 50,000 a year.”

[To read the entire article CLICK HERE.]

Many of us in the U.S. also have concerns about the spreading use of paramilitary units and tactics among our police when, perhaps, the situation did not seem to dictate their use.

While it is important that police be adequately trained and equipped to handle dangerous situations like barricaded suspects with high-powered and sometimes automatic weapons, the use of such teams needs to be carefully supervised by police leaders.

But The Economist article goes on to highlight some very obvious situations in which the use of a paramilitary team seem quite out of place, ‘In Maryland paramilitary police have been sent to break up illegal poker games; in Iowa, to arrest people suspected of petty fraud; in Arizona, to crack down on cockfighting.”

While “no-knock” raids carry the advantages of surprise, they also have disadvantages.

Radley Balko, a campaigning journalist, and the author of The Rise of the Warrior Cop, has identified more than 50 innocent persons who have been killed in SWAT raids. [See the map HERE and also HERE.]

How did all this develop? Two factors seemed to have pushed this militarization of our nation’s police. Since the “war on terror”, there has been a large amount of federal money for purchasing high-powered weaponry for police. Between 2002 and 2011 our government handed out $35 billion in grants to state and local police. In addition, surplus military equipment has been available to local police at virtually no cost.

The second factor is the “war on drugs.” Making big drug arrests creates a troubling incentive. When police find assets that are the proceeds of crime, they can seize them. And those proceeds are often cash, computers, weapons, and vehicles.

The Economist concludes that “the militarisation of American law enforcement is alarming. The police are not soldiers. Armies are trained to kill the enemy; the police are supposed to uphold the law and protect citizens… That does not mean getting rid of SWAT teams entirely. But it does mean restricting their use to situations where there are solid grounds to believe that the suspect involved is armed and dangerous… The ‘war on drugs’ is supposed to be a metaphor, not a real war.”

[See also this earlier article from The Economist.]

Radney Balko also wrote a white paper for the Cato Institute on this subject.

There is a great graphic here that summarizes the problem.

I also have an earlier blog on this topic dated July, 27, 2013.

Given all this, and the highlighting of these questionable raids throughout the country, and if I was a chief of police today, I would immediately engage in a dialogue with my community regarding where and when SWAT teams will be used and when they will not. That’s what leaders do.