Reining In the SWAT
I decided to make my inaugural front page post a relatively short one.
For those of you who know me, skip this paragraph. For those of you who don’t know me, I am a contributor to Not a Potted Plant as well as the primary author of Hit Coffee, a generally non-political blog. I am also on Twitter, where I mostly share links (as readers of mine know, I’m not good at the whole “concise” thing). I am a quasi-employed IT dude and substitute teacher originally from the south but living in the rural Mountain West, where my wife is a practicing family medicine and obstetrics physician. My wife’s career has taken us to a number of places, including the Mormon (ruralish) West, the urban southwest, the urban Pacific Northwest, and here. We plan to relocate again, though we have no idea where. Both our plan to relocate and our inability to start charting a direction are related to the fact that my wife is on a stretch where 60 of 90 days are spent on-call in one form or another.
Pat Cahalan just posted on the problems relating to recruiting enough of the right kind of officers. In the comments, the conversation turned to the “militarization” of the police. Rather than leaving an excessively long comment there, I thought I would share a couple of things here.
One of the things that critics of SWAT teams are quick to point out is that they have transitioned from something only used in specific circumstances where the danger of a normal warrant execution is very real into one where (it sure seems) it is justified on the flimsiest of pretexts. Add to this the fact that SWAT teams are becoming increasingly common in police departments across the country. that last part is an issue because once these teams are assembled, armed, and trained (an expensive proposition) they must then be justified. Why assemble a SWAT team if you only use them once every few years (when the danger warrants it)? So to need it is to have it, but then to have it is to need to use it.
There are various things we might be able to do to reign these SWAT teams in, such as what Kolohe suggests:
No SWAT teams for any berg under 100K and no tanks (aka APC’s) for anyone. No use of SWAT teams for any purpose other than someone has someone else at gunpoint. (or other means of deadly force). No more transfers of military surplus gear to police departments.
The hard part is that there are circumstances even outside a Flashpoint-style standoff where such a response might be warranted. And the military surplus gear might be necessary, at least in some cases. But those that are in the best position to assess the threat are often the very same people that have budgets to justify and – understandably – other incentives to “take no chances” even at risk to the lives and livelihoods of the (potentially innocent!) people situated in the building about to be raided. I don’t know what the answer to this is.
It does seem to me, though, that one thing we can do is stop the proliferation of SWAT teams to begin with. More than just preventing SWAT teams for bergs of less than 100k, I question the need to exist at the local level at all. It would seem advantageous to me if SWAT teams were part of the state police, dispatched across the state as needed. It would increase the training of those participating in the raids – because it would be a more core function of their job and they would have more experience executing them – as well as remove (or at least lessen) incentives that departments have to use what they buy. You would still have the problem of a state-wide SWAT team justifying itself (particularly in lower-population states), but I don’t see it as being as significant.
But here’s the other thing. If utilizing a SWAT team means handing the keys over to another department (at least until the building is secured), I think that local police departments would be far more judicious in their use. This is perhaps a cynical take, but I think egos are in play here. After doing all of the legwork on a lead, why should some other department get the credit? Are we sure we can’t do this in a way that allows us to do it for ourselves?
Tangentially, and related to Pat’s post, the State of Texas adds an average of 15 new law enforcement agencies every year. And this is a problem. Now, Texas is a very large state and one that is particularly known for being tough on crime, but I would be surprised if this were not happening elsewhere.