This week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published their study of 20 different law enforcement agencies’ use of SWAT teams on 800 occasions between 2011 and 2013. Their conclusions may not surprise people who have been following the militarization and the normalization of that in police departments across the US, but it should shock us all none the less.
The whole report is exhausting, upsetting, and unsettling to read, and therefore every informed person should turn a few of its pages. There are numerous takeaways, but some of the basic problems with this brave, new normal in which we live are as follows.
For one, the ACLU found that 62 percent of SWAT raids were over drugs, and 65 percent of those raids involved a forced entry. This confirms previous research, but there remains no justification for ever using violent, aggressive tactics like this over drugs – much less the majority of the time. These raids are dangerous for law enforcement and citizens alike.
The reason for dynamic, no-knock (or equivalent) entry is often reports that a suspect is armed. (Though in cases when a firearm was reportedly present, one was found only 35 percent of the time, according to the ACLU!) That makes this common police tactic even more absurd. In a country with more than 300 million guns, who is being made safer when cops break into homes at odd hours during which homeowners are likely to be asleep?
Journalist Radley Balko previously pointed out in an interview with Antiwar that there is another problem with this dearth of SWAT raids motivated by narcotics. Drug "crime" (withering quotes intended) is much more common than the violent kind. So common, in fact, that police departments don’t have the resources to use any kind of clever measures to go after everyday users or dealers. When they’re going after, say, a long-wanted Massachusetts mobster, they actually get clever and surprise them in an outside location.
Another worrisome finding in the ACLU’s report is that 80 percent of the SWAT deployments were for serving a search warrant. The worst case, we-really-must-have-SWAT-on-backup scenario is an armed bank robbery, or a gunman in a clock tower, or a loose terrorist (though SWAT during that had its own problems). And in many ways, that’s a fair point. We want hostages rescued. If we have police, it would do no good to have them impotent when lives really are in danger. But the ACLU found that only seven percent of SWAT happenings were over a hostage situation or otherwise legitimate use of that level of force.
Like most other public endeavors, SWAT has never stuck to its ostensible purpose. One could call this mission creep, but the explosion of SWAT during the past three decades was mostly due to the militarized drug war. At the end of the day, SWAT is common because of these kinds of bad policies. After all, what are police departments supposed to do with the billions of dollars in war tech they have received from the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security – not use them? Why offer grants to 500 police departments for no-cost Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles if they are not to be used on the next drug raid? Plus, police departments often demonstrate a cheerfully mule-like refusal to accept that this kind of military-excess alienates the people they are tasked to protect. They don’t seem to understand that the new warrior cop is supposed to intimidate hardened criminals, but it scares the rest of us, too.
A final point to consider is the data holes in this report. There are 17,000 law enforcement departments in the United States. The ACLU’s findings come from twenty SWAT teams. The report note that "One hundred and fourteen of the agencies denied the ACLU’s request, either in full or in part" after they sent requests to more than 250 departments. It is more difficult to advocate for reform when it’s such a slog to even develop a clear picture of what is happening.
There is no federal oversight of SWAT team use – hell, the feds have their own teams now. Every year, the FBI releases crime reports, and also releases an annual report on police officer deaths. There is no national reporting on police use of force on citizens. This makes quantitative national data impossible. (The ACLU did note that the phenomenon of police militarization is undoubtedly a nationwide one.) Police departments are not brimming with a desire to become transparent. Worse than being reluctant to turn over documents, however, is that that the paper may not exist at all. Reporting on weapon discharges are mandatory, but beyond that, with rare exceptions, police departments don’t seem to be looking at their own histories and trying to learn from them. SWAT is already everyday for too many of them.
Occasionally, there are nervous moves to change policy after a big tragedy such as the botched raid on the Utah home of Matthew David Stewart in January 2012. But plenty of similar instances have provoked only sorrow over dead police officers, without any admittance that they died in vain, or that departments should stop repeating the same idiotic, dangerous raids. For real, better police you might need every chief to be like Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank – and he seems unique in his vocal opposition to drug raids, the warrior cop mindset, and heavy-handed tactics in dealing with protesters. With all the power that police now possess, and the long leash they are given, it would be foolish to assume that most of them will act as sensibly, and with as much restraint as Burbank has generally done, however. Police have been handed the keys to the MRAP vehicles, the financial incentives to prioritize drug crimes, and the mentality that they are soldiers, with the same dangerous, thrilling job that demands belly-crawling respect from the rest of us (not, say, stern oversight, and high standards).
After all this, is there any good news about police reform, or do we just have a slightly clearer picture of the depth of the problem? Well, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a warrant is required for a cellphone search. That’s fantastic news, and a sign that the highest court may be catching up to the fact that changing technology mandates new rules for legal searches. It will tie the hands of police in a small, but very significant way. But there’s so much more to fix. In their report, the ACLU did a commendable job in summing up the mess we’re in, but it’s just the beginning.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.