Posted: April 16th, 2010 by Militant Libertarian
Misused SWAT teams provoke violence rather than prevent it
If it’s of any size at all, the odds are pretty good that your town has its own SWAT team. If it does and it’s like most other towns, the SWAT team is expensive. All of that equipment needs to be maintained, and the SWAT team itself needs regular training. In fact, if the SWAT team isn’t expensive, that’s a big problem. It means the officers who serve on it aren’t getting the proper training, and the equipment they’re using may be deteriorating.
Back in the 1970s, only big cities had SWAT teams, and they were used only in emergency situations such as bank robberies, barricades and hostage takings. But beginning in the early 1980s, that began to change. The federal government started taking the term “drug war” all too literally. Over the next 30 years, with federal funding and surplus equipment provided by the Pentagon, paramilitary police units, including SWAT teams and anti-narcotics task forces, started springing up all over the country. Criminologist Peter Kraska, who surveyed the use of those police teams from the 1980s until the 2000s, estimates that the total number of SWAT deployments across the country increased from a few hundred per year in the 1970s to a few thousand per year by the early 1980s to around 50,000 per year by the mid-2000s.
Today, every decent-sized city has a SWAT team, and most have several. Even absurdly small towns like Eufaula, Ala., (population 13,463) have them. In even more sparsely populated areas, federal funding has allowed for multijurisdictional task forces – SWAT teams that serve several counties. SWAT teams today overwhelmingly are used to serve search warrants on suspected drug offenders. Where their purpose once was to defuse an already violent situation, today they break into homes to look for illicit drugs, creating violence and confrontation where there was none before.
Whatever you think of drug prohibition, this is the wrong way to enforce it. Even if the police nabbed a drug dealer and contraband every time they broke into a home on a SWAT raid, there would be reason to object to these tactics. There’s an old Cold War saying commonly attributed to Winston Churchill (though I haven’t found any hard documentation that he said it) that goes, “Democracy means that when there’s a knock on the door at 3 a.m., it’s probably the milkman.” The idea is that free societies don’t send armed government agents dressed in black to raid the private homes of citizens for political crimes. Given that all parties who participate in a drug transaction do so voluntarily, the prohibition of drugs is at heart a political policy. SWAT raids are being used increasingly to break up poker games and suspected houses of prostitution, too.
Of course, the police don’t always get the people they’re after in these raids. In a paper I wrote for the Cato Institute in 2006, I documented dozens of incidents in which police raided the wrong home, terrorizing, wounding and sometimes killing innocent people. Since that paper came out, there have been more high-profile incidents, including the 2006 Atlanta raid in which police shot and killed innocent, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, and the 2007 raid on the home of Berwyn Heights, Md., Mayor Cheye Calvo in which the police shot and killed Mr. Calvo’s two black Labradors. Small towns considering forming a SWAT team might want to consider the lawsuits and settlements Atlanta and Prince George’s County inevitably will be financing in coming years.
It’s also far from clear that SWAT teams make the communities they serve any safer. The odds of a school shooting, terror attack or mass shooting hitting a given town are astronomical, and even when these events do happen, a SWAT team is usually of little use. The event is often over by the time the team assembles and arrives at the scene.