The use of SWAT teams by American police is, not to put too fine a point on it, out of control.
More than 80,000 SWAT raids are conducted nationwide each year—mostly to fight the failed war on drugs—and they’re frequently used in low-risk situations where military-level force is blatantly unnecessary. In the last decade, for instance, SWAT teams have been used to kill backyard chickens, capture a Twitter troll, and shut down unlicensed barber shops.
This is all happening as the official need for SWAT continues to shrink. These teams were originally conceived as a way to keep police safe in high-risk situations, like rescuing hostages from a gun-happy bank robber. Now, violent crime is way down and only 7 percent of SWAT team raids occur in the dangerous contexts where the use of such force actually make sense.
Unfortunately, the federal government and 49 out of 50 states make no concerted effort to rein in SWAT team overuse or even keep track of how often SWAT raids occur.
The phrase “police militarization” conjures up an image of cops wrapped in Kevlar, barging into homes with semi-automatic weapons. But familiar as that image is, we don’t know how common it is. There are simply no good statistics on police tactical operations in America. The federal government doesn’t keep track, and neither do the states — with one exception: Utah. …
In 2014, Utah’s Legislature required police agencies to start reporting some basic statistics on tactical deployments.
The first year’s numbers came out recently. State Sen. Mark Madsen, the chairman of the Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, says the numbers are interesting — but not that surprising. He’s especially interested in the breakdown of the reasons for the 559 times tactical teams were deployed in 2014.
“Active shooter, barricaded suspect — these are less than a percent,” Madsen says. And then he points to the single biggest portion of that same breakdown: 78 percent of deployments were for cases involving illegal drugs. “This is mostly about drugs. Mostly about drugs,” he says.
That connection means that counting SWAT team raids is helpful not only in figuring out how to keep policing safe, appropriate, and accountable—it could also be useful in making a case for drawing down the drug war.
Connor Boyack of Utah’s Libertas Institute, which proposed the legislation that made Utah start keeping track of police activity, recognizes that connection and is eager to make sure the tracking program stays active.
“Imagine if we as taxpayers allowed the government to tax and spend on whatever it wanted without tracking that information,” he says. “There would be no accountability, and there would be every incentive for abuse. As it pertains to law enforcement, we’ve allowed for the same incentive without tracking and measuring this exact information.”
For more on the findings of Utah’s first report, check out Boyack’s breakdown at the Libertas Institute blog.