Thousands Of SWAT Teams Aren't Going to Keep America Safe


Since the conception of a tactical police unit in the 1960s, the increasing militarization of police departments across the U.S has agitated the balance between maintaining order and perpetuating unnecessary violence. While I maintain the belief that facilitating the protection of our police officers is vital, concerns regarding the potential misuse of force have been a pervasive issue since the founding of our nation. The culture among police officers has developed to a degree where the emphasis on self-protection has at times lead to excessive force. Equipping officers with heavy armor, high-powered weaponry, and now increased drone capabilities can blur the line between the homeland and the battleground.

There has been a clear transformation in the mentality of modern day police officers. The gradual change began during the late 1960s. When President Nixon initiated the war on drugs, law enforcement personnel were granted extended provisions known as the "no-knock raid," which enabled them to break into homes without alerting the occupants of their presence. Though the law was initially repealed after numerous reports of innocent civilians' doors being kicked in by federal agents, in 1974 the policy resurfaced without congressional consent.  President Reagan furthered the capabilities of law enforcement by authorizing the use of National Guard aircraft and U-2 spy planes to locate and destroy marijuana fields in California.

As time progressed, "the war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 anti terrorism efforts [created] a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop — armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrong-doers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties." The "warrior cop" Radley Balko of the Wall Street Journal is referring to is the elite police squad known as SWAT. First formed during the 1960s, SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) units are trained in tactics used by Special Forces in the military. In 1975, there were around 500 designated SWAT units throughout the country, now thousands exist. In addition, the number of towns with between 25,000 to 50,000 residents who have SWAT teams has grown from 13% in 1983 to 80% in 2005. The Center for Investigative Reporting publicized that the Department of Homeland Security has handed out $35 billion in grants to police departments since 2002, most of which are used to purchase military equipment such as armored personnel carriers.

The proliferation of SWAT units is cause for concern because these teams are more frequently being unnecessarily deployed to confront non-violent crimes. Outfitted with military gear, officers have been employed to break up local neighborhood poker games, raid bars and fraternities suspected of permitting underage drinking, and enforcing alcohol licenses. Unfortunately, many cases have resulted in the unwarranted killing of innocent civilians. In 2006, Sal Culosi was shot and killed when a Fairfax County SWAT officer's finger accidentally slipped on the trigger. The team was sent to Mr. Culosi’s home after an off-duty detective heard him gambling on college football games with his friends at a bar. Another incident in 2006 resulted in the killing of 92-year-old Katherine Johnston, who was shot by an Atlanta narcotics teams responding to a bad tip. A recent Wall Street Journal article found over 50 cases where excessive lethal force by a SWAT team was used in response to non-violent offenses.

Police need to use the necessary tools to accomplish their duties safely and effectively, yet there is a clear overuse of heavily armed SWAT units in America. These non-violent cases provide the perfect example where SWAT units are not needed. The military and police officers have different jobs. While they share the common purpose of defending the citizens of the U.S., their doctrines are polarized. The military is tasked with eradicating the enemy and taking and holding territory; police officers are there to enforce the laws and ensure peace among citizens and residents. To incorporate one with another is risky. "Soldiers are trained to vaporize, not Mirandize," said Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan official. 

In the eyes of former San Jose and Kansas City Police Chief Joseph McNamara, "An emphasis on 'officer safety' and paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed."

SWAT teams are effective and required to address extreme situations of instability and violence. Police departments should have the ability to provide the essential protection and weaponry to these trained officers. Officers also have the right to defend themselves when threatened. Yet the use of these teams needs to be more discrete. Militarizing our police departments and using them to address non-violent offenses will not earn the trust of citizens that police need to help encourage safer communities. It will accomplish the opposite. I recognize that the unpredictability of our world requires substantial action to guard against threats, but when we continue to overly militarize what is traditionally a peacekeeping force, we only subject ourselves to increased violence at home.