Police departments have a different job today compared to thirty years ago. Not only are police required to serve and protect, they must now also appease, socially and politically, the public that they serve. In particular, when it becomes necessary for police to act in crisis events, departments must still be sensitive to the opinions of the public. As a result, the current role of the Special Weapons And Training teams, or SWAT teams, used in these crisis events has changed. Due to recent events and changing public sentiment, police and SWAT teams across the nation have set aside traditional tactics. Police consequently have employed more aggressive tactics in crisis events and because of this, police have become more militarized in their procedures. This new aggressive approach in police and SWAT tactics can lead, if unchecked, to the police becoming overly aggressive.
Before this problem can be further explored, a brief history of police SWAT teams must be provided. The first specially trained police units were set up by the New York Police Department in 1925. Called the Emergency Service Unit, 60 heavily armed police officers worked on cases involving criminal gangs and worked to combat the rapidly increasing number of murders and robberies. In the 1960 s, the Los Angeles Police Department started the SWAT trend when future police chief Daryl Gates formed the first official Special Weapons and Tactics team with the purpose of providing specialized and highly trained police officers for assisting in the increasing number of heavily armed, gang-related crimes. Team members received special weapons training and learned how to handle police emergencies, including how to rescue hostages. Other police and sheriffs departments saw the success of the Los Angeles SWAT team, and formed their own teams. Today, special training centers in the United States, such as the North American SWAT Training Association (NASTA) and the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), train and organize many of the nation’s SWAT teams.
A new phenomenon in today’s society is the main reason why police SWAT teams have taken a more aggressive approach. In the past few years, school shootings have become a heated topic, culminating in the 1999 tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two students armed with homemade bombs and semi-automatic guns entered and wandered the school, firing indiscriminately. Twelve students and a teacher were killed, and 23 other students were wounded. The first 911 call from Columbine came at 11:19 A.M.; nearly all the victims were shot during the next seventeen minutes, according to a reconstruction released a year later by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. The report noted that a deputy sheriff was the first to reach the scene at 11:23, four minutes after the call. However, the first policemen to enter the school were part of a five-man SWAT team, which did not enter the school until 12:06 P.M., 43 minutes after the first officers arrived. The two shooters killed themselves at 12:08; some of the wounded were not brought out until after 3:00. The teacher reportedly died from loss of blood before paramedics could reach him. Fifteen families of Columbine victims have filed lawsuits against Jefferson County, claiming that lives could have been saved had police entered the school sooner.
Law enforcement authorities across the country agree that Columbine was handled by the book but that the book should be rewritten. Traditionally, the police in the United States had employed a standard response when confronted with armed suspects in schools, malls, banks, post offices, and other heavily populated buildings. The first officers to arrive never rushed in; instead they set up perimeters and controlled the scene. They tried to contain the suspects, and called in a rigorously trained SWAT team to keep the suspects pinned down, and negotiated with them until they surrendered. SWAT teams stormed buildings only when necessary to save lives, such as when hostages were being executed one by one. This sweeping change in police tactics variously called rapid response, emergency response, or first-responder is a direct result of the events in Columbine. Larry Glick, the executive director of NTOA, says that Columbine almost immediately became a seminal event in the history of police training and tactics. Most of the nation’s 17,000 police agencies have instituted new rapid-response training programs in the past couple of years. An example of the new type of training is as follows:
His ears ringing from gunfire, his uniform damp with sweat, his breath labored and acrid-tasting from the gunpowder in the air, Officer John Dodd ran heavily down a hallway toward an insistent pop-pop-pop. A gunman was running through a school shooting children, and Dodd was chasing him. Dodd rounded a corner, holding his gun in front of him with two stiff arms, and stopped dead. The gunman stood facing him, with an arm around a hostage’s neck and a gun held to the hostage’s head. The gunman screamed Drop your gun or I’ll blow his head off. Dodd, a police officer for than half his fifty years, had been trained always to drop his gun at a moment like this. This time, he fired.
Officers were traditionally trained to help the wounded and evacuate bystanders. Now they are trained to step over wounded, push bystanders towards safety, and keep pursuing the suspects. Sergeant Jeffrey Adams, a longtime SWAT team leader and trainer in Peoria, Illinois, says that gunmen are less likely to fire at innocent bystanders if they are shooting at pursuing police officers. So far rapid response training has encountered very little public opposition. When law enforcement agencies create SWAT teams, they often assure the public that the squads will be used for hostage rescue and similar activities. Unfortunately, there are not enough actual hostage takings to keep the SWAT teams busy; as a result, the units have a tendency to look for other tasks. According to a statistical study conducted by criminal justice professor Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University in 1997, 90 percent of departments serving populations over 50,000 have SWAT teams, as do 70 percent of those serving populations between 25,000 and 50,000. SWAT units continue to multiply, although violent crime has been plummeting for several years. The lack of legitimate work for SWAT teams has resulted in the SWAT mission likewise expanding and now includes routine police work such as serving no-knock warrants, dynamic drug raids and street patrols.
This lack of action accounts for another reason why SWAT teams have become more militarized and aggressive. The illegal drug trade has recently become an area in which SWAT missions have become more numerous. Starting in 1981, a series of executive and congressional actions brought together law enforcement and the military in the drug war. In 1981 Congress created a drug exception to the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which for a hundred years had kept the military out of law enforcement. The Military Cooperation With Law Enforcement Officials Act invited the military to provide equipment, training, and facilities to civilian police. In 1989, President Bush created six regional joint task forces in the Department of Defense (DOD) to coordinate the activities of police and the military in the drug war. In 1993 Congress told the military to make surplus equipment available to civilian police for use in drug enforcement, which the military has done free of charge. Between 1995 and 1997, the DOD dispensed 1.2 million pieces of hardware to police to police departments nation-wide, including 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers. For instance, the Pentagon bestowed 23 helicopters, two C-12 aircraft, seven M-16s, an armored personnel carrier, and a bomb robot upon the rural Marion County, Florida police department alone. As absurd as this sounds, the troubling fact is the 600-plus M-16 automatic rifles a weapon of warfare given out to the Los Angeles police department alone, the 7 given to the tiny police department in Jasper, Florida population, 2,000, and the multitude that have gone out to hundreds of other police departments across the nation. With this kind of unnecessary firepower, it becomes obvious that police departments, and SWAT teams in particular, are being induced into an aggressive and militaristic nature.
This newfound firepower combined with the lack of available missions for SWAT teams has resulted in many questionable, even outrageous, incidents where SWAT teams are out of control. A highly publicized incident involved the seizing of Elian Gonzalez in Miami, Florida in the summer of 2000. Photographer Alan Diaz will earn a Pulitzer Prize for taking the infamous picture of the federal agent clad in black, military dress waving a machine gun at the terrified boy. That picture horrified many Americans, but there’s something even more shocking. Similar events in which people are assaulted in their homes by SWAT teams waving machine guns, spewing foul language, threatening to shoot people, and devastating the house as a tactical measure happen every day in the United States, usually without media attention:
- A few years ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a depressed 33-year old man, Larry Harper, threatened to commit suicide, his frightened family called the police. Nine men clad in military gear armed with automatic rifles and stun grenades arrived. They followed Harper who had committed no crime into a nearby park and through the woods, where they found him hiding behind a tree. The SWAT sniper shot and killed Harper from 43 feet away. The city has since disbanded its SWAT team and hired a new police chief.
- In April 1996 the La Plata County, Colorado, SWAT unit stormed the 46-acre ranch of Samuel Heflin in search of evidence related to a barroom brawl: a cowboy hat, a shirt, and a pack of cigarettes. In the process, SWAT members forced down to the ground at gunpoint an eight year old boy and a fourteen year old playing basketball, and then followed the Heflins screaming four year old daughter into the house with a laser-sighted weapon aimed at her back. Once inside, the SWAT members ordered the family to lie face down. When Heflin asked for a search warrant, he was told to shut the f— up. The Heflin’s civil suit is still in litigation.
- Reverend Accelyne Williams was a substance abuse counselor in a poor neighborhood in Boston. One evening in 1994, he was visited in his apartment by a substance abuser that also happened to be an undercover informant in the pay of the Boston police. Later, the informant tried to direct the police SWAT team to the address of a drug dealer in the apartment above Reverend Williams. However, the police misread the informant’s floor plan as directing them to the Reverend’s apartment. Armed with the search warrant, however, and plenty of firearms, the police broke into Revevend Williams apartment, screamed obscenities at him, chased him into his bedroom, shoved him to the floor, and handcuffed him while pointing guns at his head. Reverend Williams died of a heart attack.
- In September 1999 in Denver, Colorado, Ismael Mena was shot dead in his home during an invasion by a SWAT team. The officers were acting on the basis of a search warrant claiming that crack cocaine had been sold in Mena’s home. In fact, the confidential informant had given them the wrong address.
- In the 1980’s, violent home invasions under the pretext of drug-enforcement became routine. In 1988, Los Angeles police officers broke into four apartments on Dalton Avenue; the apartments were suspected to be crack dens, but in fact were not. The officers who participated in the raid have since been promoted.
These are only a few of the more extreme cases of excessive police and SWAT use of force. If continued unchecked, the aggressive and militaristic nature of the tactics and attitudes of police will only grow, and these examples will become only a few in an ever-growing trend. A warrior mentality has no place in law enforcement; it should instead continue to stress the protection of constitutional rights and basic human rights. As SWAT teams adopt the ways of the military and become more common in law enforcement, we need to ask ourselves: to what ends will we let the police and SWAT go before the need to regulate exists?