SWAT’s Military Tactics Put Cops at Risk

“Democracy means that when there’s a knock on the door at 3 a.m., it’s probably the milkman.”
—Winston Churchill (apocryphal)

On the morning of May 5, 2011, a Pima County, Arizona, SWAT team pulled up to the home of Jose Guerena, a Marine veteran who had served in Iraq. Sheriff's deputies threw flashbang grenades as a diversionary tactic and broke down the door.

Inside, Guerena told his wife and 4-year-old son to hide in the closet and went into his hallway holding a rifle. Officers let loose, firing 70 rounds in 10 seconds, hitting him over 20 times.

From the time of their arrival to the final shot, it was all over in less than a minute. Guerena’s rifle had the safety on; he never fired a shot. Police found no evidence of criminal activity.

Police organizations sometimes defend the prolific use of military equipment and tactics as necessary precautions against criminals arming themselves before cops can arrest them. But the overuse of tactical raids carries its own risks, and not just to citizens (and their dogs) who are subjected to battering rams, flash grenades, and automatic weapon fire.

Although SWAT teams were originally developed to handle rare and violent events, such as bank heists and hostage situations, they are now increasingly deployed to handle routine law enforcement functions. Paramilitary units are often the first point of contact in any investigation, and there are some places where all warrants—regardless of the suspect, evidence, or crime—are served by SWAT.

St. Louis County, Missouri—home of the city of Ferguson—is one such jurisdiction. As the county government explains the reasons for its SWAT team, "The Tactical Operations Unit ... is capable of dealing with hostage situations, armed and barricaded subjects, suicidal persons and executes all search warrants issued in St. Louis County" (emphasis added).

One of these things, you may notice, is not like the others.

St. Louis is not alone. In a typical case in Prince George's County, Maryland, a SWAT team burst into a man's home, shot his two black Labradors, and left his family handcuffed on the floor. A drug dealer had mailed a box of drugs to his address, intending to intercept it before it was delivered. The man was Cheye Calvo, the town's mayor.

A subsequent lawsuit by Calvo revealed that Prince George's County uses its SWAT team to serve every single search warrant, even when the police don’t know who the suspects are, if they might be dangerous, or if there are children present.

Calvo succeeded in lobbying for the nation's first law to track the use of SWAT teams. The data soon revealed that 94 percent of tactical deployments in Maryland were for ordinary search warrants, not for the kinds of violent situations that might typically justify such aggressive use of force. In Prince George's County, more than half the raids were for misdemeanors or non-serious felonies.

Statewide, only 60 percent of tactical raids actually resulted in arrests for any crime, and Maryland is far from exceptional in using SWAT for trivial issues. In Florida, paramilitary teams perform business license inspections on black and Hispanic barbershops. Tactical raids have also been conducted for such “crimes” as hosting unlicensed poker games, defaulting on student loans, violating copyrights, and making fun of a politician on Twitter.

But there is a price to be paid for sending masked men crashing unannounced through windows and doors into people's homes 45,000 times a year, often in the middle of the night. Using SWAT to serve minor warrants introduces violence into otherwise non-violent situations, creating, rather than defusing, volatile and dangerous conditions—the very opposite of what SWAT teams were originally meant to do.

It is not unusual even for innocent people awoken in such circumstances to believe that the police are thieves or violent criminals breaking into their homes. Like anyone else confronted with such a disorienting and frightening situation, they may reach for guns or other weapons to defend their home and their family, sometimes with tragic results for both citizens and officers.

Consider just a few recent examples:

  • Ryan Frederick was charged with first-degree murder after he fired on someone smashing their way through his door one night in 2008. The intruder turned out to be Detective Jarrod Shivers serving a no-knock warrant for a non-existent cannabis farm.
  • Henry Magee was a small-time marijuana grower who in December 2013 awoke in the middle of a no-knock raid on his trailer and opened fire on the intruders, killing Deputy Adam Sowders. A grand jury refused to indict him for capital murder.
  • Marvin Louis Guy opened fire on someone breaking in through his window before dawn on May 9, 2014; the intruders were police serving a no-knock drug warrant. They found no narcotics, and no drug-related charges have been filed, but Guy faces the death penalty for killing Detective Charles Dinwiddie.
  • Aaron Awtry, a 72-year-old South Carolinian, assumed that the SWAT team members battering down his door were criminals trying to rob his small-stakes poker game. He opened fire through the door, hitting Deputy Matthew May in the arm, while vice officers returned fire. Awtry was wounded and charged with attempted murder; the other players each received a $100 fine.

Cases of disastrous raids abound, and they reveal a serious problem with the assumption that paramilitary tactics are always safer for police. Some crazy or desperate suspects may indeed justify such preemptive force. But in many other cases, the dangerous and volatile conditions put officers at risk who otherwise would not be.

If a policeman in a blue uniform had knocked on Frederick's door in the middle of the day, what are the chances that the innocent man would have shot a cop? And surely there are many others like Magee: guilty of something, but otherwise non-violent—or at least not suicidal enough to intentionally shoot a cop—who could be frightened into using a weapon in self-defense.

The most serious problem with the overuse of aggressive, militarized raids is one of information: Residents of the home don't know who is breaking in, and police officers often don't know who is inside, so both sides assume the worst and act accordingly. From the perspective of a sleeping homeowner, a no-knock SWAT raid is indistinguishable from an armed robbery. And as Guerena’s case shows, these events can escalate to lethal force in the blink of an eye. It is no exaggeration to say that lives have been ruined and ended because of unnecessary and violent tactics for petty and non-violent offenses.

Before we can address such problems as the use of military equipment by local law enforcement, we must first understand what is driving their demand for armored vehicles and high-powered weapons. The overuse of SWAT and the associated overuse of military gear in civilian policing are in part a result of overblown fears about police safety. But they are also based on a false dilemma between keeping cops safe and turning them into an army.

Officer safety is a legitimate problem, but that does not mean more force is always a legitimate answer. The best way to keep officers safe is to try to de-escalate conflicts—reserving SWAT for only the worst situations—and to end the War on Drugs that is at the heart of the breakdown of trust in law enforcement. When that's done, Americans may once again go to sleep knowing that if you hear a bang on your door at 3 a.m., it's probably just the newspaper.

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