Shedding light on the use of SWAT teams

A new bill in Utah that would require the state’s police agencies to report statistics about how and how often they use their SWAT and tactical teams has just unanimously passed a committee in the state’s senate. The bill is part of a larger, fascinating police reform movement currently under way in Utah. 

A San Bernardino County Sheriff SWAT team returns to a command post at Bear Mountain near Big Bear Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Pool, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Will Lester)
A San Bernardino County Sheriff SWAT team returns to a command post at Bear Mountain near Big Bear Lake, Calif. (AP Photo/Pool, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Will Lester)

If it passes, Utah would become the second state in the country—after Maryland—to require police agencies to track that information. Collecting data about how SWAT teams are used, how often they’re used, and what results from their deployment is a critical step toward determining whether or not they’re being used properly. The biggest barrier to performing that sort of analysis has always been that the data just don’t exist.

But in the one state where we do have the date, here’s what we know:

•  Since the law passed in 2009, the data have consistently shown that on average there are about 4.5 SWAT raids each day in Maryland.

• Prince George’s County alone averaged well over one SWAT raid each day in 2012 (510 in total).

• In 2012, nearly 90 percent of the SWAT raids in Maryland were to serve search warrants.

• About two of every three SWAT raids used forced entry.

• Half the SWAT deployments in 2012 were for “Part II” crimes, the nonviolent class of crimes. The vast majority of those raids were to serve search warrants on people suspected of drug offenses.

• In 22 raids in 2012, or a little over one percent of the total, a law enforcement officer fired his gun.

• About 15 percent of the raids in 2012 resulted in no seized contraband of any kind. About a third of the raids resulted in no arrests. The Maryland law doesn’t track what charges resulted in the raids that did produce arrests, but past reviews of SWAT raids by local newspapers suggest that only a small percentage of raids result in felony charges.

Here’s hoping Utah and other states follow Maryland’s lead. The criminologist Peter Kraska has estimated that there are are somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 SWAT raids per year now in America, and that number is likely growing. It’s past time for a public discussion about whether that sort of figure is appropriate and consistent with the values of a free society. But we can’t have that discussion until we have a better grasp of why they’re conducting all of these raids, and what they’re finding when they do.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · February 17