Interview with a former SWAT commander

Fascinating interview by the Libertas Institute with former SWAT commander Christopher Gebhardt.

A few excerpts . . .

On dehumanizing suspects:

What I saw in Utah wasn’t malfeasance or misconduct on the part of an officer, but rather a culture that marginalized the suspects. For example, a feeling that “we are dealing with dirtbags, and dirtbags will be dirtbags”—even though those dirtbags have rights. That culture extended beyond just offenders or so-called “dirtbags” and became a pervasive culture that lead to officers doing things that may be borderline or even actual violations of standards.

However, this is not just a Utah issue. You can find examples all across the nation of this mentality. This is something that law enforcement must generally guard against. There is something we call “badge heaviness” which is a feeling you can get when you wield authority that you have to keep in check. You cannot let the badge on your chest, and the authority that you wield, lead to an inflation of your ego that you take advantage of when dealing with your fellow citizens. If anything, it should be the other way around. Officers should be thinking how they can help a person—this is an entirely different viewpoint where even if someone is a dirtbag you still treat them with respect. This respect is regardless of how disrespectful or vulgar they are toward you. If you still treat them with respect it goes a long way and it opens doors.

On the overuse of home invasion tactics:

I think the issue is that we have pushed that acceptable threshold down so far that even a 1% chance that a suspect might use a gun results in a decision to use SWAT-type force.

Additionally, why take a person like that down in their home? In Utah it would be hard to find a home without a gun! Why not call a non-violent suspect in for an interview? If they refuse, you might watch the house and wait for them to leave when you can arrest them in a less dangerous place than their residence. A residence is a person’s castle—they know where the tricks are and where things are located in their own house. If you get someone off site it is a little more neutral. It is a bona fide police tactic to separate someone from their house, thus separating them from their weapons. For example, if you know you have a hunter who has several rifles, then take them down away from their house where they don’t have those rifles.

On police training:

What I think is severely lacking is an appropriate emphasis on de-escalation tactics in law enforcement. We train a lot on what to do when a situation goes bad. We train a lot on when to shoot and where to shoot. We train a lot on less lethal technologies like tasers and batons. Officers are required to get taser training and certification, firearm certification, baton certification, but you are not required to be a de-escalation specialist. And that is general across the country in law enforcement.

I think if officers were trained in de-escalation—and there are training programs out there for de-escalation tactics—we would be better off. Officers are often faced with the challenge to get someone to stop what they are doing or change what they are doing—change their behavior. That can be a difficult task. It goes back to what I said earlier about “badge heaviness.” Sometimes it just takes an extra minute with somebody. If you are dealing with an individual and trying to get them to see your way, it may take 5 or 10 minutes longer. But as an officer, what do you lose in that? You gain the person’s compliance by talking with them and not using force—this is what de-escalation is about.

On alternatives to forced home entry:

If there is a propensity toward violence by a suspect—like someone suspected of homicide, or aggravated assault, or robbery with a weapon, and we have a history of this person acting violent, then yes—I think entry into the home under surreptitious means like that of a SWAT raid or no-knock warrant in the middle of the night is going to be safer for everyone involved. But, there are also other techniques we can use like taking them down on the road. I would prefer that less violent method because it prevents others in the home from being subjected to the violence of a SWAT entry.

Such entries can be very scary for people. I have held numerous kids after charging through the door because they were so scared—you never want to see that. We’ve actually scheduled a SWAT warrant in the middle of the day because there were so many kids in the household and we knew they would all be in school. That is the right way to think about it rather than defaulting to doing it at night . . .

Some officers may argue that we need to serve an arrest warrant at a specific time because that is when the suspect is going to have a shipment of drugs there I think that’s the wrong reason to serve a warrant. You should serve a warrant primarily to seize a person, not property. Your case should be good by that point because you have probable cause that a crime has been committed, particularly for the use of force like a SWAT team. So then you should be going after the person in the safest manner possible—not the drugs. If they want to flush drugs, okay. Let them flush drugs as long as other innocents are not being harmed. Do a surround and call-out instead—gather all your team members outside, get on the bull horn and announce “this is the police, we have a search warrant for your residence, come out and turn the lights on as you leave.” . . .

If I had it my way, if I could rewrite everything, I would prohibit forcible entry into homes, with certain exceptions. Obviously, hostage situations and active gunmen type of situations would warrant forcible entry. But to serve a search or arrest warrant it would absolutely be a surround and call out—the safest mechanism. Now, others might argue that that gives the suspect the opportunity to barricade themselves. I think that is a rare occurrence . . .

The concern about an individual fortifying themselves in their house is actually a rare case. The majority of cases end with the suspect coming out peacefully and being taken into custody in a peaceful manner. Sure, officers will eventually need to go into the house but they don’t need to go in a dynamic format. There are two types of searches: dynamic and static. Dynamic is the forcible entry case—a big show of force and really scary. In a static search, like when we don’t believe someone is in the house, or when someone is hiding, you go through very deliberately and slowly—it can take two hours just to clear a three bedroom house when you are observing every minute detail. That is the best way to do it.

It’s a long interview, and there’s a lot more thoughtful, substantive stuff than what I’ve quoted here. I don’t agree with all of it. But if all SWAT commanders approached policing in the manner Gebhardt recommends here, there would be a lot less to which to object. We’d see significantly fewer casualties, and a lot less collateral damage. For more in the same vein, see my interview with Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank.

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 · March 27