In response to several high-profile incidents during police raids — including the death of a police officer and the death of a man armed with a golf club (who was not a suspect) — the Utah legislature passed a transparency law last year that requires all of the state’s police agencies to report each time their officers force entry into a private residence and each time they deploy a SWAT or tactical team. The law is similar to one passed several years ago in Maryland. The Maryland law has since expired, so Utah is currently the only state in the country that requires this sort of transparency.
We now have the first batch of numbers from the new law. Here’s what the first report shows:
- The 124 police agencies that responded reported 559 “incidents” in 2014. (Again, an incident is either a forced entry into a private residence or the deployment of a SWAT or tactical team.)
- Despite the requirement that every police agency issue a report, 25 percent of the state’s police departments did not. So the 559 incidents represent only 75 percent of the state’s police agencies.
- 83 percent of the incidents reported were to serve search warrants for drug crimes.
- Collectively, the categories of “active shooter,” “barricaded suspect,” “hostage” and “violent felony warrant” comprised just over 3 percent of the incidents.
- “Suicidal subject” made up an additional 1.25 percent.
- A plurality of the incidents, 38.1 percent, were no-knock raids conducted at night. Another 7.6 percent were no-knock warrants conducted during the day. So a bit less than half the incidents were no-knock raids. Additionally, 18.1 percent of the warrants were served with “knock-and-announce” raids at night. Given that these raids are often conducted late at night and involve forcing entry within seconds of knocking and announcing, for all practical purposes they’re indistinguishable from no-knock raids. All told, in nearly 65 percent of these incidents the police forced entry into a home in order to serve a search warrant, without giving the occupants the opportunity to avoid violence by letting them in peacefully. (Historically, this was the entire reason for the knock-and-announce requirement.)
- These tactics are typically justified on the theory that they’re used only against the most dangerous, well-armed suspects. But of the 559 incidents, just three — or 0.5 percent — turned up any firearms at all. Only one suspect fired on the police. Another 19 brandished what the police on the scene determined to be a weapon. But even here, it’s hard to know if this was because a suspect was intentionally trying to harm the officers or if the suspect mistook them for criminal intruders.
- Three non-law enforcement civilians were killed last year, and three others were injured.
These figures are consistent with what we saw in Maryland, and what we’ve seen when groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have tried to collect similar information. Though SWAT teams and militarized tactics are usually justified by citing mass shootings, ambushes of police officers and incidents such as the 1997 North Hollywood shootout, they’re overwhelmingly used to serve warrants on people suspected of drug crimes.
And even those crimes are usually pretty low-level. The Utah law doesn’t require police agencies to report how much contraband they found or what charges resulted. But in Prince George’s County, Md., for example, police conducted more than one raid per day in 2009, more than half of which were to serve warrants for misdemeanors that the FBI calls “nonserious felonies.” Just 6 percent of the state’s SWAT deployments in 2009 were in response to an imminent threat such as a barricaded suspect, an escaped felon or an active shooter.
Maryland averaged about 4.5 SWAT raids per day when the transparency law was in effect. In Utah, it’s about 1.5, although it’s hard to say for sure given that a quarter of the state’s police agencies didn’t issue reports. Maryland’s population is about twice that of Utah, and its crime rate is substantially higher. In 2009, the average Maryland police agency conducted 43.5 raids per year. In Utah last year, the average police agency (among those that issued a report) conducted just 4.5.
An ACLU report issued last year analyzed 800 SWAT deployments by 20 police departments around the country from 2011-2012. That report found that just 7 percent of those deployments were in response to imminent threats. About 80 percent were to serve search warrants, and about 60 percent were to serve warrants for drugs. In 36 percent of the raids, the police found no contraband at all. Another study of Massachusetts SWAT teams released last month found that of the 21 times they were deployed to serve a drug warrant, they found illegal drugs just five times.
The good news in Utah is that the state has become something of a trailblazer when it comes to police reform, and more change is on the way. (The reforms there are thanks in great part to the work of Connor Boyack at the Libertas Institute.) A new law passed this year will require yet more data collection. More significantly, police agencies in Utah will also be forbidden from forcing entry into a home if they suspect no more than mere possession or personal use of an illicit drug. They’ll have to show evidence of actual distribution. It would be better if such tactics were prohibited entirely except when a suspect poses an immediate threat to others, but as far as I know, Utah is the only state in the country to bar them for mere possession or use. That’s at least a start.