Currently, Utah is the only state in the country that requires police departments to keep statistics on how often and for what purpose they use their SWAT teams. The report for 2015 has just been made available to the public. (See the raw data here.)
Despite the requirement that they report this information, 39 of the state’s 149 police agencies — or 26 percent — still refused to comply. Of those that did, here’s what we learned for 2015:
- Overall use of SWAT teams in Utah dropped 18 percent from 2014.
- Of the 457 SWAT deployments, 281 involved forcible entry into a private residence.
- About three out of four forcible entries were for drug-related offenses.
SWAT teams were originally intended as a response to active shooters, hostage takings, armed robberies, and other violent crimes-in-progress. So that nearly 75 percent of forced entries were for drug crimes is troubling. The raw data shows that just nine of the 457 SWAT deployments and forced entries were for incidents that could be described as a violent crime in progress. Another six were to arrest warrants for violent felons, and another 26 were to serve warrants against people suspected of committing a violent crime against another person. All told then, just 41 of the 457 SWAT incidents and forced entries in Utah in 2015 were for incidents in which a suspect presented an imminent threat to the safety of someone else — or just under 9 percent.
Interestingly, of the 26 incidents in which the SWAT team was sent after a suspect was suspected of a violent crime, police obtained a no-knock warrant 10 times, well less than half. By my calculations, about 60 percent of the warrants for drug crimes were no-knock warrants. Which means that Utah police were significantly more likely to give you a chance to come to the door and peacefully submit to a search or arrest if you were suspected of a violent crime than if you were suspected of a drug crime.
Suspects brandished weapons in just 3 percent of the 457 SWAT deployments, and actually fired a gun in just two incidents total, or less than half of 1 percent. Depending on your perspective, there are a couple of ways to look at this figure. It could mean that aggressive SWAT and door-breaking tactics are overwhelmingly being deployed against nonviolent people, or that the aggressive tactics are allowing police to apprehend violent suspects before they can reach for a weapon. I suspect it’s mostly the former. Just 6 percent of the warrants obtained for SWAT deployments and forced entries in the state last year involved a violent crime.
That said, about half the deployments did not include forced entry. I’d be interested to know more about what those deployments involved. If they were attempts to serve warrants with a “surround-and-call-out,” that’s a positive development. (Surround-and-call-out is, as it sounds, when police surround a residence and ask a suspect to come out instead of battering down the door.) The overall decline is encouraging, as is the fact that police agencies obtained a warrant nearly every time they used a SWAT team (97 percent).
As I indicated, the Utah law is the only one of its kind in the country. Maryland had a similar law for a few years, but the legislature let it expire. The main takeaway from the Utah data so far — that SWAT tactics are overwhelmingly used to serve warrants on people suspected of drug crimes — was the same in Maryland.
Utah lawmakers do deserve a lot of credit for passing this bill. (The Libertas Institute also deserves a ton of credit for helping to get get the law passed.) That said, the data could still be improved. More data on arrests would be helpful. The report indicates that the median number of arrests per SWAT incident and forced entry last year was two. I went through the raw data and found 56 “incidents” that resulted in zero arrests, or more than 10 percent. Of those, 21 were on no-knock warrants, and 34 involved forced entry. There were 32 SWAT deployments or forced entries for drugs that resulted in no arrests, 15 deployments for nonviolent crimes against persons, six for violent crimes against persons and three for property crimes.
The report indicates that in more than 90 percent of SWAT deployments and forced entries, the police seized evidence of some kind. It would also be helpful to know a little more about what kind of evidence the police are seizing. If a large percentage of these raids are turning up personal-use quantities of marijuana, that’s quite a bit different than if they’re mostly seizing meth labs.
At this point, it’s been well-documented that we’ve seen a massive increase in the use of these kinds of tactics in the United States. There were only a few hundred SWAT deployments per year in the United States in the late 1970s — about two-thirds the number in Utah alone last year. Because no other states have a similar law, it’s tough to say with precision how many times SWAT teams are used nationally today, but it’s safe to say that it’s well over 50,000. (Maryland was averaging more than 1,500 per year when its law was in effect several years ago.)
That’s a massive increase in the use of tactics that are inherently volatile, risky and violent. It’s unfortunate that Utah is the only state where legislators believe such a trend demands some transparency.
CLARIFICATION: The Utah report includes all forced entries by police teams, including task forces — not just SWAT teams.