The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Small-town SWAT teams proliferate in Western Massachusetts

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Some terrific journalism here by the Valley Advocate, an independent paper in Western Massachusetts.

An analysis of hundreds of pages of police records and incident reports, obtained through public records requests, shows that small-town police departments like Ludlow are amassing enormous arsenals (often with the help of federal grant programs), use SWAT in ways that go beyond their original mission, and are sometimes unable to properly select and train officers. Some experts feel that this phenomenon highlights a much larger problem: too many SWAT teams in the state, eating up too many municipal budgets, without enough to do.

Then the paper names some names.

If things get out of hand in “America’s Premier Cultural Resort,” aka Berkshire County, authorities are able to call on Berkshire County Special Response Team, composed of officers from Pittsfield, Lee, North Adams, and surrounding towns. Thanks to homeland security grants, since 2012 the team has nabbed night vision goggles, SWAT headsets and helmets, tactical body armor, and the ever-popular BearCat armored vehicle. The total cost to the US taxpayer for all this equipment: $468,364.82.
The police department in Westfield (pop., 41,552) goes a step further to cultivate a military mindset in its SWAT officers. In April 2015, at a time when post-Ferguson America was engaging in a debate over the militarization of police, the city shelled out $4,400 to send its Special Response Team to a conference 200 miles away to attend the “Bulletproof Mind” seminar by controversial “killology” police trainer, Lt. Col. David Grossman.
Based in Greenfield, the newest SWAT team in Massachusetts serves the state’s most rural county. In June 2016, Franklin County Regional Special Response Team was deemed ready to deploy after taking in more than $115,000 in homeland security grants for officers’ training and tactical gear. Since then, it has been used just once — to serve a firearm-related search warrant.

But others in the area have been used more often, mostly to serve warrants for low-level drug crimes. The article also touches on one of the less obvious problems with this sort of proliferation of SWAT — a lack of suitable candidates.

Stephen M. Clark — chief of police in Newington, Connecticut, and a 24-year veteran of SWAT operations — concurs. For a 2015 research paper, Clark surveyed SWAT officers in the Nutmeg State to get a sense of how frequently their teams deployed and how much training they received. He found a tremendous amount of overlap — there are over two-dozen SWAT teams in what is geographically the nation’s third-smallest state — along with a number of small agencies that were not properly training their officers. Clark concluded that when police departments lack the resources to meet “minimum standards for selection, training, and team composition,” then they should consider “either disbanding the team or merging with a regional tactical team.”
Cost savings, as well as gaining an increased edge in the competition for federal grants to law enforcement, may be an inducement for some Commonwealth departments to combine their resources. In much of the state, SWAT teams manned by the numerous “law enforcement councils” are examples of regional, multijurisdictional teams. Given redundancy, tight municipal budgets, and largely inactive units with little to do in low-crime small towns and cities, retired Boston cop Tom Nolan thinks it may be time for some to be disbanded or merged with other teams: “I think it’s fair to question why we have so many SWAT teams in Massachusetts.”

Several years ago, I interviewed a retired police chief from Connecticut whose city council told him he needed to start a SWAT team. He wasn’t wild about the idea, but the elected officials insisted. (It helped that they had received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security and some gear from the Pentagon.) So he called a department-wide meeting, explained to his officers the situation and asked for volunteers. He then wrote down the names of those who raised their hands and told them they’d never be on the SWAT team. His point was an important one: The officers selected for these teams not only need to be screened for their prowess with a gun or other physical attributes. They also should be screened to be sure you’re picking officers who bring the right mind-set to the job. The more excited they are about kicking down doors and adrenaline rushes, the less you’ll want them on SWAT.

Smaller police agencies just don’t have the personnel for thorough screening. Much of the time, SWAT isn’t a full-time position. This in itself is a good indication that your town doesn’t need a SWAT team: if your police agency doesn’t have the manpower and the resources to fund one populated with full-time employees. Part-time SWAT teams do their training on off-hours, on the side. And because most small towns don’t see enough serious incidents that merit the legitimate use of SWAT, they start sending their teams out for more routine police work. Drug warrants are ideal. Even the tiniest of towns have some illicit drug activity. And drug arrests bring funding, in the form of both federal grants and possible asset forfeiture. It’s also an inappropriate use of this kind of force. SWAT teams are necessary when they’re using force and violence to defuse an already violent situation — a mass shooting, or a terrorist incident. Using SWAT teams to serve drug warrants creates violence, risk and volatility where there was none before.

Of course, as we saw earlier this month, mass shootings happen in small towns, too. The right approach, I think, is to have regional SWAT teams, preferably under the auspices of the state police. State police agencies have the resources and the personnel to fill out well-staffed, well-trained teams. (An even better approach — and one that more police departments are adopting — is to train and equip patrol officers to respond to these incidents. So long as the heavy gear comes out only when responding to a possible shooting.)

But regional teams should report to an official who is accountable to the local public. They also need a steady source of funding, so they aren’t reliant on forfeiture and federal grants. Those two problems — lack of local accountability and self-funding — have plagued the use of multi-jurisdictional drug and gang task forces across the country. (In fact, it was just a few years ago that we saw precisely this problem in Massachusetts — its regional SWAT teams were claiming to be “private corporations” that aren’t subject to state open-records laws.) Because there’s no local funding mechanism and no local official to hold them accountable, these federally funded task forces can sometimes be completely independent of the communities in which they operate. Some go rogue, and this is where we’ve seen some major problems with shootings, corruption and brutality.