Joshua D. Filler was director of state and local government coordination for the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2005. He is president of Filler Security Strategies, a homeland security consulting firm.
In February 2013, an armored vehicle and a special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team funded in part by a Department of Homeland Security grant were deployed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department during the manhunt for domestic terrorist Christopher Dorner. Dorner had been on a rampage in Southern California, assassinating members of law enforcement and their families. By providing cover, the armored vehicle — along with other grant-funded gear and the specialized training they received — helped save the lives of the deputies who ended up engaged in a fierce shootout with Dorner.
The case was a textbook example of why Homeland Security grants were established and when to deploy a SWAT team. Unfortunately, the extraordinary capabilities of SWAT teams have now become ordinary both in terms of who possesses the capability and how often it’s used.
SWAT teams were designed in the 1960s in Los Angeles and Philadelphia to address highly dangerous situations that routine law enforcement could not handle, such as hostage rescues, barricaded and armed suspects, counterterrorism operations and the pursuit and apprehension of violent fugitives. Today, however, SWAT teams are too often employed to enforce low-risk matters such as allegations of hair-cutting without a license, underage drinking, illegal gambling, credit card fraud, cockfighting, loan fraud and a host of other nonviolent offenses.
According to Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, the United States has gone from about 3,000 SWAT raids a year in the early 1980s to roughly 50,000 today. In the past 30 years, according to a Cato Institute study, nearly 50 innocent people have been killed in SWAT raids gone wrong across the United States, with teams raiding the wrong home in well over 100 instances during the same period. It’s virtually impossible to know the precise numbers because tracking and reporting on SWAT teams is so poor. The numbers for raiding the wrong home are likely much higher.
State and local SWAT teams’ weapons and equipment come, in part, from the military’s equipment transfer program and Justice Department grants. While Homeland Security grants also fund some equipment, those funds cannot be used to purchase guns, ammunition, grenade launchers or any weapons or weapons accessories, contrary to popular myth. Whatever the federal source, however, a town of 25,000 people does not need to have a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, designed for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Any MRAP held for domestic use should reside with the National Guard and be deployed to state or local law enforcement only with the permission of the governor.
Reform and greater oversight are needed. To that end, the FBI should certify all SWAT team members and accredit all SWAT teams in the United States in a manner similar to how it oversees the nation’s roughly 470 public safety bomb squads. No certification and accreditation, no federal grant funds for the state and local teams. Such a system would serve to increase proficiency and accountability — and decrease the number of SWAT teams in the country, now estimated to be between 1,500 and 5,000. Again, no one knows the exact number because of poor tracking.
The number and location of SWAT teams should be roughly in line with the number and location of bomb squads, since the risks driving the need for the specialized teams are similar. In fact, the FBI has issued training guidance on bomb-squad and SWAT team integration. If a place in small-town America needs a SWAT team, it should use mutual aid or another agreement to call on its state, neighboring jurisdictions or federal partners.
For added accountability, state and local officials should require SWAT teams to use helmet or body cameras and issue an annual report detailing their deployments, including the number, type and results of raids conducted, whether the correct address was raided and whether deadly force was used. These elements should also be a part of the FBI’s accreditation process. For the very limited number of federal agencies that need SWAT teams, Congress should impose similar requirements.
In reforming and improving SWAT teams, it’s vital to remember that when used properly, they are a life-saving tool, as was demonstrated last year by the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team in a small town in Alabama. There, the FBI used drones to support its operation to save a 5-year-old boy from an armed abductor, killing the assailant in a raid that employed intelligence provided by the drone.
We need SWAT teams, but they represent the highest degree of enforcement we allow in our society, and they must be used accordingly — and sparingly. SWAT team members are not warriors or soldiers; they are civilian law enforcement officers. The nation’s goal should be a limited number of highly trained, equipped, disciplined and accountable teams that can be called upon during a true emergency.