This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on May 18, 2017.
It began with an Austin Police helicopter circling the skies over his normally quiet neighborhood and ended with tear gas rounds shattering the windows and a small army of SWAT officers breaching the door and detonating flashbang grenades in his neighbor’s home. Between these two events, SWAT officers and police dogs occupied his back yard, commandeered his backyard as a sniper post, and cut a large hole in his fence.
This summarizes the events found in a recent complaint filed with the Austin Police Department about a SWAT deployment the night of Good Friday at the home of the complainant’s neighbor. The use of a SWAT team, an acronym for Special Weapons and Tactics, is the highest level of force a civilian police agency can bring to a situation.
Police departments across the nation are using these teams beyond the envisioned purpose.
When former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates pushed for the first of its kind unit after the 1965 Watts Riots, SWAT was envisioned originally as a crowd control concept and quickly adapted for extreme high risk duties such as hostage/barricade and high risk arrest warrants. SWAT was the unit to call when normal patrol functions were not capable of handling a situation, and teams were developed throughout the country in agencies large and small over the next 50 years.
But this development has not gone without unintended consequences. The school shooting at Columbine found a public very critical of the decision to wait for a SWAT team before making entry to the scene where shooting was still ongoing. SWAT teams are slow to assemble, especially the part-time teams found in most agencies outside of the largest cities where resources allow for full-time teams. Law enforcement reflexively defended the practice of waiting for SWAT, but also changed future active shooter training to involve on-scene personnel immediately in resolving the issue.
While responding to a team of active shooters engaged in the murder of students in a high school would seem to be a scene that SWAT was capable of dealing with, the slow response time makes it critical for police officers already on the street to be capable of engaging immediately. However, if time were not a factor, then bringing out SWAT for such a high risk incident makes sense. So what kinds of things are we using SWAT for?
The scenario described in the beginning of this article started when the out of town homeowner received an alert from his home security system and saw on the surveillance camera streamed to his mobile phone an intruder inside the home. Responding officers saw a flashlight moving inside the house that was promptly extinguished upon their arrival. The standoff, loudspeaker announcements, helicopter, dogs, snipers, explosions, and raid team followed. All of this, and the incredible damage done to the victim’s home, were for an in-progress burglary of an otherwise empty house.
Police officers deal with in-progress calls all the time, it is the job. It can be dangerous. But, what is the justification for a military-style assault on home in a residential community? Surely our officers are not so risk averse as to feel they need a SWAT team to handle this type of call.
Could it be that police departments feel the need to justify the existence of a team and therefore use it even when it is not really needed? We see this with fire departments all the time. Why do you think a fire truck shows up at the scene of an accident when a single ambulance would do? We need fire trucks, and SWAT teams, but very rarely. Not having to use them should be seen as a good thing.
SWAT teams are very expensive insurance policies. They are rarely needed, but when they are, they are really needed. Looking at a team in this manner might allow police departments to use them less and more appropriately, while maintaining the ability to respond if truly needed without feeling like they must continuously justify their existence through consistent use. The level of violence a SWAT team brings with it should be reserved for situations that call for it, and those situations are quite rare.
A final note on the neighbor’s complaint about the SWAT action next-door. The SWAT team failed to find an intruder in that home, despite breaking almost every window, blowing up the door, filling the home with teargas, and scorching the flooring with flashbangs. After they left, the homeowner received another alert to see the intruder sneak back out of his house. What a story he must have.