Someone named Lawrence Schweinsburg wrote a letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun this week to criticize Berwyn Heights, Maryland, Mayor Cheye Calvo and to offer a general defense of the widespread use of SWAT teams. His letter is worth breaking down and addressing piece by piece.
To begin, as commenters at this site first discovered, Schweinsburg is a former police officer. Not only that, he spent the bulk of his career at the Prince George’s County Police Department, the same department that put up the gaudy SWAT numbers criticized in the article Schweinsberg is responding to. He later worked as the police chief for Crofton, Maryland. These are details you’d think Schweinsburg would have disclosed to the Sun or, if he did, that the Sun would have disclosed to its readers. They certainly provide some context for his opinions.
But let’s get to the letter itself.
Once again we are hearing from Mayor Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights who seems to be determined to disband SWAT teams throughout Prince George’s County and perhaps the entire state (“Numbers paint portrait of SWAT team use,” Feb. 26).
Calvo has said no such thing, and in fact has said numerous times that there is a proper role for SWAT teams. His criticism is their increasing use to serve warrants for nonviolent crimes, and the fact that they’re too often the first option for warrant service instead of the last.
Mr. Calvo’s crusade is the result of one incident in Berwyn Heights in which a SWAT team, in a mistaken drug raid, killed his dogs.
Yes, the single raid at Calvo’s home is what got him interested in the issue. Understandably. But as he has explained in speeches and press interviews, he realized these tactics were an ongoing problem when he began asking around about other people victimized by these raids, and found numerous examples, including other examples in Prince George’s County, and other examples in and out of the county in which Maryland police officers shot and killed the dogs of people who had committed no crime.
If mistakes were made during the operation in Berwyn Heights, then those mistakes were no doubt identified and appropriate training and policy modifications put in place.
If Mr. Schweinsburg had read much at all on Calvo’s story before firing off his letter, he’d know that the most aggravating thing about the raid is that Prince George’s Officials—from County Executive Jack Johnson to Sheriff Michael Jackson—have stubbornly and shamelessly refused to admit that the police made a single mistake. The horrifying lesson to draw from that: It’s perfectly acceptable for the police to barge into a home of an innocent family without first doing any corroborating investigation, shoot and kill the family’s dogs, handcuff the home’s occupants for hours on end, lie about the circumstances leading up to, during, and after the raid, then refuse to turn over any information about the investigation and raid when the wrongly raided family requests to see it. No mistakes were identified because Jackson has determined none were made. No training and policy modifications will be put in place because Jackson doesn’t feel any are appropriate. This is why “micro-managing” SWAT teams is necessary. Because police and public officials have come to the mind-numbing conclusion that something as atrocious as the Calvo raid can occur . . . and yet still believe that no one made any mistakes.
Approximately 30 years ago, law enforcement agencies began to be established in reaction to serious challenges facing law enforcement. Police agencies wanted to ensure that the best, most highly trained officers were used for high-risk operations.
That was the original intent of SWAT teams as they were first formed in larger cities about 40 years ago. By the early 1980s, they were being formed in increasingly smaller cities and doubling and tripling up in larger cities because the Pentagon started giving away surplus military equipment to local police departments, and because politicians started using war rhetoric when discussing the need to up the ante with respect to drug prohibition. Soon, SWAT teams were training with military units, and federal grants tied directly to drug policing egged on the move toward more tactical units.
The goal was not only to enhance officer safety but also to increase the chances that victims and suspects would be recovered with as high a level of safety as possible.
You don’t enhance the safety of officers, suspects, and victims by creating violence where no violence existed prior to the deployment of the SWAT team. When SWAT teams are used to defuse an already violent situation, the passage excerpted above is apt. When they aggressively enter the home of a suspected drug offender, poker player, or other transgressor of a consensual crime, they’re creating confrontation, and inviting violence even from people who might not be otherwise inclined to use it. Invading someone’s home, usually as they’re sleeping, triggers the flight or fight response. And for most, flight isn’t an option. The idea that this is the safest way to serve routine warrants for everyone involved is absurd. These raids are violent even when all goes according to plan.
That goal has been met thousands of times throughout this state and the nation. SWAT training has become more and more sophisticated and effective. Critical Incident Response teams, including hostage negotiators, work with SWAT to try to ensure the best possible outcomes at high-risk incidents.
If that’s how SWAT teams were primarily used, we wouldn’t have an argument. But again, that isn’t how they’re primarily used.
Over the years it became apparent that narcotics raids were becoming more and more dangerous for officers. The old practice of a few patrol officers accompanying a few narcotics detectives on raids was not safe. Officers were encountering drug suspects who were heavily armed, often with weapons much more deadly than those carried by patrol officers.
There’s no evidence for this. As I documented in my Cato paper Overkill, in a 1991 Independence Institute study (published about a decade after the SWAT surge began) that surveyed dozens of cities, Dave Kopel and Eric Morgan found that less than 1 percent of weapons seized by police fit the definition of an “assault weapon.” They also found that less than 4 percent of homicides nationwide were committed with a weapon other than a handgun. Finally, they found that less than one eighth of one percent of homicides were committed with a weapon of military caliber. Kopel and Morgan’s findings were essentially duplicated a decade later by a National Institute for Justice study commissioned just before the expiration of the assault weapons ban, which found that so-called assault weapons are almost never used by criminals. Moreover, surveys of no-knock raids done by newspapers over the years routinely show the vast majority of raids turn up no guns at all, and only a very, very small percentage turn up the sort of high-powered weaponry claimed by proponents of police militarization.
They were also encountering vicious dogs at many drug houses. The dogs were placed there by drug suspects for the purpose of hindering the execution of warrants and to hurt police officers, as well as to keep out competing drug dealers.
That may or may not be true. It rings true, but I haven’t seen any thorough research on the subject. That said, it isn’t an excuse for no-knock entry, which is only more likely to agitate the dogs. It also doesn’t explain why one officer can’t be charged with tranquilizing the dogs instead of killing them. It’s also no excuse fo the indiscriminate killing of dogs, regardless of whether or not they’re actually dangerous or aggressive.
In response to these new threats, law enforcement agencies began to employ SWAT teams on high-risk raids and warrant service operations. Once again, this increased the efficiency of the police operations and enhanced the safety of everyone involved, from citizens to officers to suspects.
Platitudes that aren’t backed by any actual data. It certainly didn’t enhance the safety of the 50 or so innocent people who have been killed during drug raids, or the at least 20 nonviolent offenders killed. Or, for that matter, the dozens of police officers killed or wounded during these raids, including several who were shot by fellow officers. Getting in quick may help prevent your suspect from destroying his drug supply, but I just don’t buy that it enhances the safety of everyone involved. The margin for error is too thin, and the stakes are too high. Were police to serve drug warrants by knocking on doors and waiting suspects out, they might lose some arrests due to destroyed evidence, but even drug dealers know what happens to people who shot and kill cops. Seems to me cops are much more likely to get killed in the haze and confusion of a raid than a drug dealer who comes out guns blazing knowing there are police at the door.
The use of SWAT teams has provided law enforcement and the community with a resource that has been invaluable. Prior to this incident in Berwyn Heights, there had been no public outcry for anyone to micro-manage SWAT teams.
Well, there had, just not in Maryland. In Overkill, I document the outcry after at least a dozen botched SWAT raids in places like Denver, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and smaller cities and towns across the country. And of course there was the outcry in Atlanta after the 2006 drug raid death of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. And perhaps there would have been more outcry had the victims of prior raids in Maryland been someone with Calvo’s platform, instead of everyday folks like Cheryl Lynn Noel or Rick and Amato Johnson. That there was no mass public outcry doesn’t mean there wasn’t a problem.
Every year thousands of barricade and hostage incidents, as well as thousands of warrant raids, are carried out across the nation. Only a tiny percentage of those operations result in serious injuries to suspects, hostages or officers.
Several problems with this passage. First, we don’t know what percentage result in injuries because police departments aren’t required to record or report that information. Second, if SWAT teams were used properly—that is, too defuse already violent situations—you would expect high numbers of deployments to end in violence. That a high percentage of raids against low-level pot dealers don’t end in violence isn’t terribly surprising. Put another way, if we started using SWAT teams to apprehend people who are overdue paying their parking tickets, I suspect an even smaller percentage of those raids would end in violence. That doesn’t mean it’s a proper use of SWAT teams. And overall, due to the volatile nature of these raids we’d still see a total increase in the total number of people hurt or killed in SWAT raids, just as we’ve seen as SWAT teams have been deployed en masse to apprehend low-level drug offenders.
Third, I’ve documented hundreds of cases in which a SWAT team entered a home and terrorized an innocent person or an innocent family. In fact, the Calvo case would fit Schweinsburg’s categorization of raids that inflict no “serious injuries to suspects, hostages or officers.”Schweinsburg may not believe what happened to Calvo and his mother-in-law is noteworthy, but just about everyone who has never worn a badge feels differently. The terror associated with these raids causes harm even if no one goes to the hospital.
Finally, even if there were no physical injuries or deaths from SWAT raids on nonviolent drug suspects, and even it the cops got the correct house every time, it doesn’t mean that sending cops dressed as soldiers into private homes to terrorize nonviolent offenders is a state action we ought to tolerate. That only a small percentage end in death or serious injury is beside the point.
When that does occur it is almost always as a result of the actions of the suspects which require the officers to use some level of force.
I’ve seen no empirical data showing this to be true. I’ve documented dozens of cases in which innocent people have been killed or wounded in these raids due to police error. And once again, from throwing occupants to the floor, to pointing guns at them, to the use of flashbang grenades, these raids are violent by their very nature.. Schwiensburg’s wording in the passage above would also include people who’ve committed no crime, or had no intention of causing violence, but understandably mistook the police for criminal intruders and acted in home or self defense. The blame for the violence in those cases lies with the police tactics, not with the suspects. When you’re using tactics designed to confuse and disorient the people in the house you’re raiding, you can’t then turn around and blame them when, disoriented and confused, they mistake the police for invading criminals.
SWAT officers are among the most dedicated, professional and highly-trained members of law enforcement, and they face the most dangerous situations regularly. They are not just people who “dress up in military gear and kick in doors.”
This is just empty, lofty rhetoric. I’m sure some SWAT officers meet this description. I’m sure some don’t. I’ve been told by cops that many don’t. Even it were true, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand accountability and transparency from them. And if they’re as professional as Scheweinsburg describes them, they should be more than happy to submit themselves to public scrutiny.
Perhaps if Mayor Calvo had ever had to face such danger he would understand.
Schweinsburg saves his most callous, oblivious comment for last. Calvo has faced such danger. He faced it when a bunch of armed idiots stormed his house and indiscriminately fired off rounds into his Labradors. He thought he was being invaded. If he’d had a gun in his home for self protection, he’d almost certainly be dead. That the danger in Calvo’s instance came from incompetent cops instead of thuggish drug dealrs wouldn’t have made him any less dead. The utter tone-deafness of this line from Schweinsburg is appalling. How dare this mayor question the cops who nearly killed him. It suggests that all cops, no matter what they do, should be immune from public scrutiny. It’s similar to a letter in response to Calvo’s case from a Milwaukee cop that we saw in National Review a while back. No empathy whatsoever. You get the feeling they believe Calvo ought to thank the Prince George’s deputies for having the courtesy not to kill him.