A British publication, The Economist, with offices in the United States, recently suggested in one of its articles that the U.S. police SWAT units are overused, deployed in situations that do not warrant tactical responses and that they are becoming overly militarized. The article headline states "Paramilitary police Cops or Soldiers? America's police have become too militarised." This article comes at a time when some critics are questioning the role of the federal government in arming local police forces in a way that gives the impression that local community SWAT teams are subunits of the U.S. military. With the aforementioned misleading commentary, I felt it important to explain the facts pertaining to where local police SWAT units really stand.
The Economist references Eastern Kentucky University's Peter Kraska, who "estimates that SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980 but are now used around 50,000 times a year." The article uses the word "raid" eight different times, which is, in itself, a dubious label that attempts to infer that the increased occurrences of SWAT deployments somehow proves the point of overuse and/or that such deployments are unwarranted. If a person takes these kinds of assertions at face value, they do so without taking all relevant variables into account.
To be clear, municipal and county SWAT units are funded and controlled by their governing entities, whether state, county or city governments. In many instances, especially with local governments' financial problems in recent years, many law enforcement agencies cannot afford to purchase the equipment needed to keep the officers and community safe from daily violence and it is true that some agencies take advantage of surplus military equipment made available by the federal government. That equipment comes with no ties or obligation to the federal government other than that it must be used for official purposes only. Local police departments are not agents of the federal government, and frankly, none of us chiefs or sheriffs would take lightly any federal attempts to dictate our enforcement activities, priorities or tactics. We are professionals by our own rights, and there is no federal law enforcement agency that does as much "on the ground" police work and investigation as local police and sheriff's departments do.
Regarding the frequency of SWAT unit deployments these days as compared to the 1980s, it is simply a matter of local police departments meeting the threats head-on of a heavily armed criminal community - gangs and cartels in particular. Criminals today are far more sophisticated, possess advanced weaponry, and use far better tactics. The article says "the number of SWAT deployments soared even as violent crime fell" instead of stating the facts: since 1980, SWAT deployments have gone up but our country's homicide rate has fallen from 10.2 per capita in 1980 to 4.8 in 2010, according to the Department of Justice. The Economist also failed to mention that 210 officers were killed in the line of duty in 1980 and 105 fewer officers were killed in 2013. That is still 105 too many, but the safety benefits of appropriate SWAT involvement cannot be ignored.
It is hard to understand how The Economist can criticize SWAT deployments without acknowledging the threats of heavily armed, violent criminals within and coming from outside our borders. Also, ask any knowledgeable federal agent and they will tell you that it is local law enforcement agencies that are the first line of defense in a terrorist attack. It only makes sense that local law enforcement agencies be prepared and trained for the worst case possible scenarios.
Generally speaking, SWAT units are deployed in high risk search or arrest warrant situations where the suspects are believed (based on credible evidence) to be violent and armed. A careful evaluation of the totality of the circumstances is conducted and a threat matrix is used to plan for the successful apprehension of wanted persons with everyone's safety in mind. Sending a couple of uniformed patrol officers into a high-risk situation is almost certain to end up with shots fired with injuries or deaths to both the police and suspects. One of the biggest mistakes law enforcement can make is deploy insufficient resources (personnel and/or equipment) into volatile, potentially violent situations. I am positive that the safety measures we take by deploying SWAT multiple times yearly has increased community safety and decreased the occasions where a potentially violent situation gets out of control.
Apparently The Economist believes itself to be an expert with the moral authority to dish out advice on how and when to deploy SWAT units in this dangerous world we live in. I just hope that readers of that publication decline the temptation to take its self-righteous assertions about contemporary policing at face value without a big dose of skepticism. It is the lives of our law enforcement officers and innocent people of our community that are at stake and I believe that trained law enforcement personnel are in the best position to make the decisions about when, where, and how to deploy SWAT units.