The Case for SWAT Teams

It's a difficult time to defend SWAT teams. On May 5, 2011, during the morning hours, a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department (Tucson, AZ) raided the home of Jose Guerena, his wife Vanessa, and their four-year-old son. Guerena, 26, a Marine veteran of two combat tours, worked in a nearby copper mine. Vanessa, seeing armed men in their yard, warned Jose, who sent her and their son to hide in a closet. Taking up his AR-15 rifle, Jose waited in a hallway, ready to defend his family. Within minutes, despite never taking his rifle off safe and never firing a shot, he would die in a fusillade of 71 bullets. The police would not allow medical personnel to tend to him for one hour and fourteen minutes. By then, he was long dead.

The Guerena raid was one of four conducted in the same general area that morning, in response to a drug investigation, which apparently somehow involved Guerena’s younger brother. While the police have labored mightily to implicate Guerena in the drug trade -- they breathlessly publicized the discovery of a Border Patrol baseball cap and a bullet resistant vest -- they found not so much as a single marijuana seed or any other real indicators of drug involvement in his home.

I posted a tactical analysis of the police raid on May 28 on the Confederate Yankee website, where I co-blog with Bob Owens, whose PJM story on May 25 generated considerable public interest in the case. That analysis was based on currently available information in the public domain and on the 54 second video of the raid released by the Pima Co. SD. The SWAT action on that May morning will surely be used in future textbooks as an example of how not to conduct SWAT operations. So disorganized were the police, so uncoordinated were their tactics that they can scarcely be called tactics. Their uncontrolled, panicky barrage of fire -- 22 out of 71 rounds fired hit  Guerena and they hit at least one other home in the area -- and their circle-the-wagons non-response to the aftermath of their raid raise many questions, not only about that particular incident, but about the wisdom and utility of having SWAT teams in general. How should we respond?

Over the last three decades, SWAT teams have become more and more common in law enforcement organizations (LEOs), large and small, across the nation. In many cases, teams are established to meet real or perceived needs. In some, they are a matter of institutional prestige, a sort of law enforcement “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.” This trend has, unfortunately, sometimes produced teams in search of missions rather than teams who respond to a predictable number of legitimate missions.

It has also diverted attention away from the original, valid purpose of SWAT teams. They exist because day-to-day patrol forces are generally not prepared, in training, experience, or equipment, to deal with more complex tactical situations. The classic SWAT callout is a barricaded hostage taker who will usually be talked out by a skilled negotiator without a shot being fired. The most likely alternative is ending the situation by means of a single shot fired by a police marksman. A less common alternative is a “dynamic entry” by a heavily armed and armored entry team. In such cases, the likelihood of suspects or police officers being injured or killed is dramatically increased. The real problem is that such tactics also greatly increase the probability of innocents being injured or killed.  The Cato Institute has published a map -- available here -- that illustrates the problem.

Should SWAT teams exist? The answer is a carefully qualified yes. There are indeed situations that require equipment, knowledge, training, and abilities that a patrol force simply does not have. Throwing unprepared, untrained officers into such situations virtually guarantees that they -- and others -- will be unnecessarily injured or killed. Police supervisors and administrators must be experienced and smart enough to know what they can’t handle the situation and when they must back away rather than charging blindly ahead. They must resist the often overpowering police tendency to “do something,” regardless of the potential consequences.

The same is true for SWAT teams. A poorly chosen, poorly trained, and underequipped SWAT team is in many ways even more dangerous than patrol officers who have gotten in over their heads. SWAT teams will commonly be used in situations that are even more inherently dangerous than those faced by cops out of their depth -- situations that require a very high level of training and skill.

SWAT teams present many problems for police administrators.  They are, particularly for smaller police departments, very expensive, not only in terms of dollar outlay for necessary equipment, which can easily exceed $10,000 per operator, but in terms of consumables, such as ammunition, and man-hour replacement. Training costs are also very high, and often continually incurred.

To learn and maintain necessary skills, SWAT teams must routinely practice together. Forming a team from the ranks of a single LEO usually requires assigning officers from most bureaus; several detectives, several supervisors, patrol officers, etc. When the team trains, those officers aren’t available for their regular duties, and many have to be replaced, often by calling in other officers at overtime rates to work extra shifts. This not only strains already tight manpower budgets, but contributes to illness and stress among those who have to fill in and, as a result, lose sleep and time with their families.