The Economist Versus SWAT


It is situations like this one that SWAT teams were created for, and in fact the LAPD was an early innovator of the concept -- the department’s SWAT team was established in 1967.  But today some say that police SWAT teams and the paramilitary hardware they employ have become too widely used.  An article in the March 22 edition of The Economist makes this argument, and it is one that cannot be dismissed out of hand.  The article, “Cops or soldiers?” opens with an account of a police raid in Ankeny, Iowa.  “From the way police entered the house,” it begins, “helmeted and masked, guns drawn and shields in front, knocking down the door with a battering ram and rushing inside -- you might think they were raiding a den of armed criminals.  In fact they were looking for $1,000-worth of clothes and electronics allegedly bought with a stolen credit card.  They found none of these things, but arrested two people in the house on unrelated charges.”  And the piece goes on to describe how tragedy was narrowly avoided: The homeowner’s son, “a disabled ex-serviceman,” reached for his gun on hearing the intruders, but secured it on realizing they were police officers.

As anecdotes go, this one is unpersuasive in the campaign against the proliferation of SWAT teams.  Yes, the crime involved here was relatively minor and non-violent, but as the article discloses, one of the suspects arrested had three assault charges on his record and was found with a knife.  If writer Jon Fasman’s intent was to portray the police tactics employed in the raid as overkill, he fell short of the mark.  Sometimes an overwhelming show of force is the best way to avoid using it.

Which is not to undermine the premise of the article.  In the August 16, 2013 issue of National Review, I reviewed Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. (My review is online behind the NR paywall, alas.)  Balko is an outspoken libertarian whose opposition to the “war on drugs” is made clear throughout the book.  I’ve been a minor player in this so-called war for more than 30 years now, so the reader should weigh my opinions with this in mind.  That said, I was struck at how much I found to agree with in Balko’s book, and in the article in The Economist.

Some years ago I participated in a large-scale operation that targeted a particular street gang in South Los Angeles.  In addition to the LAPD, the FBI, ATF, and DEA were involved, and when it came time to serve the many search and arrest warrants on the wanted suspects’ homes, the locations were divided up among the various agencies.  When I arrived at the command post prior to sunrise on warrant day, I was amazed at the array of armored vehicles the feds had assembled for the day’s task.  Some of them were enormous, and most were painted in the military-style scheme that reflected their desert war heritage.  As both Balko and Fasman point out, since the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the War on Terror, federal and local law enforcement agencies have received great quantities of military surplus equipment, and on this particular morning the feds saw fit to put some of it to use, no matter how unnecessarily.

Further, the federal agents who manned these vehicles, unlike their blue-uniformed counterparts from the LAPD, were wearing tan, military-style uniforms more suited to a battlefield than to a police operation in the middle of America’s second-largest city.  I point this out not to impugn the federal agents who participated in the operation that morning, but merely to illustrate what both Balko in his book and Fasman in his article describe as “mission creep.”  Fasman cites Peter Kraska, professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, who estimates that in 1980, SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times across America but are now used 50,000 times a year, many of them in circumstances that would not appear to demand heavy firepower.  The cities of Baltimore and Dallas, Fasman writes, have used SWAT teams to break up illegal poker games.  The thinking within some departments seems to be, “We paid for the stuff, we might as well use it.”