Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do small police agencies need redundant SWAT capacity? Budget crisis changing the debate

With the TV show Dallas SWAT, the Dallas PD's SWAT team gained national fame, but less attention has been paid to the fact that, according to Ed Timms at the Dallas News ("Dallas County constables, others keep little-used tactical units," Dec. 20):
Over the years, several law enforcement agencies in Dallas County have formed tactical teams, including municipal police departments, the Dallas County Sheriff's Department, the Dallas Independent School District's police force and local constables.
Typically the officers have duties in addition to serving on such teams.
One would expect the Dallas PD and even the Sheriff to have SWAT capacity. But in the past decade, many smaller agencies have gotten into the game - sort of an urban version of what Radley Balko calls "militarizing Mayberry." Timms runs through some of the lesser-known examples:
DISD's special response team of 14 officers was formed more than two years ago and outfitted with more than $40,000 in weapons and equipment. To date, it has not been used operationally.

Among Dallas County constables, Roma Skinner was the trendsetter. When his special response team was formed in 2001, it became the only such unit operated by a Dallas County constable. The Precinct 4 Web page says the unit has eight members, but training records indicate about a dozen are involved.

Three other constables have since formed tactical units of some kind: Precinct 2 Constable Michael Gothard, Precinct 3 Constable Ben Adamcik and Precinct 5 Constable Jaime Cortes.

The News requested documents detailing how often the Precinct 4 constable's Special Response Team has been used operationally since its inception. Skinner's office provided reports on 21 occasions in which the team was deployed from Aug. 7, 2001, through July 31, 2008. The team made arrests or confiscated weapons and drugs in several of the operations. In at least a third of the cases, no arrests were made.

The team frequently served drug-related warrants or raided homes where drug sales were suspected.

In a 2006 incident, the team raided a Dallas apartment looking for two men wanted on felony warrants and two other men suspected of armed robberies. Team members knocked open the front door with a ram as "flash-bangs" – pyrotechnic devices designed to distract suspects with a loud noise and a flash of light – were set off "into the front living room" and at a rear second-floor window.

No one was home. The team did find an AK-47 assault rifle in a closet. Before they left, "the weapon was returned to the closet and a copy of the search warrant was left on the living room table," according to the after-action report.

The Precinct 4 team also helped out U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2007 after the wife of a man whom two ICE agents were seeking to arrest for deportation refused to let them into the house, in the Tarrant County portion of Grand Prairie.

After the team arrived, "We set up by the front door of the residence and knocked," according to an after-action report. The wife answered the door and "immediately we entered the residence." The man sought by ICE agents was not home, but the wife was arrested on misdemeanor warrants.

Other constables' tactical teams also appear to be deployed sparingly. Precinct 2's special response team, for example, executed four search warrants in 2008 and two in the first months of 2009.
There's no regulation of small agencies' SWAT teams, notes Timms: "The only mandatory standards for tactical teams typically are what law enforcement agencies impose on themselves." SWAT teams in small jurisdictions which are rarely used are a vanity-driven waste of staff and resources, particularly where larger agencies have redundant capacity.

For urban constables, this is just one more example of mission creep, seeking to take on jobs traditionally associated with municipal police in a self-serving effort to justify their otherwise anachronistic existence.

Reevaluating the SWAT craze among small agencies may be another area where dark budget clouds may have a silver lining for criminal justice reform, causing officials to raise questions based on fiscal concerns that never made their radar screens before as a public policy matter:
Across the nation, however, the wisdom of relatively small law enforcement agencies fielding tactical teams increasingly is being questioned. Some experts suggest that smaller departments don't have a sufficient pool from which to select ideal candidates, and may not have sufficient funds for training and equipment. Routine duties such as patrol and investigations may suffer in small departments where serving on a tactical team is a part-time duty.

Experts also warn that small teams, with perhaps six or 12 members, simply don't have the numbers to carry out high-risk operations such as hostage rescues or even barricaded-person incidents. Lacking sufficient numbers, they say, both the officers and citizens may be exposed to excessive risk.

Some critics also say that once such a team is formed, the temptation may be to use it – for practice or to justify its existence – when such an overpowering use of force isn't needed.

At a time when many government agencies are facing budget shortfalls, some officials question just how many tactical teams are necessary. Does every municipality and county law enforcement agency, regardless of size, need one? Or is there a better way?
Excellent questions. I recall a conversation some years ago when I was Police Accountability Project Director for the ACLU of Texas with an urban SWAT commander whose main pitch was his officers' professionalism (paraphrased): "We do this all the time," he said, "it's our job. We train and practice constantly and we're good at it. It's not like we pull a bunch of guys off traffic duty and stick assault rifles in their hands." But for smaller agencies like constables and the school district police, that's exactly what's going on. Such units are more expensive to equip and maintain than any other in the department, so if they're not getting used that's a big waste of resources that would be better spent elsewhere.

To the extent budget crises cause local officials to reevaluate redundant, superfluous SWAT spending, that's a welcome blessing. It should have happened before now, but better late than never.

13 comments:

Soronel Haetir said...

What you say is all well and good but I think it misses the mark as to why smaller departments form such units. It is not that they have some pressing need but that it adds to officer job satisfaction.

Say you have an officer who brings home $25k (I have no idea what the real figure would be) and then spend an extra $5k on fun toys. They don't actually belong to the officer but it doesn't really matter since he is unlikely to get fired and in the meantime they might as well be his.

The small unit might not be able to get money for direct raises but lots of money is available for outfitting existing officers with goodies.





In the end I just don't think need is driving the formation of these units.

Boyness said...

No. Small police agencies and even some big ones don't need SWAT. Leave the tanks and grenade launchers to the Army and go back to community policing.

Anonymous said...

"...some big ones don't need SWAT. Leave the tanks and grenade launchers to the Army and go back to community policing."

Really? Maybe you can be at bank one day like this one, and lets see how long it takes the military to respond. Better yet! Lets get the Community Policing Unit to respond.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-cMIVNntHs

Anonymous said...

Soronel Haetir is an idiot! You're saying that agencies need to form SWAT because it adds to job satisfaction due to low pay? What a good idea, waste tax dollars for "goodies" just to make officers happy!!

Boyness said...

Anonymous said...

"...some big ones don't need SWAT. Leave the tanks and grenade launchers to the Army and go back to community policing."

Really? Maybe you can be at bank one day like this one, and lets see how long it takes the military to respond. Better yet! Lets get the Community Policing Unit to respond.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-cMIVNntHs

12/20/2009 10:07:00 PM
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It doesnt take grenade launchers, tanks and drones to enforce civil law, perhaps if you live in Mexico, oh wait, they USE the Army.

Get over the fact that Johnny Law as enough toys as it is and while I expect and demand that they enforce the law and SERVE the public, I do NOT expect them to declare WAR and conduct military operations in my neighborhood.

If my neighborhood gets to the point that the police need TANKS I will move and I would suggest you do the same...

Anonymous said...

You might want to check out this video: New York City's Indispensable Institution.

Crime reduction really is possible.

Anonymous said...

It doesnt take grenade launchers, tanks and drones to enforce civil law, perhaps if you live in Mexico, oh wait, they USE the Army.

Get over the fact that Johnny Law as enough toys as it is and while I expect and demand that they enforce the law and SERVE the public, I do NOT expect them to declare WAR and conduct military operations in my neighborhood.

If my neighborhood gets to the point that the police need TANKS I will move and I would suggest you do the same...

12/21/2009 05:46:00 PM

===================================

I was responding to the issue about big cities not needing a SWAT Unit! That's why I provided a video clip of patrol officers being out gunned.

"...while I expect and demand that they enforce the law and SERVE the public..." I bet you DO! Just don't send our police officers into a gun fight with a butter knife! Police Officers and their "toys" are the only thing keeping your neighborhood safe, and you from being a crime victim.

"If my neighborhood gets to the point that the police need TANKS I will move..." I bet you would..lol. I also bet you would want a police officer and his "toys" to stay to protect the neighborhood.

"..and I would suggest you do the same..." Better to die standing than to live on your knees.

Btw police officer don't use "toys", police officer use "tools" to get their job done. A police officers chosen profession is not a GAME to them where they get to play with "toys".

Boyness said...

Anonymous said...

It doesnt take grenade launchers, tanks and drones to enforce civil law, perhaps if you live in Mexico, oh wait, they USE the Army.

Get over the fact that Johnny Law as enough toys as it is and while I expect and demand that they enforce the law and SERVE the public, I do NOT expect them to declare WAR and conduct military operations in my neighborhood.

If my neighborhood gets to the point that the police need TANKS I will move and I would suggest you do the same...

12/21/2009 05:46:00 PM

===================================

I was responding to the issue about big cities not needing a SWAT Unit! That's why I provided a video clip of patrol officers being out gunned.

"...while I expect and demand that they enforce the law and SERVE the public..." I bet you DO! Just don't send our police officers into a gun fight with a butter knife! Police Officers and their "toys" are the only thing keeping your neighborhood safe, and you from being a crime victim.

"If my neighborhood gets to the point that the police need TANKS I will move..." I bet you would..lol. I also bet you would want a police officer and his "toys" to stay to protect the neighborhood.

"..and I would suggest you do the same..." Better to die standing than to live on your knees.

Btw police officer don't use "toys", police officer use "tools" to get their job done. A police officers chosen profession is not a GAME to them where they get to play with "toys".

12/21/2009 08:29:00 PM
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OUCH! Looks like I hit a hot button. NO...YOU ARE WRONG! Under no circumstances do I think the police need military arsenals to enforce the law and your weak arguments wont change that. I live in a decent neighborhood in Houston and go to school in Austin and neither place requires tanks.

I am not anti police but I am anti-idiot. Do you think the police in La Marque or Dickinson need tanks, drones and grenade launchers? Well, you probably do but I dont.

By the way, I have friends who are cops and they LOVE THERE TOYS. Dont try to snow me, I am not a fool. Cops are just big boys with toys. YES there job is tough and the police do keep my neighborhood safe...WITHOUT TANKS AND GRENADE LAUNCHERS!

Anonymous said...

No, you did not hit my "hot button". I'm just not ignorant enough to pretend I know what tools police officer need to conduct their job in a safe and effective manner, whether it's a large or small city. Since you have friends who are police officers, I can assume you know what every police department, be it large or small, needs to protect their citizens and to insure their police officers make it home safe every night.

Since you attend school in Austin please bring my previous statement, "I was responding to the issue about big cities not needing a SWAT Unit!", to one your teachers. Maybe they can break it down for you and explain I was referring to the need for BIG CITIES needing a SWAT Unit, not small cities.

I bet if you or one of your family members were being held hostage inside a bank in La Marque or Dickinson you wouldn't care what toys the police used to save you or your loved ones lives:)

Boyness said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, you did not hit my "hot button". I'm just not ignorant enough to pretend I know what tools police officer need to conduct their job in a safe and effective manner, whether it's a large or small city.
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No but you are ignorant enough to hide behind an "anonymous" veil throwing childish barbs. Oh, FYI, in college we have professors...not teachers. Jeez!

Deb said...

I'm most disturbed by the concept of ISD's forming them. Esp. ones that are in big cities that have them such as Dallas. This is the final piece in the militarization of our schools...the 'final solution' to inner city schools becoming a straight school-to-prison pipeline.

How ludicrously wasteful of resources. Are the "terrorists" hiding out in 9th grade algebra class? Are we seeing an increase of bomb threats and hijackings of entire schools? Where's the problem that this "solution" is to fix?

Deb said...

The militarization of our police force is out of control. SWAT units are just a piece. You've got direct training by federal entities of them and direct control via grants etc of the agencies to monitor the populace, etc. and now there's a reciprocal relationship growing.

APD is first in training the military because they are, supposedly, "experts in urban warfare" (a direct quote given me once by the commander in charge of this effort: the article refers to this as "community policing" -- oi!).

http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/12/01/31156-austin-police-visit-ironhorse/

#1 quote in the article: "It was interesting to see how they handle their detainees," explained Carter. "It's different from the way we do it in the U.S., but it's effective for them."

So nice in context with their follow up statements on how APD is learning so much from the Army.

This is some pretty creepy "mission creep" if you ask me!

Boyness said...

DEB...I have posted about this before. The Houston Police Department uses military style drones to spy on the public.

In Texas, where due process is already a joke, this SHOULD alarm everyone. It would not take much, in today's heightened terrorism-esque world, for federal authorities to detain ALL OF US.

This should alarm everyone. Take the war to the terrorists and keep the grenade launchers OUT of my neighborhood.