With investigations still pending, department officials said last week that they are already beginning to make changes in the unit's operations.Hypervigilance aside, in practice it turns out Austin's SWAT team is only activated about twice per month:
Effective immediately, SWAT team members no longer will be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round, and forced to seek a supervisor's permission to alter that schedule. Instead, every third week, groups of them will be placed on other police duties and won't be on call when not working — giving officers some downtime when off duty.
Assistant Police Chief David Carter, who is the department's chief of staff and a former SWAT team lieutenant, said Hamilton's crash has forced the department to evaluate the unit's stress level and job requirements.
While not excusing the actions of any officer, Carter said, police leaders have already decided team members need a more routine break from the "hypervigilance" that he said police grapple with when they can be summoned to a life-threatening emergency anywhere, anytime.
The team, which has existed in Austin for at least three decades, has about 18 members, who average two activations a month and arrest about four so-called "high-risk" suspects who often have a history of using weaponry. They often conduct surveillance operations before making such arrests. ...
Members typically work about four days a week, eight hours a day, but also receive an extra eight hours of compensatory time each week for being on call as part of a contract between the city and police union.That's a lot of officers to devote full-time for two calls a month, especially given the generous provisions in the union contract (I'll bet a lot of officers would be willing to endure such "hypervigilance" in exchange for a four day work week and two deployments per month) and with changes to the unit there will be even more officers on Austin's SWAT rolls. Reacting to the DWI, Austin PD has
decided that the way the department structures their on-call status needs overhauling.While at one level I agree the staffing changes make sense, I'm also sympathetic to a sentiment expressed in the comments to the story: "So average joe public gets a dwi and is treated like a falling down drunk by pretrial services, alcohol classes and an interlock slapped in his car but apd officers need more downtime. Gotcha. I'm beginning to understand how this works." The officer in question refused a breathalyzer and field sobriety tests, so his drivers license will be automatically suspended. Hard to see how (or why) the department would or could keep him on the force if he can't drive for the next 180 days.
Carter said that years ago, team members either rotated being on call or had several days of relief. Over time, however, that system has morphed into members always being on call. ...
Under the new system, Carter said, members of the team have been designated to serve in three groups. Two of those groups will be on call while the third has a week of more standard police duties, such as combating hot-spot crime.
Department supervisors will decide the exact locations of those assignments based on need.
Carter said that team members, during that week, would still be allowed to respond to SWAT activations if available, but they would not be required to when they are off duty.
Department officials said that to make up for SWAT members rotating off call each week, they are boosting the size of a backup SWAT team.
One wonders, since its team is used so infrequently, whether APD might be better off teaming up with the SWAT unit at the Travis County Sheriff (and any other units in the area; in Dallas, constables have SWAT teams, though I'm not aware of that happening in Travis). I'd also be interested to see a breakdown of exactly what types of situations APD's SWAT unit typically responds to and how that compares to other agencies around the state with SWAT units; Radley Balko and others have long lamented the teams' overuse.
Indeed, speaking of Balko and data about SWAT deployments, he mentioned this morning that "you can find the first full year of data from Maryland’s SWAT transparency bill here. [He] wrote about the first six-month report here." That strikes me as a quite useful first step toward evaluating how and how often such teams are used. (As Sherlock Holmes put it, "Data, data, data. I cannot make bricks without clay.") My general sense is there are too many of these units and they're either used too frequently or mostly inactive and a waste of taxpayer dollars, but it would take a more comprehensive analysis to document that hypothesis. This incident provided a rare glimpse into the workings of APD's SWAT unit, revealing just enough to make me think the subject deserves much more systematic investigation.