Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Officer wreck offers rare glimpse inside Austin SWAT

The Austin Statesman published a story by Tony Plohetski the other day revealing some interesting tidbits about staffing of SWAT teams after an Austin SWAT member totaled his city vehicle driving home drunk from a football-watching party with fellow SWAT members and other officers ("SWAT officer's wreck spurs changes in elite Austin unit," Dec. 11). Reported Plohetski:
With investigations still pending, department officials said last week that they are already beginning to make changes in the unit's operations.

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.
Hypervigilance aside, in practice it turns out Austin's SWAT team is only activated about twice per month:
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.

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. 
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to see what (if any) legal ramifications this has for this guy over the next year or so. Also, I too would like to see the number of swat teams pared down, every little pissant copshop doesn't need their very own full time swat team.

Anonymous said...

Wait, wait, wait! It's cool to be special! Special clothes, special weapons, special equipment, special hours. Oh, and special treatment. (Isn't that what the "T" stands for in SWAT?) That's why every department wants to have one. It's also about keeping up with the Joneses (HPD, NYPD, LAPD, Chicago PD, DEA, etc.):~)

Anonymous said...

Wow, you're an expert on just about everything.

Anonymous said...

Another brilliant steroetypical Shack attack on police in general.

Anon 2:31, you're on about the special treatment. That's where the problem starts. When you become special, the rules don't seem to apply as often or with the same force as it does to regular officers. This happens because members of the teams, or even other units in police departments entrench themselves in these positions and convince the higher ups that, but for them, the job could not be done. They become legends in their own minds. I would bet big money that this probably was not the first time this officer had driven in that condition in his city car and because he's "on call" 24-7. At least he didn't kill or injure someone or damage soemeone's stuff.

jdgalt said...

"Only" about twice per month?

No city the size of Austin should need to be using SWAT teams even once a year. One has to wonder how many of those two incidents per month represent use of excessive or unnecessary force, for which the officer who makes the decision should be held responsible.

Any officer so paranoid that he considers it necessary to go out with a SWAT team in the middle of the night to arrest some average citizen who has never confronted the law before is a Barney Fife and should have his gun and badge taken away before he hurts someone.

Anonymous said...

Ha, 'Shack attack':) I like it:) Especially because it's true. The actual risk involved in 99% of swat responses just flat doesn't justify the money spent for every little town and hamlet to own their very own swat team. This is inarguable.As for the legal ramification comment, correct me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't police be held to a HIGHER standard than us regular shmoes? And now tell me, ARE they? Seems to me that once you get a shiny tin badge, you also get a ton of license to do things that would land a civvie in the pen. I'll stop attacking 'em when they stop acting like jackasses.

Anonymous said...

Why dont a few of you worms sitting behind a desk pushing paper go battle one day of Police Officers much less a SWAT officer. That just goes to show how clueless Austin/Travis County people are about the kind of peope filter through Austin. So the next time you have a problem DONT dial 911 because you can handle it on your own right? Why not just be appreciative for what they do for us..