In George Washington's Farewell Address at the close of his presidency, he warned Americans to stay vigilant. Allowing a large military to grow unchecked would undermine liberties and infringe upon rights.
Washington's fears came from the dual role of the military. It defended the nation, but also could be used to police it. These lines grew blurred enough during Reconstruction and the Old West that Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. This act prevented regular military forces from being used for internal policing. State militia, later National Guard, are exempt as are the Coast Guard. As weapons and tactics of warfare grew more powerful and violent, Congress deemed that they had no place in policing a free society.
In the last century, criminal gangs grew more sophisticated and better armed. They once hid in the recesses of cities and dominated the traditional vice trade. After World War II, gangs expanded the drug trade. More money led to more competition and more violence. Police and citizens got caught in the crossfire. For this, and many other reasons, SWAT, Special Weapons and Tactics units, were created.
Elite police units and advanced equipment costs money, but situations calling for their use is limited. Despite media interest in the most dramatic scenarios, there just are not that many hostage situations, active shooters, or super dangerous gangs and terrorists lying around. Violent crime in the United States has also dropped considerably since the 1990s. So what can a SWAT team do?
According to an exhaustive ACLU study they do routine police work, but with deadly consequences. Only seven percent of SWAT actions responded to hostage or shooter situations. 80 percent of raids were for simple search warrants. Two thirds of actions were performed as part of a drug search, but anywhere from one third to two thirds of those searches turned up nothing.
Most searches, again around two thirds, involve forced entry. Officers use a battering ram to burst through a door with minimal warning, often deploy flash grenades, and rely on shock and awe tactics to stun their targets. Often, possible presence of a weapon is cited as justification but most of the time, none are found.
Police bursting into a home with automatic weapons drawn and almost no warning relies on psychological trauma to immobilize the people inside. It can also have deadly results. In a recent case, a flash grenade mistakenly dropped into a baby crib nearly killed the 19 month old inside.
SWAT teams also make mistakes all too often. Going to the wrong house and using such tactics can get officers and residents shot, or both. In one instance, a 92 year old Georgia woman was killed in a hail of gunfire after shooting at police bursting into her home.
Problems also come with the militarization of police equipment. Surplus armored personnel carriers have been granted to police forces across the country, even as National Guard units have lost their own.
No one has explained why Ohio State University's campus police need one. According to the ACLU, they are almost exclusively used on drug raids.
The ACLU also said that the possible presence of a weapon is no justification to use SWAT. "Given that almost half of American households have guns," they noted, "use of a SWAT team could almost always be justified if this was a sole factor."
The problems with SWAT are profound because use of the teams have gotten out of control. Local police need latitude to make decisions and respond effectively. Then again, clearly local authorities in many areas have abused the privilege of having and using such units.
State legislatures across the country need to step in and create guidelines for the use of SWAT teams, then ensure in some way that these actions get reviewed for efficiency, effectiveness, and how well they protect or failed to protect the public. Our system was never meant to allow routine policing with military equipment or methods. Time to reign it in a little.
Update: Salon article about a flash grenade blowing a hole in a young child's chest. There is right and left agreement that this needs to be curbed. Time to do it.