S.W.A.T. Teams 
Upendri Gunasekera

{Ohio University} 

I believe this made it to Sems at Nationals


The scene was like any Steven Seagal movie.  Men dressed in black pursued a man through the woods.  They found the culprit cowering behind a tree, raised their guns, shot, and killed him.  The men in black were the Albuquerque Special Weapons and Tactical team.  But the dead man wasn't a drug dealer, or an arms dealer, or even an international killer.  He was a plumber who according to the March 1, 1999 New York Times, "He had committed no crime and had threatened only himself."  The SWAT team called on to prevent a suicide, shot and killed him.  The circumstances surrounding Larry Harper’s death are not isolated as local police departments across the country are militarizing their forces with paramilitary units, some call them Street Crime Units.


 Despite their noble purpose, local police SWAT teams lack the necessary training and are being inappropriately deployed in our local cities, towns, and hamlets.  The New York Times report found paramilitary units in nearly 90 percent of police departments in cities with a population of over 50,000 people.  If you think you’re protected in smaller communities, you would be surprised to find that paramilitary units exist 75 percent of our smaller communities.  I am not saying that all SWAT teams are bad.  Many cities are justified in their use, but at the same time many more other cities have SWAT teams that are going beyond their original purpose of reacting in extreme circumstances.   The Economist, October 2, 1999, found that 90 percent of police forces with SWAT teams no longer limit their use to such extreme incidents.


So, to better understand this alarming domestic threat, we will first, track down its damaging and sometimes deadly effects, then investigate the provocation of these forces, and finally confine this problem with some well guarded solutions.  Unfortunately, SWAT team policing has become a dominant force in our society indicated first, by their local behavior and second, their disastrous consequences.


A study by Peter Kraska at Eastern Kentucky University reported by the March 1, 1999 New York Times report found that 20 percent of the SWAT teams, patrol in extreme military attire like ninja type uniforms- Ninja Barney Fife, I don't think so.  Joseph McNamara, former police chief in San Jose and Kansas City, states, "It's a very dangerous thing, when you're telling cops they're soldiers and there's an enemy out there."  This dangerous mentality has provoked disastrous consequences.


Twenty-two year old immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times from New York City's elite Street Crime Unit because the cops made the deadly mistake of assuming his wallet was a gun.  The US News and World Report March 6, 2000, revealed that despite the verdict of not guilty for the four Street Crime officers, the public believes aggressive policing has gone too far.  The Nation May 31, 1999 reported that ninety officers launched a predawn raid on 13 apartments, blowing doors off hinges and clearing rooms with grenades.  They subsequently handcuffed six-year-old children and shot their dog inside the apartments, dragged it outside, and shot it again.


These news stories are about citizens caught in between SWAT team's Rambo-esque behavior or simple inaction.  These incidents along with many others are the result of ill trained units across the country. In fact, a CBS news survey found that there was a 34 percent increase in police use of deadly force at the same time that SWAT team activity quadrupled between '95 and '98.  Guns have even been turned against the police officers themselves.  According to the LA Times, August 10, 1999, the death of a SWAT team member by another ill-trained partner caused the city to suffer a $3.5 million loss.   The problem must be confined by scaling back these elite highly militarized units. Yet the units remain, due to the provocation of these forces by excess military equipment coupled with inadequate training.


Tracing back to the Nixon presidency, a February 11, 1999 WorldNetDaily report found that the federal government had begun to pour federal monies into local police departments.  These funds helped provide policemen with more than a million pieces of military hardware including military firearms, helicopters with guns, and even tanks.  As the saying goes guns don’t kill people, people do.  More alarmingly, tanks don’t kill people, but the people driving the tanks do.  The access to guns has created a military offensive in our backyard.  Nick Pastore, former New Haven police chief, found the military's nonchalant attitude unsettling.  "I was offered tanks, bazookas, anything I wanted.  I turned it all down because it feeds a mind-set that you're not a police officer serving a community, you're a soldier at war."


An August 26, 1999 CATO report learned that the paramilitary units train with active duty Army Rangers and Navy SEALS. Ironically, the Army Rangers and Navy SEALS are trained to kill, but policemen are supposed to "serve and protect".  The Economist, October 2, 1999 found SWAT teams members who get pumped up just putting on the gear and are quoted as finding the experience "intoxicating".  Even the March 2000 Playboy, I get it for the articles, states "SWAT teams make for dangerous TV but horrible justice."


A February 11, 1999 WorldNetDaily report quoted a member of the LA Sheriff's Department saying, "They (the SWAT teams) are not being schooled in what differentiates military and police duties: the military is trained to shoot first, but the police must be reactive…"   Local police departments are becoming these SWAT teams but in a mentality that is unsafe for their local duties. The San Diego Tribune, February 11, 2000 reported that police shot a homeless man and concluded stating, "What will happen if an ordinary citizen needs help from these police officers?  Can their judgement and bravery be depended on?"  It can and will be depended on if local police officers follow these federal and local initiatives.


The federal government should first stop the flow of military weapons to our loal police departments.  Then, according to Newsday February 28, 2000, "make federal and state funding for local police contingent upon strict performance standards in community relations…."  The American Spectator, August 1999 raises the question of whether Greenwich, Connecticut really needs to deploy a SWAT team for crowd control whenever the lottery exceeds one million.  SWAT teams should only be used in situations where their specialties and skills are warranted or as the CATO report explicitly states, "in extraordinary circumstances" like hostage situations.

Cities with these extreme circumstances should screen SWAT applicants like the Los Angeles Special Enforcement Bureau.  In a January 25, 2000 On the Inside Discovery report, of the 9,000 deputies that comprise the LAPD, only a few that can distinguish between good and bad and possess extraordinary maturity are selected.


All communities can be improved by the growing trend towards community policing.  The US Department of Justice has even created a Community Oriented Policing Service also known as COPS that defines community policing as greater police contact with their respective neighborhoods.  The American Prospect February 1999 advocates creating a nonprofit law firm that would develop a database of citizen complaints from which educational workshops could be formed.

The results of these programs have been promising. The New York Times, March 1, 1999 reported that New Haven, Connecticut brought their crime rate dramatically down in the last five years not by expanding their SWAT team role but specifically rejecting it.  Other cities that have reduced their SWAT team activity include Dallas and Seattle.


Because an integral component of community policing is citizen participation, you must assist your local law enforcement department in creating a community-policing program.  According to The Nation, May 31, 1999, 30,000 SWAT units still remain in existence and their use has increased by 538 percent since 1980 so encourage beat community meetings where these issues can be addressed.  Beat meetings occur monthly and allow residents to discuss community problems with their local beat officer.  Above all, don’t wait and be silent because once the paramilitary forces “invade” your town it may be too late.


The Albuquerque SWAT team was “done way with” but not until it had taken the lives of Larry Harper and 10 other innocent victims. Today, we have heard of SWAT teams' disastrous consequences caused by the growing militerazation of our police departments and their inappropriate training and deployment.  We are now armed with ways to provide our communities with truly effective protection.  Police officers are acting in our best interest so they must be informed that their current SWAT team practices are targeting us as the bad guys.  Now the Albuquerque police chief believes “a successful intervention for us is one where nobody gets killed.”

Accept No Substitutes