At the end of the 1960s, the Los Angeles Police Department decided it needed a better way to handle situations, such as confrontations with barricaded gunmen or hostage takers, that presented a high risk of deadly violence. So it created Special Weapons and Tactics units, known thereafter as SWAT.
In the decades since, these units have spread nationwide, contributing to a startling militarization of local police agencies. The American Civil Liberties Union now raises troubling questions about the blurred lines that come with arming and training domestic law enforcement officers as though they are an extension of the U.S. military.
In a report released this week, the ACLU analyzed more than 800 incident reports from 20 police agencies in 2011-12 and found that eight of 10 SWAT deployments were not to confront barricaded suspects or to negotiate the release of hostages but rather to serve search warrants, primarily in drug cases. Two-thirds of the deployments involved breaking down doors, and many included tossing flash-bang grenades and rousting occupants at gunpoint.
The ACLU study looked at a tiny fraction of police agencies, so its conclusions should be treated with caution. Still, the routine use of SWAT units to serve warrants has been documented elsewhere and constitutes a worrisome example of mission creep: If police departments have the units, they tend to use them, even in scenarios for which they were not initially envisioned. Militarized teams were deployed about 3,000 times a year in the 1980s; by the mid-2000s, annual deployments reached 45,000.
This militarization of civilian police forces has come with little public debate or oversight. And it is fueled by the federal government, which distributes excess military equipment — including hundreds of "mine resistant ambush protected" vehicles, or MRAPs — in some cases with the proviso that the equipment must be deployed within one year. Law enforcement agencies might consider the LAPD's history before heading further down this path. Having pioneered SWAT, the LAPD then inflamed community opposition by arming the unit with a battering ram. Angry residents demanded an end, and the battering rams eventually were mothballed.
The ACLU rightly urges the federal government to scale back its program of military hand-me-downs to civilian agencies, and suggests that the Department of Justice require data collection on SWAT deployments. Local and state governments also need to standardize criteria and oversight for when the units are used, and insist that they be deployed only when necessary, and proportionate to the situation. Together, those steps would help restore the notion that police exist to protect and serve, not conquer.