WASHINGTON – Police SWAT teams were deployed in Maryland more than four times per day during the second half of 2009, mostly to serve search warrants — figures that indicate the state is part of a nationwide trend that some experts say contradicts the main duty of law enforcement to protect public safety.
The heavily armed SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams were deployed to serve search warrants more than 90 percent of the time, according to reports made by police departments under a state law that went into effect last year.
Thirty-seven Maryland agencies reported a total of 806 deployments, which critics say proves that the paramilitary units are being used for standard police work and not for the types of high-risk, extraordinary situations for which they were created.
“SWAT teams, initially formed to handle relatively rare, extremely dangerous barricade and hostage situations, have incrementally reached the point where they are routinely used to execute drug-raid search warrants,” said Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution with a long career in law enforcement. “In doing so, many police agencies have lost sight of the original worthwhile goals of protecting life, the primary duty of law enforcement.”
The dangers involved with sending tactical units to perform surprise raids were on full display recently in Detroit, where a 7-year-old girl was killed after being shot in the neck by police during a SWAT raid to capture a murder suspect.
But police officials in Maryland say that SWAT teams are simply better equipped to serve high-risk search warrants without injury to those involved.
A state law enacted in 2009 requires police departments with SWAT teams to report to the governor’s office every six months about the teams’ activities. The first round of data, covering last July through December, was submitted earlier this year. Capital News Service obtained the reports from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention through a Public Information Act request.
The law defines a SWAT team as any special police unit “trained to deal with unusually dangerous or violent situations and having special equipment and weapons, such as rifles more powerful than those carried by regular police officers.”
The numbers show that Maryland’s SWAT teams are often used in situations that aren’t all that unusual.
Depending on the severity of the offense, crimes generally fit in one of two categories defined by the FBI.
Less-serious crimes like simple assaults, weapons violations and drug offenses are defined as “Part II,” while violent crimes, including homicide, rape and robbery, are classified as “Part I.”
In Maryland, 53 percent of SWAT deployments were for Part I crimes, 40 percent for Part II and roughly 7 percent for other reasons, such as a suicidal person or emergency petition.
The Prince George’s County Police Department had 195 deployments, 54 percent of which were for Part II crimes, the highest total in the state and more than double the figures reported in other large Maryland jurisdictions.
Baltimore City Police came in second with 84 deployments, followed by Montgomery County with 73 deployments and Baltimore County with 63 deployments.
“We generate a significant amount of narcotic-related search warrants and the majority of our SWAT deployments are for those types of offenses,” said Capt. Misty Mints, a Prince George’s Police spokeswoman.
Across the state, property was seized in 78 percent of deployments, but only 60 percent led to at least one arrest.
The Maryland statistics appear to follow the national trend of SWAT teams being used increasingly in the so-called war on drugs.
According to research by criminologist Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University, SWAT team use increased nationally from about 3,000 deployments per year in the early 1980s to at least 40,000 per year in 2006.
McNamara, who served as police chief of San Jose, Calif., for 15 years, was involved in the creation of one of the first SWAT-like police units in the country during his time with the NYPD in the early 1970s.
He said the idea that massive firepower is needed to fight drug dealers is overblown because the weapons they might keep are usually for protection against other criminals who might be after their money or drugs, not for suicidal shootouts with police.
McNamara said that SWAT-style raids are useful to police because the element of surprise allows them to gather evidence, which is usually hard to come by in drug cases.
“This leads to questionable conduct that is highly dangerous to innocent people but is often shrugged aside due to the police mindset that it is a war and ‘shit happens’ in a war,” McNamara said.
Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo, whose dogs were killed during a botched drug raid at his home in 2008, said the fact that the data exists is a good step toward measuring police performance, which the civilian leadership has failed to do.
“There’s a tendency on the part of elected officials to not want to challenge police. They’re intimidated,” said Calvo. “We need to develop measures to look at public safety performance and how they’re doing from a stats standpoint. Patterns do emerge.”
Calvo has become an outspoken critic of SWAT team misuse after the high-profile incident nearly two years ago that led him to sue the county.
Police had intercepted a package containing 30 pounds of marijuana addressed to Calvo’s wife, but the couple was cleared of any wrongdoing after it was discovered that they had fallen victim to a trafficking scheme in which drug shipments were addressed to innocent people to avoid detection.
The legislation that requires police to report on SWAT activity was passed in large part due to the Calvo case and the attention it received.
The pattern in Prince George’s County was already clear to Calvo, who said the county executive and council have stood idly by through “national embarrassment after national embarrassment” caused by the actions of its law enforcement employees.
Calvo’s case wasn’t the first SWAT controversy in Maryland. In 2007, sheriff’s deputies in Prince George’s County shot and killed a dog after raiding the wrong house. In early 2005, 44-year-old Cheryl Lynn Noel was shot and killed during a drug raid in Baltimore County after police found her in a bedroom with a gun. Three people were charged with minor drug offenses in the raid, but Noel’s family filed a lawsuit, claiming that — in all the confusion — she didn’t know it was the police coming into the home.
But the SWAT data reveals that violent incidents are rare.
Over the six-month period, no people or animals were injured or killed in any of the 195 raids in Prince George’s County.
Of the 806 deployments statewide, only seven resulted in an injury to a person and only three resulted in an injury to an animal. No people were killed but two animals were killed during raids in Baltimore.
Lt. Ron Smith, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Police Department, said that safety was the top concern for his organization’s SWAT team.
“When it comes to doing raids, they’re the best group in the Police Department to successfully complete one of these operations with no injury to themselves or the people in the house or the surrounding community,” Smith said.
The next batch of SWAT reports is due to the governor’s office in mid-July. After analysts have received two full sets of statistics, they will prepare a full report that will be submitted to the General Assembly and the governor by Sept. 1.