In his 2013 book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, journalist Radley Balko is able to trace the start of the use of tactical teams that became known as SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams to the 1965 Watts Riots, where a young Darryl Gates, seeing his police officers out-gunned and out-maneuvered, decided to create a small, elite tactical team to handle dangerous situations.
From these humble and limited beginnings, by the 1980s and the war on drugs, SWAT teams had proliferated throughout the country, even to locations that were very small in population and rarely had murders.
Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, in a 2014 Atlantic article, told the publication that he estimated that SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980 but are now used around 50,000 times a year.
Professor Kraska believes that 89 percent of police departments serving American cities with more than 50,000 people had SWAT teams in the late 1990s—almost double the level from the mid-1980s. “By 2007 more than 80% of police departments in cities with between 25,000 and 50,000 people had them, up from 20% in the mid-1980s (there are around 18,000 state and local police agencies in America, compared with fewer than 100 in Britain).”
It is one thing to have these tactical teams, however, Mr. Balko’s book demonstrated that once police forces had SWAT teams, they used SWAT teams—even when they really did not need those SWAT teams—to serve warrants to individuals who did not pose a particularly high risk. Moreover, these raids often made mistakes—acting on bad tips or, worse yet, going to the wrong address.
For instance, in 2008, Prince George Mayor Cheye Calvo had his home raided in what he describes in a 2009 Washington Post article.
He said the “errant Prince George’s County SWAT team had just forced its way into our home, shot dead our two black Labradors, Payton and Chase, and started ransacking our belongings as part of what would become a four-hour ordeal.”
Ultimately, “The police found nothing, of course, to connect my family and me to a box of drugs that they had been tracking and had delivered to our front door. The community — of which I am mayor — rallied to our side. A FedEx driver and accomplice were arrested in a drug trafficking scheme. Ultimately, we were cleared of any wrongdoing, but not before the incident drew international outrage.”
This is the concern that many have when they think about the militarization of police—the escalation of police tactics. Even after the mistake, Prince George County officials declined to acknowledge wrongdoing. The sheriff said that his deputies “did what they were supposed to do.”
As Mr. Calvo put it, “What confounds me is the unmitigated refusal of county leaders to challenge law enforcement and to demand better — as if civil rights are somehow rendered secondary by the war on drugs.”
In August of last year, many residents in Davis were surprised and stunned that the police had acquired an armored military vehicle—the MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle).
The police, at the time, quickly justified it, arguing that increasingly they were encountering high-powered weapons that could pierce conventional body armor in addition to existing armored vehicles like the Peacekeeper. However, the council, sensing community opposition and probably their own trepidations, voted narrowly to return the vehicle, which has since ended up in Woodland.
In late March, a murder-suicide led police to bringing in not one but two MRAPs. Assistant Police Chief Darren Pytel explained why the two MRAPs were needed.
It was when police searched Joseph Hein’s Facebook page with a picture of a military grade rifle, and the realization that, if he possessed that weapon, it would “go through anything we got,” that prompted the Assistant Chief to summon the first MRAP.
The MRAP would house a small team of people that would be able to do a dynamic entry on short notice, should the need arise. They wanted to be able to deploy the robots – one large and one small. The large one would breach the doors while the small one had the maneuverability to make the entry, go inside and be able to assess the situation and perhaps communicate.
The second MRAP was used to house the operator of the robot, which needed a direct line in order for the remote control to work.
Assistant Chief Darren Pytel explained that the philosophy of the Davis Police Department has, in recent years, moved away from the use of dynamic entries, like the one that happened with the Prince George Mayor and the ones described in Radley Balko’s book.
Assistant Chief Pytel said that not only is this what the courts are telling police departments, but what he believes is the right decision. He believes that time is on the side of the police and the longer they can wait, the more likely they can deescalate the situation.
A dynamic entry would end the potential standoff very quickly but, at the same time, greatly increase the chance of a confrontation and therefore the opportunity that the subject could provoke a confrontation that would force the police to kill him. That is what they wanted to avoid.
Darren Pytel pushed the Davis Police principle of surround and call out, as opposed to dynamic entries. He argued that the courts are asking police to slow things down. When things go to lawsuits, experts are called in and they cite best practices.
He stressed that this is a policy he very much agrees with, even though many departments continue to use dynamic entries—with problematic results at times. He said there has been a change in thinking, away from rushing in to quickly shut down a situation. He said, “I think that’s a good thing.”
A records request bears this out. The Vanguard asked the Davis Police how many times the SWAT was deployed in 2014. The answer was four.
Three of those times were to deal with a barricaded armed subject. Once was to serve a high risk warrant—most likely the raid at Royal Oak last September.
There were no shots fired at any of the call outs. Two of the incidents resulted in an arrest for felony domestic violence, once of those included a PC section 245—an assault with a deadly weapon, and a felon in possession of a firearm. in a third one, the suspect surrendered prior to full deployment and the report was forwarded to the DA.
Finally, the raid resulted in a several arrests and, most recently, a prison sentence for the main suspect.
Thus far, the Davis City Council has not addressed the issue of whether the Davis Police should be able to bring the MRAP into the community. They have also yet to address whether Davis should incur the expense of purchasing a civilian armored vehicle.
The Davis Police ironically face a Catch-22. On the one hand, their restraint in the overwhelming use of force that has proliferated many departments across the country suggests that they may well have earned greater latitude with respect to the use of armored vehicles.
On the other hand, the fact that the SWAT team has only been deployed four times in the most recent calendar year calls into question what the police department’s needs are.
One of the concerns of the critics of police militarization is the escalation of tactics as tactical teams and military grade weapons become available. Right now, Davis appears to be an exception to that trend. However, the department does not have its own SWAT – it shares service with West Sacramento.
The question is, if Davis had more readily accessible vehicles and SWAT, would they deploy more often?
—David M. Greenwald reporting