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S.W.A.T. Team Use In U.S. Law Enforcement Dramatically Increases


July 1997

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and a rapid expansion of their roles since the early 1980s, according to a new study by Peter Kraska, a professor of police studies at Eastern Kentucky University, and his colleague (Peter B. Kraska and Victor E. Kappeler, "Militarizing American Police: The Rise and Normalization of Paramilitary Units," Social Problems, February 1997, vol. 44, no. 1; "`Paramilitary Police Units' are more popular than ever," Law Enforcement News, May 15, 1997, vol. 23, no. 467, p. 9; William Booth, "Exploding Number of SWAT Teams Sets Off Alarms," Washington Post, June 17, 1997, p. A1).

Kraska said his research shows that the rise in SWAT teams and their activities closely follows the increase in resources used to fight the anti-drug effort. "The drug war created the atmosphere for this kind of pro-active policing," said Kraska.

Kraska surveyed 690 law enforcement agencies serving cities with populations of more than 50,000. According to his survey, 90% have active SWAT teams. In the early 1980s, only 60% of these cities had such units. The researchers found that even in smaller cities and rural communities two of every three police departments have SWAT teams, a trend that Kraska calls "militarizing" Mayberry.

In addition to an increase in the number of SWAT teams, their roles have expanded. Traditionally utilized for highly specialized action, such as barricaded suspects and hostage situations, the teams are increasingly engaged in traditional police work, especially work related to anti-drug efforts. The research shows that between 1990 and 1995 SWAT units were employed in their traditional roles for only a small number of occasions. Instead 75% of their activities were devoted to serving "high risk" warrants, such as "no-knock" warrants, mostly drug searches. "In SWAT units formed since 1980, their use has increased by 538 percent," said Kraska. He added that such units are now being deployed as full-time roaming patrols.

The SWAT teams wear camouflage, body armor and gas masks, and use weapons such as diversionary "flashbangs" (a diversionary device), submachine guns, explosives and chemical weapons. Kraska's survey shows that the SWAT teams receive training by active and retired military experts in special operations. Heckler and Koch, makers of the MP5 submachine gun used by the Navy Seals, also provide training to the SWAT teams. Some units also have helicopters and armored personnel carriers at their disposal.

Fresno Police Chief Ed Winchester said a highly armed, more violent class of criminals requires the use of SWAT teams. "The criminals aren't stupid," said Winchester. "They see eight guys surrounding them, all carrying submachine guns and wearing black fatigues, they don't want to get killed." Winchester said that because of the extreme response tactics used by SWAT teams, they actually fire fewer shots. "They overwhelm the suspects," he said. "They don't need to shoot."

"It's a very dangerous thing, when you're telling cops they're soldiers and there's an enemy out there," said Joseph McNamara, former chief of police in San Jose and Kansas City. McNamara, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, added, "Despite the conventional wisdom that community policing is sweeping the nation, the exact opposite is true." Kraska observes that SWAT teams attract a different kind of officer -- less a "social worker" and more a special operations soldier. "The SWAT teams love this stuff," says Kraska. "It's fun to fire these weapons. It's exciting to train. They use `simmunition' -- like the paint balls and play warrior games. This stuff is a rush."