Posted by: Ann Corcoran | March 7, 2013

ACLU launches an investigation into the excessive use of force by SWAT teams

Get this out in the open before these local SWAT teams start buying drones!

Boy, is that timely or what!   We’ve written several posts on just this subject recently as the little town of Sharpsburg, Maryand was the site of just such an excessive “military-like” show of force a few months ago with the Terry Porter SWAT.

Sharpsburg SWAT to issue a search warrant, November 2012. Photo Hagerstown Herald Mail, Ric Dugan

For new readers I have a whole category, entitled ‘Sharpsburg SWAT’ (click here) if you would like to see what happened in rural Washington County in November 2012 when, in order to merely serve a search warrant, an entire squadron of FBI, the Maryland State Police and the local SWAT team descended on a man’s home who allegedly owned some guns and had a 20-year-old conviction in a drug case.

Mind you, he hadn’t shot at anyone (had no criminal record for two decades) or even threatened to shoot anyone, but in serving a simple search warrant the police used excessive force (a no-knock warrant) and caused great anxiety for the citizens in the area.  (Porter was not in the home and peacefully turned himself in the next day, once authorities had acquired an arrest warrant).

Frankly, I might have not been so eager to believe this ACLU project was necessary (thinking the police only had the best intentions to protect the innocent) if I hadn’t witnessed the events surrounding the SWAT of Terry Porter.  The ACLU is not usually on the side of conservatives, but interesting how the times are changing.  Senator Rand Paul’s drone filibuster on the Senate floor last night highlights those changing times.

MD State Police helicopter used in Sharpsburg SWAT. Photo: Ric Dugan

Now comes the news, hat tip: Judy, that this use of excessive military-like raids on citizens is a nationwide problem and the American Civil Liberties Union is going to take it on.   Here (emphasis mine) is the lengthy and very detailed article at the Huffington Post written byHuffPost investigative reporter Radley Balko, author of the forthcoming book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.  I’ve selected some section to give you some of the facts, but please read the whole HuffPo article.

It seems that the proliferation of SWAT teams and their use is being driven by federal grants!

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched a nationwide campaign to assess police militarization in the United States. Starting Wednesday, ACLU affiliates in 23 states are sending open records requests to hundreds of state and local police agencies requesting information about their SWAT teams, such as how often and for what reasons they’re deployed, what types of weapons they use, how often citizens are injured during SWAT raids, and how they’re funded. More affiliates may join the effort in the coming weeks.

Additionally, the affiliates will ask for information about drones, GPS tracking devices, how much military equipment the police agencies have obtained through programs run through the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, and how often and for what purpose state National Guards are participating in enforcement of drug laws.

“We’ve known for a while now that American neighborhoods are increasingly being policed by cops armed with the weapons and tactics of war,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU’s Center for Justice, which is coordinating the investigation. “The aim of this investigation is to find out just how pervasive this is, and to what extent federal funding is incentivizing this trend.”

50,000 SWATs a year nationwide!

Kraska (Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University) estimates that total number of SWAT raids in America jumped from just a few hundred per year in the 1970s, to a few thousand by the early 1980s, to around 50,000 by the mid-2000s.

The vast majority of those raids are to serve warrants on people suspected of nonviolent drug crimes. Police forces were no longer reserving SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics for events that presented an immediate threat to the public. They were now using them mostly as an investigative tool in drug cases, creating violent confrontations with people suspected of nonviolent, consensual crimes.


There hasn’t been a major effort to quantify the militarization trend since Kraska’s studies in the late 1990s. That’s what the ACLU is hoping to do with this investigation.


One problem the ACLU may run into is a lack of cooperation from the police agencies it’s investigating.  [Gee, does that sound familiar to Sharpsburg area residents wanting answers–ed] Kraska said that when he conducted his surveys in the 1990s, police departments were forthcoming, and even boastful about their SWAT teams. “We had a really high response rate,” he said. “But when the reports came out and were critical, and the press coverage was critical, they stopped cooperating.” Kraska said the response rate for his follow-up survey dropped off, and that police agencies haven’t cooperated with subsequent similar efforts by other criminologists.

Did you know that Maryland has a SWAT Transparency Law?

The Sharpsburg citizens need to see those Maryland’s reports!  The HuffPo article continued:

In 2009, Maryland passed a SWAT transparency law. It requires every police agency in the state with a SWAT team to provide data twice per year on the number of times the SWAT team is deployed, the reason for the deployment, whether any shots were fired, and whether the raid resulted in criminal charges. The effort to get the law passed was led by Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md., who was the victim of a highly publicized mistaken raid on his home in which a Prince George’s County SWAT team shot and killed his two black Labradors. The bill puts no restrictions on SWAT teams or how they’re used. Its only purpose is transparency. Still, it was vigorously opposed by every police agency in the state.

“This is one of the most intrusive things a government can do,” Calvo said. “These are government agents, breaking down your door, invading your home. And yet it’s all done in secret. In most cases, no one knows what criteria police are using when they decide how to serve a search warrant. There’s no transparency, there’s no oversight.”

“After the law was passed,” he continued, “we found out that there are ZIP codes in Maryland where every search warrant is served by a SWAT team. I mean, even if you don’t care about civil liberties, in some places less than half of these raids result in so much as a single arrest. So you’re conducting these dangerous, volatile raids, you’re terrifying people and putting them at risk, and you’re serving no law enforcement purpose.”

Neither Kraska nor Calvo are optimistic that the ACLU will get much cooperation. “I’d imagine they’ll mostly be declined,” Calvo said.

“My experience is that they’ll have a very difficult time getting comprehensive, forthright information,” Kraska said. “If the goal here is to impose some transparency, you have to understand, that’s not what the SWAT industry wants.”

No calls (yet) in Maryland to rein in SWAT team excesses

And in Maryland, the transparency law has shown that police departments in the state are using SWAT tactics in precisely the ways critics have claimed: to break into homes to serve warrants on people suspected of low-level drug crimes. Many times, they’re not even finding enough contraband to make an arrest. Yet there haven’t been any calls in the state to reform the way SWAT teams are used.

Read the whole thing here.

Now, there is a project for the next session of the General Assembly as “liberty-minded” activists grow in strength in Maryland.

This has been building for decades through Republican Presidents and Governors and through Democrat Presidents and Governors, but somehow I find this scary as hell with the O-man in the White House and O’Malley in the Governor’s mansion.


  1. Every once in a while the ACLU uses its clout to perform a useful role – glad to hear they are looking into the massive abuse of police power although I am skeptical they will be able to break through the barriers of secrecy. They are also an outspoken opponent of the President using drones to target and kill Americans on American soil suspected of engaging in terrorism.

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