Beltway Confidential

DOJ official warns against 'dramatic expansion' of SWAT teams in local police departments

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Beltway Confidential,Joel Gehrke,Justice Department

SWAT team use has expanded by as much as 1,500 percent from 1980 to 2000, only to deploy in ever more minor situations, Peter Kraska, professor and chair of Graduate Studies and Research in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, estimates.

SWAT teams arose in response to a legitimate need for police forces who could act in "serious violent emergency situations," Karl Bickel, a senior policy analyst at the DOJ's Community Oriented Police Services Program, allowed.

"However, since the early 1980s the use of SWAT teams has undergone a dramatic expansion: in the number of departments creating SWAT teams and in the mission and sheer number SWAT deployments," Bickel wrote in a DOJ newsletter. "The number of departments--both large and small--with SWAT teams has increased by 48 percent from 1985 to 1995. SWAT team use increased as well, with team deployments jumping by 939 percent from 1980 to 1995, reaching about 30,000 deployments. The nature of their use changed as well. Search and arrest warrants related to drug cases accounted for a significant amount of the increase in SWAT deployments."

The COPS program has been part of the problem, though, says an author who has written a book about it. "Many of the agents who populated these new SWAT teams, the paper found, had been hired with COPS grants," Radley Balko wrote in The Rise of the Warrior Cop.

Still, Balko expressed some optimism that "folks like Bickel can convince the Obama administration to end the Pentagon's giveaway of military gear to police departments across the country, cut the DHS grants that go toward purchasing even more military-like gear, or stop the federal grants and asset forfeiture policies that encourage the use of SWAT teams to serve warrants for nonviolent drug crimes," as he put it in a new item at the Huffington Post.

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