Questionable force

SWAT team use prompts regulation proposals

March 01, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,

On a January morning, Howard County police learned that two of their cruisers had been broken into while parked in an Elkridge neighborhood. Someone stole penlights, a Police Department baseball cap, citation books - and a high-powered rifle and nearly 150 rounds of ammunition.

The next day, a SWAT team raided Mike Hasenei's nearby mobile home.

Hasenei says an officer hit him in the face with a shield, knocked him to the ground and handcuffed him and his wife. Police shot one of the family dogs.

But no weapon was found. And Hasenei has added his voice to those raising questions about the use of SWAT teams by Maryland police agencies.

"It's just a sad situation that could have been avoided if they had done some homework," said Hasenei, a 38-year-old senior computer analyst for Marriott International.

Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon defended the raid, one of three that night on homes in Elkridge's Deep Run Park.

"The bottom line is that we had information that we believed the weapons can be in that home, the judge agreed and authorized to do the search," McMahon said. "Nobody feels good about the fact that a dog was killed."

Hasenei, who has filed a complaint with county police, says he plans to testify Tuesday at a state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing. He is in favor of a bill that would require a standard report for police agencies that would include how often SWAT teams are deployed, for what purpose and the results of those raids.

Requests for data from several police agencies throughout the Baltimore region produced varying amounts of information about tactical unit deployment last year, including how many warrants led to arrests in Baltimore County and the number of hostage situations handled in Howard County. But none could readily provide comprehensive information about their units' activities last year.

In pushing for the bill, Hasenei joins Cheye Calvo, the mayor of a suburban Washington town, whose dogs were killed by a SWAT team last year in a raid that made international news.

"It's pretty clear to me that police are using SWAT teams for duties that used to be performed by ordinary police officers," says Calvo, whose Berwyn Heights house was raided July 29 when police mistakenly thought his wife was involved in drug trafficking. "No question, there are times when SWAT teams are appropriate. What strikes me about this is that police are using SWAT teams as an initial response rather than a last resort."

Sen. Brian Frosh, a Democrat from Montgomery County who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and is co-sponsoring the bill, said, "It's not just how they decide on who to raid, it's how they carry it out."

During the past two decades, raids by police agency tactical teams have been on the rise nationally, experts say. Peter Kraska, a professor of criminal justice and police studies at Eastern Kentucky University, has conducted two national surveys of police departments during the past decade. According to Kraska, the number of deployments jumped from 2,500 annually in the early 1980s to between 50,000 and 60,000 by 2005.

The rise in the use of SWAT, or special weapons and tactics, teams was largely the result of the Reagan administration's war on drugs, Kraska said. His research details the transformation in how units are used: from negotiating hostage situations, combating criminals with high-powered weapons and curtailing major drug deals in the early days, to deployments for recreational narcotics users or small-time marijuana dealers in more recent years.

"They terrorize these people unnecessarily," Kraska said.

Radley Balko, a former policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington who wrote a paper that details the history of SWAT teams and accounts of several raids that went awry, said that this week's hearing in Annapolis is a positive step.

"It's really sort of an obvious reform," he said.

However, the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association says reporting requirements for SWAT teams should emanate from the law enforcement community, not legislators.

"Our data shows that when SWAT teams are deployed, the violence goes down," said John Gnagey, who was a SWAT team member for 26 years in the Champaign, Ill., police department.

McMahon said there is a clear distinction between Howard County patrol officers' duties and those that should be handled by the SWAT team."The threshold we use for authorizing the use of a SWAT team is: Is there a heightened sense of danger in serving that search warrant that the judge has authorized us to serve," McMahon said. "What's the search warrant written for, what's the past history of those people in the residence? All those things come into play."

High-risk situations that call for a SWAT team response include when police face suspects with weapons or who have taken hostages, the chief said.

McMahon declined to discuss the specifics of the Elkridge raids.

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