Numbers paint portrait of SWAT team use

February 24, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

After tactical officers burst into Cheye Calvos's house, bound his hands, held his mother-in-law on the floor and fatally shot his Labrador retrievers, the angry Berwyn Heights mayor was convinced that sheriff's deputies and other police in Prince George's County were out of control.

Even when police were serving routine warrants, regardless of whether intelligence indicated a threat, Calvo - who was absolved of any wrongdoing - argued that the police as a matter of policy deployed paramilitary teams armed with automatic weapons. Police expressed regret for the raid on Calvo's house in 2008, but the outrage over their tactics sparked legislation requiring police agencies in Maryland to compile data on tactical entries.

The first batch of numbers, obtained by The Baltimore Sun in a Public Information Act request to the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, is now out. And Calvo said it proves his point: In the last six months of 2009, Prince George's County police made more tactical raids - an average of more than one a day - than any other jurisdiction in Maryland, more than double the number conducted by officers in Baltimore City.

Police in Prince George's used tactical officers in 105 raids involving what the FBI defines as Part II crimes - nonserious felonies and misdemeanors - and 90 for more violent offenses, such as murder, rape and aggravated assault. In Baltimore City, police raided 84 houses, 30 for nonserious crimes. Baltimore County officers conducted 62 tactical raids, only one of which involved a nonserious crime.

The data do not include narratives, so it's impossible to know what intelligence police had in each situation without going through individual reports filed by 37 Maryland police agencies, which together performed 806 tactical raids in six months. For example, SWAT officers might be used to serve a warrant in a relatively minor case if police believe the target is armed.

But to Calvo, the numbers speak volumes about how different police agencies work.

"There are too many people in Prince George's County employed solely to dress up in military gear and kick in doors," the mayor said Tuesday. "How is this an efficient use of resources? They are creating situations where bad things can happen. Most of the time, things go fine, but sometimes the trigger goes off. Sometimes things go terribly wrong."

That's what happened to Calvo in the summer of 2008 when Prince George's County sheriff's deputies barged into his home with a warrant after they intercepted a package of marijuana addressed to the mayor's wife. Calvo was a victim of a ruse in which drug dealers were sending narcotics to unsuspecting recipients, hoping to intercept the boxes left outside front doors before the homeowners returned.

Calvo complained that a rudimentary investigation would have told police they were about to raid the house of a mayor and that sending officers with machine guns was overkill. The department's county police chief said at the time he called Calvo "to express my sorrow and regret," but a spokesman defended the raid as procedurally correct. A sheriff's department review concluded that deputies acted appropriately.

A Prince George's County police spokeswoman who spoke only on the condition that she not be identified, pointing to the delicate nature of the query and Calvo's pending lawsuit, would only caution that every tactical raid cited in the reports was the result of warrants issued by judges. She noted that even when minor crimes are alleged, most of those are concerned with drugs, and police always assume weapons are involved.

The spokeswoman also stressed that in 99 of the 195 raids, police did not have to break down doors or force their way into homes. She declined to comment further until the police chief could examine the data. The Prince George's County Sheriff's Office, which conducted the raid on Calvo's house, listed only one raid over the six-month period, a forceable entry in Bladensburg on Dec. 29 in which two arrests were made.

The statistics compiled on police raids give a broad picture of how the tactic is used in Maryland. Of the 806 raids conducted in the six-month period, more than 94 percent stemmed from search or arrest warrants. Most of the others came as the result of a barricade situation.

Police forced their way into 545 houses, seized property in 633 of the raids, made arrests 485 times and discharged their weapons five times. In the six months studied, seven civilians were hurt but none killed, and two animals were injured and two killed.

Baltimore police listed raid sites by ZIP code, with the most, 22, in Northwest Baltimore, followed by 14 in parts of East and Northeast Baltimore. There were nine in Waverly, four in Govans and five in Highlandtown.

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