Monday, March 23, 2015

Maryland's SWAT-Restraint Bill

This bill's focus is the prohibition of a fairly new, but widespread, police tactic: The use of SWAT teams and advanced multi-entry assault tactics to serve search warrants. Nationally, these have ranged from search warrants for drugs to political harrasment.

The problem with this use of SWAT teams are multiple: One, that such aggressive assaults to serve search warrants results in community resentment. Two, that night-time heavy assaults are dangerous to police officers and citizens alike. And three, that the aggressive, militaristic attitudes of SWAT operations are ill-suited for general policework, and in fact directly contradict the original concept of policing.

SWAT teams were intended for those limited circumstances where an unfolding crisis requires a far more powerful response than standard police equipment allows. This bill aims to restrict their use to those circumstances. The primary justification for SWAT is fear of situations like the North Hollywood Shootout.

First, the bill defines SWAT teams as a team of officers armed beyond the average police officer, as with more powerful rifles to deal with "unusually dangerous or violent" circumstances.

Then the bill exclusively authorizes the use of SWAT teams in circumstances where there is a "significant imminent threat" to people and regular police are not enough to meet that threat. While "significant" and "imminent" are obviously judgment calls, they absolutely exclude regular policework, like serving search warrants. This is a direct prohibition of the most frequent misuse of SWAT teams - casual deployment.

The bill also requires, save for circumstances of time-sensitive emergency, a report, written by a supervisor, detailing why the use a SWAT team is necessary, specifically, what the threat is, why regular law enforcement is insufficient and whether there are special circumstances involved in the target site. (Pregnant women, children, etc.) This appears to be intended more as an enforcement mechanism for the previous prohibitions, eliminating the creation of 'after the fact' justifications for SWAT deployments that go wrong, or even the potential fabrication of evidence to justify a deployment.

Lastly, the bill requires a series of semi-annual reports of each activation, including reports on deployments based on geography, crimes involved, the legal authority of each activation, and most importantly, if SWAT teams are deployed for search warrants, why.

The bill contains additional reporting requirements on the results of the deployments as well, including:

the demographics of the people subject to the raid
the number of arrests
any evidence (drugs, weapons, general evidence) of crime
Whether SWAT found the right address (No, this is not a given)
Whether SWAT knocked and asked to enter
Whether SWAT forced an entry
Whether a weapon was fired by SWAT
Whether a civilian used/threatened to use a weapon
Whether anyone (or any animals) were injured

All of this is to be compiled and turned over to the Governor's Office Of Crime Control and Prevention and the municipality commanding the SWAT unit within 15 days at the end of the 6-month cycle.

The bill also requires the Governor's Office to produce reports on the usage of SWAT teams statewide. The report must include:

A summary of the component reports
The number of search warrants served by SWAT compared to the general police
Whether the intelligence that justified SWAT deployment was justified

These requirements are a method to review whether the police are following the law seriously, and not still using SWAT to serve search warrants generally. By comparing SWAT search warrants with standard search warrants, the Governor's Office can identify potential problem districts overusing SWAT teams, and by reviewing the intelligence used for SWAT deployments, they can see whether the supervisory personnel are just plugging in the legal requirements without genuine justification.

There really isn't an enforcement section - the only requirement is that police agencies who fail to make reports are reported to the Governor and the Legislative Policy Committee. Scary.

Overall, it's a good bill that's effectively limits the deployment of SWAT to situations the SWAT team was originally designed for, and essentially prohibits the most common forms of SWAT team misuse. There does not appear to be any over-reach nor any harmful restrictions. SWAT teams can still be deployed in crisis situations on short notice without authorization, and in anticipated situations that legitimately justify the use of SWAT team deployments, they can still be deployed, provided those justifications are documented during the planning of the deployment.

It is, in my opinion, a balanced, sensible measure that addresses a legitimate issue of good governance without over-reach or unnecessary restrictions.

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