U.S. News


Rethinking Paramilitary Policing

Throughout my service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. government’s use of private security companies (PSCs) was highly visible and a source of friction with, and animosity from, the Iraqi people. Although necessary for the security of civilian reconstruction and support activity, the sometimes-heavy-handed use of force by PSCs alienated much of the population. Regardless of actual conduct, their appearance — in body armor, identity concealing masks and glasses, and armored vehicles demanding the right of way — increased negative perceptions of an occupying force with little regard for the basic human rights of civilians. These PSCs were accused of being mercenaries, operating outside of the law with no accountability for their actions. In the United States today, the proliferation of police tactical teams creates similar impressions among our own citizens. Although there is a genuine need for this capability, the seeming ubiquity of militarized police forces creates questions about their cost, value, and potential adverse effects on the rule of law by police forces and respect for law among the population.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the proliferation of riots and violent protests in the United States and terrorism in Western Europe led to the creation of police Special Weapons and Tactics Teams, known as SWAT. They began with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the 1960s, responding to the Watts riots and domestic terrorists, such as the Weather Underground. Team members were specially selected, equipped with submachine guns, specialized riot gear, protective gear, and received 2,000 hours of training. They were (and in Los Angeles, still are) intended for only the most high-risk situations, such as hostage rescue or in response to violence beyond the capability of regular police.

By the end of the 1970s, LAPD’s SWAT team had a very high public profile, including a popular TV show. Many municipalities invested in similar teams, often without LAPD’s rigorous selection and training standards. Rather than the highly restricted use of such teams in Los Angeles, many cities looked for other opportunities to justify the expense of their SWAT teams. By the time that the decade ended, there were over 700 SWAT deployments per year. During the Clinton administration, the post-cold war drawdown made excess military equipment available to police. That process accelerated in the post-9/11 environment. Today, 90% of municipalities with more than 50,000 people have a police tactical team. These might be called SWAT or Emergency Response Teams, Quick Reaction Force, Special Response Teams, etc. A 2015 Congressional Research Service report collectively referred to these as Paramilitary Police Units or PPUs. PPUs aren’t limited to states and municipalities. Many federal agencies have their own tactical teams. This includes agencies you might expect, such as the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons. It also includes some agencies that might seem to have no role in law enforcement whatsoever, such as the National Institute of Health. By 2016, despite an overall national decrease in civil unrest and violent crime, there were an estimated 1,200 paramilitary police units conducting as many as eighty thousand deployments every year.

This tremendous militarization of police activity does not seem to result from any significant increase in violent crime or new dangers to the police in executing their normal duties. In fact, the opposite may be true. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there is no evidence that acquiring a SWAT team lowers crime or promotes officer safety. In practice, the vast majority of SWAT activity does not involve violent criminal acts. Over 80% of SWAT deployments serve warrants. These include both “knock and announce” and “no-knock” forced entry warrants accompanied by the wanton destruction of property, killing pets, and, in some cases, the death of the resident. Ten percent of these actions raid the wrong house, sometimes with tragic results. Other SWAT deployments respond to angry dogs, domestic disputes, and misdemeanor drug possession. Less than 5% of SWAT deployments involve a barricade scenario.

The Academy of Sciences report indicates that military-like gear and offensive tactics do not appreciably enhance officer safety, while it does increase the risk of civilian serious injury or death. At least one other study confirms that paramilitary police units are more likely to use deadly force, while other reports are mixed. These risks are primarily associated with using SWAT teams to serve warrants and respond to protests, rather than responding to hostage or other high-risk situations.

Aside from the risk to the civilian population – both alleged offenders and innocent parties — the Academy of Sciences study concludes that militarized policing can impose reputational costs on law enforcement. This perception is not shared by many in the law enforcement community. A report by International Chiefs of Police and the National Tactical Officers Association acknowledged public concerns regarding militarization and overly aggressive use of SWAT. However, in that same report, more than two-thirds of law enforcement agencies thought SWAT teams had a positive impact on community relations. This discontinuity of perceptions indicates a degree of separation between police and those they serve; alienation and separation likely to inhibit civic participation in, or support of, law enforcement activity.

The widespread use of militarized police seems counter to established principles on the use of force. The cornerstone of these principles is that force should only be used when necessary and that the force used must not exceed that which is reasonable in intensity, duration, and magnitude. The most common SWAT deployment — heavily armed and armored police to forcibly enter a home, with significant property damage and the risk of loss of civilian life — would appear to violate those principles. This would also apply to the appearance of paramilitary police at public demonstrations that were not yet violent.

There is good reason to believe that the original purposes of the Los Angeles SWAT team remain valid. Los Angeles still limits SWAT deployments to those exceptional circumstances. Other police departments and government agencies seem to be less restrictive. While SWAT teams may be a necessary resource for violent emergency situations, the use of this force should follow decision-making criteria similar to any other use of force: necessity and reasonableness. There also needs to be a risk analysis that includes considerations of harm to the innocent and to the reputation of the police department, leading to loss of respect and support for the police, tightening the spiral of fear and distrust.

In deciding what to do about militarized police forces, the police, governments at all levels, and the public should ask some very important questions. These include:

  • What do we expect these specialized teams to do? What should they not do?
  • How should we select officers as members of these teams?
  • What equipment do they need to perform what we need them to do? What equipment is unsuitable for police in these circumstances?
  • What level of training should we demand of police equipped with specialized, military, or military-like equipment, using offensive tactics?
  • What is the risk analysis process that determines when the deployment of tactical teams is warranted?
  • What are the criteria for analyzing whether the likely adverse effects of that deployment outweigh the probable advantages?
  • What are the alternatives to deploying paramilitary levels of force?
  • Who makes the decision and who has oversight of that decision? Who are those decision-makers accountable to?
  • Once deployed, what are the criteria for de-escalation and withdrawal of SWAT type teams?
  • How is accountability established for injury to persons or damage to property?
  • How is this accountability communicated to the citizenry?

In all things, the effect on the community, those who the police are supposed to serve and protect, must be at the forefront of the thought process. Does this deployment — even the appearance of a paramilitary police unit – add to or detract from the perception of security of the people in their homes and neighborhoods?

Addressing the proliferation of militarized police will not end the spiral of fear and distrust between the police and their citizens they serve. It is necessary, but not sufficient. In fragile countries across the world, humanitarian aid, relief, recovery, and reconstruction activities daily face violence and threats of violence. The three general approaches to security in these circumstances are described in escalating levels known as acceptance, protection, and deterrence. Here in the United States, which is supposed to be a stable environment under the rule of law, the use of SWAT or other militarized police immediately raises that security level to deterrence. We need to find ways to de-escalate the tension to acceptance, where it should be.

From 2004 to 2019, I served as the Defense Department lead for improving oversight, accountability, and developing international standards for private security companies. The combined efforts of the Departments of Defense and State, together with the PSCs themselves, significantly improved competency and respect for human rights among standards-compliant PSCs. Ultimately, several studies reported that Iraqi civilians felt safer around PSCs than they did around the U.S. or Iraqi military forces. However, the reputational damage to PSCs, and those who hire them, is still a long way from being healed. Even with rapid changes to SWAT-type police teams throughout the United States, the reputational damage of imprudent deployment and use of these teams will take a long time to repair.

I was also responsible for producing the quarterly report to Congress, “Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq”. The data input included a double-blind survey of the attitudes of the Iraqi population. One survey question was, “Do you feel more or less secure when you see NATO patrols in your neighborhood?” In each iteration of the survey, the answer was a very solid, “Less Secure.” My staff members did not understand why the Iraqis felt that way. I thought it was completely understandable. I posed the question to them this way: “Would you feel more or less secure if you saw a fully equipped SWAT team walking down the street in your own neighborhood?”