Sun Article Highlights Benefits and Drawbacks of Police Tactical Units

An August 8 Baltimore Sun article examines the pros and cons of using tactical units (like SWAT) in residential homes for searches, arrests, and hostage situations.  In the article, proponents highlight the public safety benefits, including police officer protection, while critics question the deployment frequency and enforcement scope of tactical units and the risk to home occupants and bystanders.

The article also discusses the challenges in using statistics to track the utility and performance of tactical units.  Maryland law enforcement agencies have been required to file reports concerning the use of tactical units with the State since 2010.

According to the most recent report from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, total deployments rose marginally, from 1,618 to 1,641, from fiscal 2010 to 2011.

In each of the two years that the reports have been issued, deployments resulted in a civilian death and more than a dozen injuries. A handful of animals were killed or injured as well.

“On the face of it, with that many involvements from the SWAT Teams, while nobody wants to take a life at all, that doesn’t seem like an alarming number [of fatalities] considering the type of people that they’re dealing with,” said L. Douglas Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership within the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

He urged further study, however, to find out “what’s behind the numbers,” including whether the injured were on the attack when they were hurt, or simply innocent bystanders.

“Statistics are a good tool to get you to ask more questions; they’re not going to tell you the whole story,” Ward said. Tactical team raids “serve a good purpose, but like anything else, they have to be [based] on good policies and good training, and I think people in general have a right to know if they’re being used safely and properly.”

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