War on Drugs

Maryland Bill Would Bring Transparency to Use of SWAT Teams


Berwyn Heights, Maryland Mayor Cheye Calvo, who last summer was subjected to a particularly violent mistaken drug raid in which police shot and killed his two black labs, is helping push a new bill in the Maryland legislature that would require every SWAT team in the state to provide to the public "a monthly public report on its activities, including where and when it was deployed and whether an operation resulted in arrests, evidence seizures or injuries."

This is a terrific first step, and the Maryland legislature needs to pass it. Part of the problem I've encountered reporting on this issue is that police departments tend to to be stingy with this sort of information. Even when it's available, it's often collected in ways that aren't usable. Over the last few years, I've tried to file open records request for copies search warrants, evidence return sheets, and any other documentation of SWAT-related drug raids in several major cities. In addition to being quoted prohibitive copying and labor fees, I've also learned that search warrants and evidence return sheets are usually kept in separate places, making it arduous to match them up once a case has been resolved. In cases where a raid resulted in no charges, the warrants are actually often thrown out. Of course, those are the very cases we want to know about.

The bill Calvo's pushing would begin to make data about SWAT teams available, so we can assess how often they're used, in what situations they're used, and, when they're used in drug raids, how often they actually find not only illicit drugs, but the high-power weapons proponents say make these sorts of tactics necessary. In the few places this sort of analysis has been done, the results have been less than convincing.

Calvo's bill would also show how many often Maryland's SWAT teams hit the wrong home.

It'll be interesting to see how the state's police organizations react. Commenters to the Washington Post article who appear to be police officers seem to be miffed at even this small bit of transparency.