I often interview people charged with drug offenses who were arrested by a SWAT team.  Last week, I interviewed a person who was accused of delivering one ounce of marijuana in a very public parking lot and was arrested by black and armor-clad SWAT officers who jumped out of two vans.  Overkill?  Obviously.  Why are SWAT teams used to make arrests when there is no known threat of heavily armed people?  There is a reason, and it has nothing to do with the actual arrest.

The first time I, and probably most people, became aware of SWAT teams was in 1974 when a televised attempt to arrest Patty Hearst and those who kidnapped her was seen from Los Angeles.  The group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, was known to be heavily armed and LAPD wisely used their recently formed SWAT team to raid a house.

Soon after, many very large police departments decided they needed the same firepower, equipment, and training and formed their own SWAT teams.  For these very large police agencies who would utilize such a team often enough to justify the expense, it was a wise move.  However, smaller and smaller police departments decided “hey, we’re big too – we need a SWAT team too!”

As more and more police chiefs in smaller and smaller departments convinced their cities that real bad things can happen in their city too, the cities agreed to finance, arm, and train their own officers in SWAT tactics.  Never mind that an adjacent large city would lend them a SWAT team if was needed (which it may be, every 5 or 10 years).  That would mean the smaller city did not have a “full service” police department.

Now, the inevitable happened.  The smaller cities had expensive SWAT teams that were not being used enough to justify the expense.  The police chiefs had to explain their waste of money – or show that the SWAT teams were being used.  So, they changed the rules. 

Now, SWAT teams would be used to serve any search warrant, not just those where armed resistance was threatened.  Now, SWAT teams would be used to make any planned arrest.  Voila!  SWAT teams were needed and the money was wisely spent!  Smoke and mirrors.  Justifying the unjustifiable.  SWATing at flies.