Meaningful SWAT reform at risk in Annapolis — here’s how to help

Action alert: Help enact meaningful SWAT reform in Maryland!

  1. Visit this state web site: SWAT Team Reporting – SB 447. Then click and download the last SWAT statistical report to be issued, FY 2014 SWAT Data Report.(Please do both.) Believe it or not, this matters: police and politicians are claiming no one is interested, so let’s prove them wrong. 
  2. Call these four House Judiciary committee members now–and again first thing on Monday when office staff will have to take your call– and tell them you want meaningful SWAT reform via Delegate David Moon’s bill HB0739, meaning uniform training and deployment standards and data collection to prove those standards are working:
    • 301-858-3052, Kathleen Dumais (Vice chair; Montg.County, D15)
    • 301-858-3488, Joseph Vallario (Chair; P.G. County, D23B)
    • 410-841-3291, Curt Anderson (Deputy Majority Whip; Baltimore, D43)
    •  301-858-3380, Pam Queen (Montg. County, D14 — the third Montg.County member of the committee besides Dumais and Moon)
  3. Email bill sponsors Delegate David Moon and Senator Will Smith with a message of appreciation for their work on HB0739 and SB0941, the crossfiled bills that could make Maryland a leader again in reining in the rampant overuse of SWAT teams.
SWAT team. (Via

SWAT team. (Via “Will the Growing Militarization of Our Police Doom Community Policing?, cops.usdoj.gov, Community Policing Dispatch)

Background

I went to Annapolis on Tuesday to participate in the Judiciary Committee hearing for HB0739 (fiscal note) — a bill sponsored by Delegate David Moon that, in its current form, calls for…

  1. development of standards about training and deployment of SWAT teams by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission (MPTSC), and…
  2. data collection about SWAT team deployments by every police department on the frequency, location, reasons or warrants for SWAT team deployments, and outcomes of those deployments including arrests, injuries or deaths, property seizures, forcible entries and weapons discharges as well as the age, gender, and race of persons encountered, and the reporting of these data by the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP).

The data collection half of the bill would simply return the state to its leadership years of 2010-2014 when Maryland collected just such data, prompted by a notorious botched SWAT raid of a house belonging to the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, resulting in him kneeling in his boxers next to his two dead dogs and terrified mother-in-law.

It’s hard to know where to start with a critique of the SWAT culture permeating our country’s and state’s police forces. Maybe here: we were getting along just just fine without any SWAT teams whatsoever, until the 1965 Watts riots prompted LA Police Chief Darryl Gates not to, say, rethink police practices, but to double down with counterinsurgency warfare tactics being honed in the Vietnam War.*

Our nation’s police forces have been at war with us — well, mainly with some of us — ever since. As the ACLU’s fine 2014 report and police department survey “War Comes Home” showed , about 5 out of every 7 persons of known race** affected by a SWAT raid were persons of color. Moreover, over two thirds (68 percent) of those deployments were merely for drug searches — not hostage situations or barricaded bad guys. Only about one third (38 percent) were mere drug searches when white people were impacted.

Prepared with those facts, and knowing that this year’s bill was essentially a carbon copy of last year’s version, HB521, that passed out of committee by a 15-4 margin, I was hopeful that the hearing would go well. But when I arrived in Annapolis, Delegate Moon warned it might not, and that it was the reporting requirements that might not survive the committee’s deliberations.

The hearing

House Judiciary Committee hearing room, Annapolis

The full hearing that day had a total of 16 bills to hear testimony about — and as bad luck would have it, HB739 would turn out to be the 15th to be considered.  So despite beginning at 1pm, it wasn’t until around 10pm(!) that I could finally join Delegate Moon, Maryland Libertarian Party’s Eric Blitz, and ACLU Maryland’s Toni Holness at the panelist table to testify for HB739. Video of our part of the hearing can be seen here. Copies of both my own written testimony and that of Takoma Park resident, TPMobilization supporter… and ex-New York State prosecutor Eli Koppel are embedded at the end of this post.

It quickly developed that chairman Joseph Vallario (PG County), vice chair Kathleen Dumais (Montgomery County, D15), and Baltimore’s Curt Anderson had become skeptical of the all but identical bill they had passed out of committee last year.

  • Delegate Anderson noted that even serving a search warrant can be dangerous, for instance if the suspect has a history of violent behavior, so that might justify deploying a SWAT team.
    (Maybe so — so prove it by collecting data about the kinds of criminal records targets of SWAT team deployments were known to have. Maybe we’ll find out every single SWAT deployment was A-OK then — and maybe we won’t. Delegate Anderson doesn’t know any more than I do which will be the case.)
  • Waving what may have been a 2016 letter from the Maryland Department of State Police, Chairman Vallario relayed the claim that reports generated under the prior law were rarely reviewed or requested for review.
    (All I can say is I’ve looked at them — but I suspect the chairman never has, which would be a shame because he and his committee ought to have been their most avid readers, not midnight internet surfers.  Still, let’s all prove him wrong by downloading the reports and reading them.)
  • Delegate Kathleen Dumais claimed that Baltimore was pretty lucky that Montgomery County Police Department leapt to the rescue with its SWAT team during the Freddie Gray uprising.
    (Surely we don’t want SWAT teams just so the Baltimore Police Department can get away with murder.  It’s remarkable to turn yet again to overwhelming force and implicitly argue against meaningful oversight when it was precisely lack of oversight and a pattern of unreasonable force by its police department that caused Baltimore to erupt.   Maybe there’s a better, cheaper, less militarized way forward: police reform and SWAT reform.)

What’s next

Delegate Moon, District 20. david.moon@house.state.md.us

As long as HB0739 passes in some form, Senator Smith’s chief of staff Luke Pinton reminded me that the Senate bill SB0941 is at least as important: if the two bills get out of committee and the Senate bill is stronger, that version could prevail when the two versions are reconciled.  The Senate Judicial Proceedings hearing for the bill will be next Tuesday, February 21st, at 1pm.

But it would be best if HB0739 passes “clean,” without amendments that weaken it.  So the way forward for police reform supporters right now is to call Delegates Dumais, Vallario, and Anderson and urge them to do the right thing — the very same thing they did last year: pass a clean SWAT reform bill that creates uniform standards AND the data collection needed to measure whether those standards are being adhered to.

=====
* Radley Balko. 2013. The Rise of the Warrior Cop. PublicAffairs, New York.

** Overall, surveyed police departments failed to record any information about the race of about 3 out of every 10 individuals encountered during SWAT raids.

Written testimony: Thomas Nephew

Written testimony: Eli Koppel

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3 Responses to Meaningful SWAT reform at risk in Annapolis — here’s how to help

  1. Martine Zee says:

    Thank you MCCRC, Thomas Nephew and Delegate David Moon for your work to get meaningful police SWAT reform bills passed in Maryland. If we can’t collect the data we have no chance at reforming the overuse of SWAT teams and the death, injury, stress and destruction they bring into our communities. Our neighbors should NEVER lose their lives, their pets, their property over a bag of marijuana. These horrible violent raids are often based on false claims of informants and don’t even result in any arrests. It’s completely outrageous how militarization of police forces and SWAT has been accepted by our legislature.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: MCCRC lobbies Annapolis for “3 S’s” – sanctuary, SWAT reform, Stingray regulation | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

  3. Pingback: Maryland-wide SWAT data files obtained by MCCRC show need for standards *and* reporting | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

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