Maryland-wide SWAT data files obtained by MCCRC show need for standards *and* reporting

Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition (MCCRC) has obtained the detailed data files compiled by the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP) used to generate annual reports on SWAT team deployments throughout the Maryland between 2010 and 2014.

The files were obtained via a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA, similar to the federal FOIA) request mediated by The data collected — mandated by the 2009 Maryland law SB447, which was allowed to sunset after 2014 —  include SWAT deployment-level details about legal authority, underlying reason, forcible entry, property seizure, arrests, firearm discharge, officer injury, and personal and animal injury  or death associated with each SWAT team deployment.

Unlike the GOCCP annual reports, which aggregated single year data to arrive at state or county totals, our analyses below focus on more detailed comparisons of SWAT deployments by police department, aggregated across all five years of data collection. The results show substantial variation among police departments in the reasons, legal authorities, and consequences of SWAT team deployments.

Figure 1 below shows the distribution of origin of legal authorities (the kind of judicial warrant or emergency) underlying SWAT deployments by law enforcement agency.  Fourteen police departments including PG County PD (1986 deployments) and Aberdeen PD (101 deployments) relied on search warrants for 95 to 100 percent of their deployments across the five year period.  This may be cause for concern since search warrants are relatively weak legal justifications for SWAT team deployments.  As the 2014 ACLU report “War Comes Home” puts it,  “Even though paramilitary policing in the form of SWAT teams was created to deal with emergency scenarios such as hostage or barricade situations, the use of SWAT to execute search warrants in drug investigations has become commonplace and made up the overwhelming majority of incidents the ACLU reviewed—79 percent of the incidents the ACLU studied involved the use of a SWAT team to search a person’s home, and more than 60 percent of the cases involved searches for drugs. The use of a SWAT team to execute a search warrant essentially amounts to the use of paramilitary tactics to conduct domestic criminal investigations in searches of people’s homes.” [p. 3]

Figure 1. Legal authorities for SWAT team deployments in Maryland, 2010-2014, by law enforcement agency; the total number of deployments is given in parentheses next to each agency. Data source: GOCCP, via MPIA request by MCCRC. Generally speaking, we’d prefer this chart to be less blue. Click the image to enlarge it.

It’s only gotten worse — the “TOTAL” stacked bar near the middle of the chart shows that only about 5 percent (light green part of the bar) of the 8249 deployments between 2010 and 2014 fit the “barricade” description, while about 91 percent of SWAT team deployments overall were authorized by search warrant. In our own county, 93 percent of 830 Montgomery County PD SWAT team deployments between 2010 and 2014 were done with search warrant authority; Takoma Park PD SWAT teams were deployed on this basis in 73 percent of their 15 deployments.

Figure 2 shows how Maryland law enforcement agencies differ in their distribution of underlying reasons for SWAT team deployment. Police departments like Takoma Park PD, and Calvert, Montgomery, and Worcester County PDs focused around 90% or more of their SWAT team deployments on situations where there was a violent or property “Part I” crime underlying the deployment.  Police departments like Aberdeen or Kent County were at the other end of the spectrum: all of their SWAT deployments were about “Part II” crimes such as vice and drug offenses.

Figure 2. Underlying reasons for SWAT team deployments in Maryland, 2010-2014, by law enforcement agency; the total number of deployments is given in parentheses next to each agency. “Part I” crimes are violent or property crimes, as opposed to “Part II” crimes which are mostly vice- or drug-related. Generally speaking, we’d prefer less red and more blue in this chart. Data source: GOCCP, via MPIA request by MCCRC. Click the image to enlarge it.

Figure 3 shows the distribution of combined legal authority and underlying reason  for SWAT deployment by law enforcement agency. Over a five year period, six police departments or sheriff’s offices used SWAT raids solely for non-Part I purposes that were justified only by search warrant.  Overall, over half (52 percent) of the SWAT raids in Maryland between 2010 and 2014 fit this description, with 26 police departments — large and small, urban and rural — exceeding that percentage over the same time period.

Figure 3. Combination of legal authority and underlying reason for SWAT team deployments in Maryland, 2010-2014, by law enforcement agency; the total number of deployments is given in parentheses next to each agency. Data source: GOCCP, via MPIA request by MCCRC. “Part I” crimes are violent or property crimes, as opposed to vice or drug related crimes. “SW” stands for search warrant; generally speaking, we’d prefer less purple (non Part I, search warrant deployments) in this chart. Click the image to enlarge it.

These and other charts are also available as an online slideshow.

No SWAT reporting since 2014 — Maryland’s legislative failure
There are questions the data gathered from 2010 to 2014 can’t answer: what was the age, race, and gender of the target or targets? In search warrant cases, did the target have a history potentially justifying the threat of extreme force? What was being searched for? When property was seized, how much and what kind of property was it — drugs, weapons, other contraband?  Many of these SWAT team survey questions and more have been proposed, and re-proposed , and re-proposed in the years since SB447 was allowed to lapse.

But the real struggle has been to restore any data reporting at all. In mid-February MCCRC’s Thomas Nephew joined a number of other advocates at a House hearing to advocate for SWAT reform bill HB0739 which, in its original form, included both SWAT reporting, training, and standards requirements.  Unfortunately — and despite the best efforts of both House sponsor Delegate Moon and Senate sponsor Senator Will Smith — crucial reporting requirements were stripped from the bill, amid claims that no one (not even Maryland legislators?) read the resulting reports anyway.

Of course, it’s misleading to say the GOCCP reports weren’t read when articles about them have been published in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and elsewhere.  But the GOCCP reports may not have been even more widely read for another reason: they don’t address the crucial question of how particular law enforcement agencies use SWAT teams, and how they compare to the rest of the state. That may be what citizens and residents care about the most, and our analyses will start to (belatedly) fill that gap.

The responsibility this year for Maryland’s failure to require SWAT team reporting lies mainly with House Judiciary Committee leadership, particularly (at least from what I saw during the House hearing) House Judiciary Committee chair Joseph Vallario and Delegate Curt Anderson. Vallario claimed no one read the online GOCCP annual reports, apparently based on a police officer’s 2016 claim to that effect, while Anderson scolded witnesses for intimating that serving search warrants might not always require SWAT team back up. (It’s also true some might — so then let’s collect the data on whether, e.g., targets have violent criminal histories that might justify deploying a SWAT team to serve a search warrant.) In Annapolis, there’s always more responsibility to go around, of course; an essentially identical bill in 2016 was bottled up in committee by Senator Bobby Zirkin, chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, for reasons still unknown and (to me) unfathomable.

Why are data collection and their public reporting crucial? For one thing, just look at the bill that was passed: sure, the legislature still wants statewide standards — but how can adherence to those standards be measured without recording and analyzing actual SWAT deployments?  More importantly, how can we know if the standards developed are the ones needed if we refuse to record what’s happening?  There’s reason to suspect SWAT raids disproportionately target persons of color*; Maryland legislators shouldn’t block data collection about those raids that would either confirm that suspicion — or put it to rest.

It may be that other questions should be asked to help measure adherence to the standards to be developed by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission; fine, then ask them too. Yet even our cursory look (since receiving the data on Friday) at the very basic data Maryland once collected  shows a more complex and often more troubling picture than the Maryland legislature appears willing to acknowledge.

Would we really rather not know the truth about SWAT raids?  We hope this report shows — once again — the value of SWAT team deployment data collection and reporting.  If you agree, please feel free to share this post with Maryland legislators:

Data, related files, and methods
We provide access to the data files obtained from GOCCP below, as well as to relevant documentation. To produce the charts prepared above we used a SAS program to combine and clean data from the five years into a single, standardized file, and then tabulate those data to new Excel format summary tables used to prepare the charts.  “Cleaning” steps involved things like assigning a standard, correctly spelled agency name across all years as needed, correcting misspellings (e.g., Queen Anne’s County, not Queen Anne or Annes) standardizing subtle variations in coding, and the like.

= = = = =
* War Comes Home (ACLU), p.5: “Overall, 42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino. This means that of the people impacted by deployments for warrants, at least 54 percent were minorities. Of the deployments in which all the people impacted were minorities, 68 percent were in drug cases, and 61 percent of all the people impacted by SWAT raids in drug cases were minorities. In addition, the incidents we studied revealed stark, often extreme, racial disparities in the use of SWAT locally, especially in cases involving search warrants.”  The findings were based on responses by 260 law enforcement agencies in 26 states and the District of Columbia to ACLU public records requests about the agencies’ 2011-2012 SWAT deployments.
EDIT, 5/4/17: numbers of deployments added to charts, and the discussion adds some of those numbers.
UPDATE, 5/25/17: the data files are now also available at the Muckrock link.

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1 Response to Maryland-wide SWAT data files obtained by MCCRC show need for standards *and* reporting

  1. Pingback: Youth-police panel: student arrest rates in MoCo schools much higher than in MD or US | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

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