SWAT use on the rise in Pittsburgh, western Pennsylvania
PITTSBURGH (AP) — As the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has used its SWAT team more in recent years, critics are questioning whether that’s improving public safety.
City officials say the department is taking precautions to keep situations from escalating, which protects officers and the public.
“We understand that a SWAT callout can be a concerning sight for residents,” Chris Togneri, spokesman for the city’s Public Safety Department, said in an email. “It involves officers in tactical protective gear with advanced technology that normal patrol officers do not possess. But residents should know that the objective of the SWAT team is to protect them by means of isolating and containing a threat.
“SWAT is used to keep neighborhoods safe, not to frighten residents.”
But critics raised concerns about whether the teams are being used too much, eroding residents’ trust and turning communities into war zones.
“When you’re coming to our communities, are you coming as if you’re at war, or are you coming to keep the people in that community safe?” said Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability.
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police SWAT unit was deployed 226 times by the end of 2019, the second-highest year on record since 2009, figures provided by the City of Pittsburgh show.
About 36% of 2019 deployments, or 83 instances, were related to serving search or arrest warrants where the suspects could be armed. In those cases, SWAT – which stands for Special Weapons and Tactics unit — is used to avoid putting officers and detectives at risk, Togneri said.
About 32%, or 74 deployments, were related to tactical support operations where police need additional strategic planning or specialized equipment.
“The threats that police face have and are continuing to evolve,” Togneri said. “Guns are more powerful, technology is more advanced, and suspects barricade themselves more often than they once did.”
SWAT deployments in Pittsburgh have been steadily increasing for years, rising from 96 deployments in 2009 to 122 deployments in 2014. Since then, that number has continued to rise, hitting 209 deployments in 2018.
The highest year on record, 2013, logged 251 SWAT deployments.
Pittsburgh police stopped publishing deployment totals in department annual reports in 2014. Statistics from 2015 to the present were obtained through several Right to Know records requests by the Tribune-Review.
SWAT use rising across country
Increases in SWAT deployments could mean that officers are erring on the side of safety, relying on specialized equipment and manpower to slow down a situation, said Allegheny County Police Inspector Christopher Kearns.
Deployments by the Allegheny County’s SWAT team, which operates separately from the city’s unit, have also increased. The unit deployed 29 times in 2014, rising to 50 deployments in 2018.
Allegheny County SWAT was deployed 43 times in 2019.
“Generally, teams have gotten away from the old-school SWAT dynamic entry, where you just kick the door and run on in,” Kearns said. “I think everyone is just generally a little smarter about how they go about it.”
Pennsylvania State Police, which operates similar Special Emergency Response Teams, or SERT, deployed 177 times statewide in 2018 – reflecting a steady yearly increase from 118 deployments in 2014.
In 2019, SERT was deployed 227 times throughout the state. Most of those calls — 137 deployments — were related to warrant service.
State Police Troop B, which covers the Pittsburgh metro area, consistently deployed its emergency response team more frequently from 2015 to 2019 than other troops across the state. Troop A, based in Greensburg, and Troop D, based in Kittanning, also led the 16 troops statewide in SERT deployments.
In the eastern part of the state, the Philadelphia Police Department had 440 SWAT deployments in 2018, up from 270 in 2014. Most of the 2018 deployments in Philadelphia – 379 instances – were related to deliver “high-risk” warrants.
The Dauphin County Crisis Response Team, which serves the city of Harrisburg, has also seen a steady increase in deployments from 12 in 2014 to 52 in 2018. By Oct. 21, the team had been deployed 43 times in 2019.
Increases in SWAT or similar emergency response teams across Pennsylvania track with trends nationwide, said Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, which conducts training and sets best practices for SWAT teams across the country. Eells said police departments are trying to keep situations from escalating by implementing whatever tools and training they have.
“You’ve got the very best of the best there, who aren’t really likely to be startled by something and then have something tragic or bad happen,” Eells said.
There are also concerns about the use of rifle-type weapons that could defeat officers’ body armor, Eells said.
“So the potential for serious bodily injury or death is obviously greater,” Eells said. “Having said that, I don’t think that has played a huge role in the overall SWAT activation equation. It’s more them trying to mitigate risk.”
Putting community trust at risk
Fisher of Alliance for Police Accountability questioned that reasoning.
In communities of color that already feel overpoliced, the presence of SWAT instills fear and the expectation of violence, not a feeling of safety, she said.
“People don’t perceive it as, ‘Oh, SWAT’s coming, we’re safe now,’ ” she said. “People perceive it as, ‘Oh, SWAT’s coming, you should run.’ ”
A 2014 ACLU study of over 800 SWAT deployments across 20 law enforcement agencies throughout the country showed that many deployments – about 79% — occurred in connection with executing a search warrant for someone’s home. A 2018 study focused on SWAT deployments in Maryland turned up similar findings.
That study, conducted by Jonathan Mummolo, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, showed that 91% of about 8,200 deployments in the state from 2010 to 2014 were conducted in connection with a search warrant.
Less than 5% of deployments involved a barricaded suspect, the study showed.
Emergencies happen, and members of the public likely understand that sometimes SWAT is necessary, said Sara Rose, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. But overuse of SWAT – particularly in nonemergency situations, like executing search warrants – could erode public trust, she said.
“One deployment of a SWAT team in a neighborhood could destroy that in an instant,” Rose said. “It could destroy all the gains you’ve gotten from community policing.”
Accountability a challenge
The Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board has fielded between one and four complaints each year since 2010 that allege SWAT was involved in misconduct, according to figures provided by review board Executive Director Beth Pittinger.
The review board has averaged 277 total police misconduct complaints each year since 2010, according to figures provided by Pittinger.
“None went to public hearing so nothing is publicly available regarding details of the complaints,” Pittinger said in an email.
Of the 256 police misconduct complaints fielded by the review board in 2019, none were related to SWAT, Pittinger said.
The city of Pittsburgh settled two federal lawsuits connected to botched SWAT deployments in recent years.
In 2014, the city agreed to pay a Carrick family $107,500 to settle a civil rights lawsuit related to a December 2010 raid. The lawsuit claimed police used excessive force to enter the home and interrogate the people inside.
In 2019, the city agreed to pay a Brighton Heights family $80,000 to settle a lawsuit that alleged SWAT officers recklessly broke into their home during a 2014 raid, mistaking their apartment for a drug dealer’s.
Taking the city to court over a questionable SWAT raid is tricky, said Margaret Coleman, a Pittsburgh lawyer who worked on both the Carrick and Brighton Heights cases.
“It’s not just a matter of just proving negligence,” Coleman said, explaining that lawyers must also prove that there were specific steps SWAT officers could have taken to avoid making those mistakes.
Even if an incident involving SWAT was upsetting to the people involved, it may still be within the bounds of police procedures, she said.
For example, that could include cases when the raid was based on a valid warrant, or if no one was assaulted and it did not result in excessive property damage, Coleman said.
“It’s more a matter of, as a society, how do we feel about militarizing our police?” she said.
Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com