When Chapel Hill’s Special Enforcement Response Team raided a long-vacant Franklin Street car dealership taken over by anarchists in 2011, it got national attention and launched a months-long debate in the college town.
The result in 2012 was a number of new policies, including how the SERT team should handle future incidents. Police Chief Chris Blue also meets monthly with a town committee to review complaints, community relations and procedures.
An American Civil Liberties Union report released Tuesday calls on the nation to have similar talks about the use of “militarized” law-enforcement units. The nation’s governments need to wean themselves from aggressive police tactics, the 84-page report says.
Chatham County was among the North Carolina departments highlighted in the report. There, the ACLU found black residents were 15 times more likely than whites to be affected when the sheriff’s Special Incident Response Team was deployed in a drug case.
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Search warrants were served at suspected drug houses in 33 of the team’s 39 missions from Jan. 1, 2011, to March 8, 2013, records show. While most of the cases involved blacks, several involved people of more than one race, including children.
Only five Chatham County SIRT missions involved a standoff, hostage or gunman – the most common situations in which SIRT teams affect white residents, the ACLU said. The team also served an arrest warrant for murder, using a Taser to subdue the man in a joint operation with Orange County.
Chatham County Sheriff Bill Webster did not respond to requests for comment.
Kara Dansky, the ACLU report’s lead author and senior counsel for the ACLU Center for Justice, said the group’s biggest concern is for children, elderly adults and innocent people getting caught in crossfire.
Area SWAT teams report mostly minor injuries, such as cuts and dog bites, but raids in other states have resulted in serious injuries and even death, the study says. The fear is growing use of military-type tactics and tools will escalate the response from those being arrested, she said.
“There is a potential for really undermining community trust and public safety,” Dansky said.
The ACLU suggests cutting federal grant programs that provide surplus military equipment. More than 17,000 agencies, for instance, participate in the federal 1033 Program, which provided nearly $450 million in military equipment last year, the ACLU reported.
The ACLU found recipients of another grant program, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, spent 64 percent of the money on law enforcement from April 2012 to March 2013. A smaller amount went to courts, drug treatment and crime prevention and education, the report says.
The Department of Homeland Security provides grants for “terrorism prevention-related law enforcement activities.”
The ACLU report notes the Raleigh Police Department got $120,000 from the State Homeland Security Program in 2011 and also has applied for federal grants and funding from the Governor’s Crime Commission. In 2012, Raleigh reported buying “less-lethal munitions,” rifle laser sights, cameras and a robot reconnaissance unit. The unit also has access to a tactical truck and Bearcat armored personnel carrier if lives are in danger.
Police spokesman Jim Sughrue declined to discuss specific equipment or tactics, citing safety concerns.
The ACLU analyzed 818 reports about SWAT – Special Weapons and Tactics – teams received in response to a March 2013 request submitted to more than 260 law enforcement agencies in 25 states, plus the District of Columbia and several cities. The ACLU focused on agencies that provided more than 15 incident reports in response to the request.
It found the teams’ most common mission now is serving search warrants, 79 percent of the reviewed cases, of which 62 percent were drug searches. Weapons were seized in a third of the cases.
Nearly half the agencies contacted didn’t respond to the information request or parts of it, the ACLU reports. Information about the race of suspects or others involved also wasn’t always available.
A typical SWAT team includes more than a dozen officers armed with assault rifles, battering rams and flashbang grenades, which produce a blinding light and deafening noise.
Although the ACLU report criticizes training that creates a so-called “warrior mindset,” Blue, the Chapel Hill police chief, said officers must be ready to run toward gunfire and face rifle and handgun rounds that can potentially pierce their protective vests “like butter.”
Most SWAT teams send an advance team to the scene to find out who’s there and what’s happening when planning a raid. Sughrue said Raleigh’s unit, which served roughly 250 search warrants last year, treats public safety as a priority and has the agency’s highest-trained officers.
“That training, together with valuable experience, helps ensure team members are fully familiar with the limits of their enforcement mission, just as they are familiar with the capabilities they possess,” Sughrue said.
The level of SWAT response and the definition of high-risk situations often are left to agencies discretion, the report says. The ACLU suggested governments can do a better job of keeping records, learning from them and limiting SWAT team use to situations that pose an imminent threat.