The phrase “police militarization” conjures up an image of cops wrapped in Kevlar, barging into homes with semi-automatic weapons. But familiar as that image is, we don’t know how common it is. There are simply no good statistics on police tactical operations in America. The federal government doesn’t keep track, and neither do the states — with one exception: Utah.
The pressure to start counting the operations there dates back to 2012, after a drug raid gone wrong in Ogden. A tactical team from the local drug task force had gone into a little house where marijuana was being grown. But they ran into gunfire. In the chaos, five officers were hurt, and one was killed. The resident, Matthew Stewart, later said he thought he was being robbed.
Three-and-a-half years later, his father, Michael Stewart, dressed in a Second Amendment-themed T-shirt, sits across from the house, recalling the aftermath.
“There were bullets in the house next door,” he says. “These guys were — they were just shooting. I mean, this neighborhood has children. Why would they be that out of control?”
The raid caused intense arguments in Utah: Did the agents give Matthew Stewart enough time to answer the door? Did he know the intruders were police? Those questions were never answered in court, because Stewart died in jail, apparently a suicide.
But there was still a chance to answer some deeper questions, such as how often police use these tactics, and for what purposes. In 2014, Utah’s Legislature required police agencies to start reporting some basic statistics on tactical deployments.
The first year’s numbers came out recently. State Sen. Mark Madsen, the chairman of the Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, says the numbers are interesting — but not that surprising. He’s especially interested in the breakdown of the reasons for the 559 times tactical teams were deployed in 2014.
“Active shooter, barricaded suspect — these are less than a percent,” Madsen says. And then he points to the single biggest portion of that same breakdown: 78 percent of deployments were for cases involving illegal drugs. “This is mostly about drugs. Mostly about drugs,” he says.
This annoys Madsen, because he’s a Republican with a strong libertarian bent, and he sees drug raids as cases of government run amok.
“They’re telling us what pursuit of happiness is legal and what pursuit of happiness will cause our door to be kicked down and to be dragged off to prison,” he says.
In Utah, Libertarian-minded Republicans have joined the minority Democrats on this issue, putting law enforcement agencies on the defensive in a way they’re not used to.
Feeling the criticism, some tactical officers are eager to draw distinctions.
“I think part of the problem is in the definition of what we’re calling SWAT and what we’re calling tactical teams,” says Jason Mudrock, a sergeant with the Unified Police of Greater Salt Lake. He says you shouldn’t confuse SWAT with other kinds of heavily armed police tactical groups, such as drug task forces. He says his SWAT team isn’t in the business of barging into houses unless there’s a clear danger.
“This is the biggest stick in the agency, and we don’t use that stick unless we can quantify it somehow with either weapons history, statements made by suspects, availability of weapons,” Mudrock says. “All these different factors that we take into account prior to us even saying, ‘OK, we’re going to take this operation on and deploy it.’ ”
In private, SWAT officers often criticize the drug task forces, which proliferated in the 1980s and ’90s. SWAT officers don’t like how the task forces seem focused on taking suspects by surprise in order to keep them from destroying the evidence. SWAT officers say the tactics should be about protecting lives not evidence. But Mudrock admits all tactical police are feeling pressure to up their standards.
“We’ve had some of these blurred lines over the years, and I agree with the legislation, in that we’re trying to professionalize this a little bit and make it more standardized,” he says.
Besides requiring numbers, the Utah Legislature has tightened the rules. Officers have to wear clearly marked uniforms, and body cameras if they have them. And the law now clarifies that simple possession or use of illegal drugs isn’t enough to justify police breaking down your door.
On the receiving end of this kind of legislation is Troy Burnett. NPR interviewed him at a diner in Ogden. That’s because he’s on a drug task force, and the office location is supposed to stay secret. In fact, he’s on the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force — the same task force that raided Matthew Stewart’s house in 2012.
“I lost a friend. And a lot of my other friends were hurt. And I thought it was just so unnecessary,” Burnett says.
He wasn’t on the task force at the time of the raid, but he’s convinced Matthew Stewart knew he was shooting at police. Burnett rejects the suggestion that drug task forces are reckless, and he says he doesn’t mind that the state is now keeping track of operations. But he also says the debate over tactical operations has been tangled up with a very different question: whether drugs like marijuana should be illegal.
“Marijuana legal or not legal — I don’t give two [expletive],” Burnett says. “I have my own opinion, but as long as it’s illegal, I’m going to enforce the law,” he says.
And he says enforcing the law sometimes means serving warrants with tactical methods.
“We’re law enforcement officers. It’s on the books. We’re supposed to do this,” Burnett says.
Many of the people who want to count police tactical operations also want to decriminalize drugs. Chief among them is Connor Boyack, who runs a local libertarian advocacy group called Libertas. And in his efforts, he says, collecting data is key.
“Imagine if we as taxpayers allowed the government to tax and spend on whatever it wanted without tracking that information,” Boyack says. “There would be no accountability, and there would be every incentive for abuse. As it pertains to law enforcement, we’ve allowed for the same incentive without tracking and measuring this exact information.”
But numbers aren’t everything. Sometimes they have a way of being ignored. As it turns out, Utah is not the first state to count tactical operations. Maryland passed a similar law in 2010, after a botched raid there. But three years later, the law lapsed after legislators reportedly forgot to renew it.
Boyack says he doesn’t expect attention to wane the same way in Utah. He says the first year’s report is just the beginning — a baseline. And he looks forward to comparing Utah’s numbers with those of other states, if they follow suit.