Cheye Calvo's July 2008 encounter with a Prince George's County, Maryland, SWAT team is now pretty well-known: After intercepting a package of marijuana at a delivery service warehouse, police completed the delivery, in disguise, to the address on the package. That address belonged to Calvo, who also happened to be the mayor of the small Prince George’s town of Berwyn Heights. When Calvo's mother-in-law brought the package in from the porch, the SWAT team pounced, forcing their way into Calvo's home. By the time the raid was over, Calvo and his mother-in-law had been handcuffed for hours, police realized they'd made a mistake, and Calvo's two black Labradors lay dead on the floor from gunshot wounds.
As a result of this colossal yet not-unprecedented screw-up, plus Calvo's notoriety and persistence, last year Maryland became the first state in the country to make every one of its police departments issue a report on how often and for what purpose they use their SWAT teams. The first reports from the legislation are in, and the results are disturbing.
Over the last six months of 2009, SWAT teams were deployed 804 times in the state of Maryland, or about 4.5 times per day. In Prince George's County alone, with its 850,000 residents, a SWAT team was deployed about once per day. According to a Baltimore Sun analysis, 94 percent of the state's SWAT deployments were used to serve search or arrest warrants, leaving just 6 percent in response to the kinds of barricades, bank robberies, hostage takings, and emergency situations for which SWAT teams were originally intended.
Worse even than those dreary numbers is the fact that more than half of the county’s SWAT deployments were for misdemeanors and nonserious felonies. That means more than 100 times last year Prince George’s County brought state-sanctioned violence to confront people suspected of nonviolent crimes. And that's just one county in Maryland. These outrageous numbers should provide a long-overdue wake-up call to public officials about how far the pendulum has swung toward institutionalized police brutality against its citizenry, usually in the name of the drug war.
But that’s unlikely to happen, at least in Prince George's County. To this day, Sheriff Michael Jackson insists his officers did nothing wrong in the Calvo raid—not the killing of the dogs, not neglecting to conduct any corroborating investigation to be sure they had the correct house, not failing to notify the Berwyn Heights police chief of the raid, not the repeated and documented instances of Jackson’s deputies playing fast and loose with the truth.
Jackson, who's now running for county executive, is incapable of shame. He has tried to block Calvo's efforts to access information about the raid at every turn. Last week, Prince George's County Circuit Judge Arthur M. Ahalt ruled that Calvo's civil rights suit against the county can go forward. But Jackson has been fighting to delay the discovery process in that suit until federal authorities complete their own investigation into the raid. That would likely (and conveniently) prevent Prince George's County voters from learning any embarrassing details about the raid until after the election.
But there is some good news to report here, too. The Maryland state law, as noted, is the first of its kind in the country, and will hopefully serve as a model for other states in adding some much-needed transparency to the widespread use and abuse of SWAT teams. And some Maryland legislators want to go even further. State Sen. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's), for example, wants to require a judge's signature before police can deploy a SWAT team. Muse has sponsored another bill that would ban the use of SWAT teams for misdemeanor offenses. The latter seems like a no-brainer, but it's already facing strong opposition from law enforcement interests. Police groups opposed the transparency bill, too.
Beyond policy changes, the Calvo raid also seems to have also sparked media and public interest in how SWAT teams are deployed in Maryland. The use of these paramilitary police units has increased dramatically over the last 30 years, by 1,000 percent or more, resulting in the drastic militarization of police. It's a trend that seems to have escaped much media and public notice, let alone informed debate about policies and oversight procedures. But since the Calvo raid in 2008, Maryland newspapers, TV news crews, activists, and bloggers have been documenting mistaken, botched, or disproportionately aggressive raids across the state.
Lawmakers tend to be wary of questioning law enforcement officials, particularly when it comes to policing tactics. They shouldn't be. If anything, the public employees who are entrusted with the power to use force, including lethal force, deserve the most scrutiny. It's unfortunate that it took a violent raid on a fellow public official for Maryland's policymakers to finally take notice of tactics that have been used on Maryland citizens for decades now. But at least these issues are finally on the table.
Lawmakers in other states should take notice. It's time to have a national discussion on the wisdom of sending phalanxes of cops dressed like soldiers into private homes in search of nonviolent and consensual crimes.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.