SMALL TOWN SWAT TEAM

A special investigation into the ‘militarization of Mayberry’ in Mass

BY SETH KERSHNER


A version of this article first appeared in The Valley Advocate, and was subsequently the subject of an op-ed in the Washington Post.


For a police department of only 40 officers, the April 23, 2015, raid by Ludlow Special Response Team had to be an all-hands-on-deck affair.

At shortly past five o’clock in the morning, a team of 12 Ludlow officers — amounting to more than a quarter of the town’s entire police force — arrived at the house of a suspected drug dealer.

In the inky darkness of early morning, the SRT disembarked from their vehicles and split into groups. Two K-9 officers working with the team that morning were among those who took perimeter positions, while those on the entry team “stacked” behind the front door with ballistic shields and weapons drawn.

When the SRT knocked and announced they were there to execute a search warrant, Ludlow police records show that officers soon noticed a “male party” inside the house who appeared to be running away from the door. Right on cue, the “breachers” on the SRT team put their training to work, hammering away at front and rear doors of the home until officers could burst through to apprehend the subject.

His crime? Growing marijuana plants in a closet.

Among the damning evidence turned up in the ensuing search of the residence by Ludlow detectives were five issues of High Times magazine.

No weapons were recovered, suggesting that the warrant was low-risk and making it doubtful that a military-style operation was even needed.

Northeast of Springfield, across the Chicopee River, Ludlow is a leafy suburb known for its small-town feel and annual Portuguese festival. While it may have its share of drug problems, there is hardly any violent crime.

But when neighboring Springfield experienced a spike in robberies in the early 2000s, Ludlow Police decided this mill town of 21,000 souls needed another layer of protection. So, it established a Special Response Team, or SRT. Although it doesn’t have an armored vehicle like many SWAT teams, Ludlow SRT has most of the other gear associated with tactical operations. In 2015, a $50,000 grant from the Department of Justice was used to outfit the team with ballistic shields, helmets, and body armor.

Like most SWAT teams in the country, Ludlow’s is part time, with officers splitting their duties between SRT and patrol. Since SRT is rarely used — in over a decade it has been activated an average of just once or twice per year — tactical officers gain most of their experience through training. As recommended by the standards of the National Tactical Officer Association, each Ludlow SRT team member spends roughly 5 percent of their on-duty time, or 16 hours per month, training for tactical operations.

Such professional development can be costly — monthly training for 10 SRT officers on an average patrolman’s salary comes to nearly $2,000 per month out of the city budget. Still, current SRT commander Lt. Michael Brennan believes even officers in such a small, relatively safe community like Ludlow need to be prepared for any eventuality. “You’ll be confronted with things and you better be ready,” he told this reporter. “As a professional, that’s how you should approach it.”

An analysis of hundreds of pages of police records and incident reports, obtained through public records requests, shows that small town police departments like Ludlow are amassing enormous arsenals (often with the help of federal grant programs), use SWAT in ways that go beyond their original mission, and are sometimes unable to properly select and train officers. Some experts feel that this phenomenon highlights a much larger problem: too many SWAT teams in the state, eating up too many municipal budgets, without enough to do.

A GROWING TREND

Ludlow represents what some observers see as a disturbing trend in policing — the “militarization of Mayberry,” as Dr. Peter Kraska puts it. Dr. Kraska, a professor of criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University and an authority on the police use of SWAT teams, has surveyed police departments across the country and estimates that the number of such tactical units in agencies serving populations under 50,000 grew from 20 percent in the 1980s to 80 percent in the mid-2000s.

Ludlow may be the smallest town in the state with its own SWAT team, but it’s hardly alone in the rankings. A number of other small cities and towns have tactical units at the ready. And that sucking sound you hear? It’s the flow of local and federal dollars going to shore up these teams.

  • If things get out of hand in “America’s Premier Cultural Resort,” authorities are able to call on Berkshire County Special Response Team, composed of officers from Pittsfield, Lee, North Adams, and surrounding towns. Thanks to homeland security grants, since 2012 the team has nabbed night vision goggles, SWAT headsets and helmets, tactical body armor, and the ever-popular BearCat armored vehicle. The total cost to the US taxpayer for all this equipment: $468,364.82.
  • The police department in Westfield (pop. 41,552) goes a step further to cultivate a military mindset in its SWAT officers. In April 2015, at a time when post-Ferguson America was engaging in a debate over the militarization of police, the city shelled out $4,400 to send its Special Response Team to a conference 200 miles away to attend the “Bulletproof Mind” seminar by controversial “killology” police trainer, Lt. Col. David Grossman.
  • Based in Greenfield, the newest SWAT team in Massachusetts serves the state’s most rural county. In June 2016, Franklin County Regional Special Response Team was deemed ready to deploy after taking in more than $115,000 in homeland security grants for officers’ training and tactical gear. Since then, it has been used just once — to serve a firearm-related search warrant.

Recent moves by the Trump administration may make it even easier for such agencies to stock up on tactical gear. In May 2015, then-President Obama signed an executive order leading to a ban on transferring certain types of surplus equipment to local police through a Department of Defense program known as 1033. But the changes were mostly cosmetic, cutting off access to equipment that few local police had requested to begin with: .50 caliber guns and weaponized aircraft, for example. Still, in response to pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police — the nation’s largest law enforcement labor organization — in September President Trump announced that he would rescind Obama’s order.

MISSION CREEP

SWAT originated in the latter part of the 1960s in response to high-profile incidents like the Watts riots and the clock tower shooter at the University of Texas, Austin. The idea was that a specially trained unit needed to be in place to address situations — like hostages, snipers, or armed barricaded suspects — that exceeded the capabilities of patrol officers.

One of the first such units in Massachusetts came together in 1971, when a select group of state troopers formed the Special Tactical Operations (STOP) Team. According to a brief official history, included in a standard operating procedures manual provided by the state police, the STOP Team was formed as a way of heading off “armed confrontations against the establishment” that were part of that era’s “turbulent society.” While such “confrontations” slowed to a trickle as time went on, SWAT teams continued to grow across the state like mushrooms after a downpour. With the increase in SWAT teams comes concern about “mission creep” and suggestions that their paramilitary approach to policing is being overused in non-crisis situations.

According to a review of news reports and police websites, there now appear to be at least 23 police SWAT teams operating in Massachusetts. For a small state, redundancy and overlapping services are a given. There are now seven tactical police units serving the sparsely populated western part of the state — four independent SWAT teams and two regional units, as well as the state police tactical team. Most deploy only three or four times a year, tops. (The state police team, which typically deploys between 180 and 200 times per year across the Commonwealth, is an outlier). Even greater redundancy exists in the Boston area.

More recently, SWAT teams are justified by the threat of terrorist attacks. In a 2011 request for funding to purchase the BearCat, a SWAT officer with the Berkshire County SRT wrote that the unit was being used exclusively for “dangerous and life-threatening” situations and claimed that the rural Berkshires presented a “unique target environment for any terrorist group planning a potential attack.” A redacted half-page portion of the application lists locations that might be particularly enticing to groups like ISIS. The following year, homeland security funding to the tune of $295,000 came in, and the team bought its BearCat.

Even the most ardent critics of police militarization acknowledge that there is a genuine need for tactically trained officers to respond to certain situations — active shooter scenarios, for example. Problem is, the types of incidents SWAT teams are supposedly meant to address hardly ever occur in small towns in the state. According to Tom Nolan, a former SWAT officer and 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who now teaches criminology at Merrimack College in North Andover: “If you don’t have situations where the public would endorse use of the SWAT team, the tendency can be for SWAT teams to be deployed for reasons we could see as less than legitimate.”

Records from departments in rural Western Massachusetts show numerous examples of tactical officers deploying on questionable grounds to conduct ordinary police work.

  • In November 2012, shortly after Berkshire County SRT’s BearCat was first acquired, Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn told a reporter for the Springfield Republican that the vehicle “can be used in a variety of police situations that carry a high degree of danger, such as armed standoffs, drug raids or even to rescue police and civilians pinned down by gunman.” In a region short on danger, however, sometimes you have to create your own. In one of the first deployments of the BearCat, Berkshire County SRT officers simulated a hostage scenario for the benefit of some North Adams elementary school students. In a particularly dramatic part of the performance, an officer emerged from the BearCat’s turret to point an AR-15 at a teacher who was playing the role of “perp.”
  • In 2015, the Ludlow Special Response Team deployed in response to an individual expressing “suicidal ideation.” In the SWAT world, individuals who are threatening to harm only themselves are often placed in the same category as “barricaded suspect” situations and thus require a SWAT deployment. In this case, family members declined to let the police unit into the home, and the man eventually accepted an ambulance ride to a local hospital.
  • Twice yearly, in yet more action for the $295,000 armored vehicle, Berkshire Regional SRT deploys to October Mountain State Forest in Lee to police a picnic of the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels. There, SRT officers are joined by a police mobile command vehicle, which conducts video surveillance of the area. Although SRT has routinely been assigned to this event since 2012, the only law enforcement action ever taken has been to issue tickets for moving violations.

In an email, Pittsfield Police Chief and Berkshire County SRT Commander Michael Wynn wrote that while mission creep was a “valid concern,” operations like the State Forest picnic fit within the unit’s broader mission to serve “as an on-call resource for Departments to access additional personnel quickly.”

AN INVESTIGATION LIKE NO OTHER

The classic example of SWAT’s mission creep are “dynamic entries” to serve warrants for nonviolent drug crimes. As legal observers have long pointed out, this sort of SWAT deployment is problematic for a number of reasons. Raids to execute a search warrant for sale or possession of drugs are conducted on the basis of suspicion a crime has been committed. As the American Civil Liberties Union commented in its 2014 report on SWAT tactics, with such raids there is “no criminal case, no formal suspects, and often little if any proof that a crime has been committed; it is simply an investigation.”

But they are an investigation like no other: Officers knock down doors, scream and point weapons at people, and generally create “shock and awe” conditions — as one headline in the Berkshire Eagle described a Berkshire County SRT operation.

Usually SWAT teams are used only to serve “high risk” warrants, as when they seek to search for drugs in a residence where guns are known to be present or if police want to recover an illegal firearm that had been recently used in a violent crime.

Of course, so much depends on whether police have done their homework beforehand. Occasionally, SWAT teams raid homes on the flimsiest of evidence.

Typical of the genre is the March 3, 2011, raid by Berkshire County Special Response Team. On that day, they descended on Bruce Johnson’s mobile home in Ashley Falls, a village of Sheffield (pop. 3,257) located about one mile from the Connecticut border. According to an after-action review of the incident obtained using a public records request, the SRT sought to execute a “no-knock” search warrant for what police believed was a case of illegal possession of firearms. On the scene: nearly twenty BCSRT officers, including at least four snipers, as well as the team’s trusty BearCat armored vehicle.

After awakening at six in the morning to the sounds of police urging him to surrender via megaphone, Johnson exited his house to find a small army arrayed on his lawn: “Behind every tree I saw a cop,” he recalled in a 2014 interview for the weekly Berkshire Record, “and they all had their guns pointed at me.”

Upon his arrest, police began to search for the firearms — a part of the operation that local news outlets later reported left the home “in shambles.” Police recovered five pistols from a safe in Johnson’s house. Afterwards, back at the Sheffield Police station, SWAT officers took a moment to pose for a photo that was later posted on the website PoliceOne.com. (A caption tells readers that the image was taken “after we executed a search warrant on an individual illegally stockpiling firearms.”)

But none of it was true. Johnson had a landscaping business in Connecticut, a state where he also registered his motor vehicle and — crucially — his guns. A judge later determined that the search warrant had been improper because there was simply no evidence that the guns were “related to criminal activity.” Two years after the raid, following a court battle that cost Johnson $45,000, prosecutors dropped all charges against him.

The aforementioned ACLU report, based on nearly 4,000 public records obtained from police departments across the country, found that around 80 percent of all SWAT deployments were for the purpose of executing such search warrants — usually for drugs.

Records obtained and reviewed in the course of this investigation also found warrant service to be a commonplace reason for deploying small town SWAT teams in Massachusetts. In 2015, eight of nine call-outs by Berkshire County SRT were to execute “no-knock” search warrants. The same year, Westfield’s team was less busy, deploying on only two occasions — both to serve drug-related search warrants.

“The bread and butter of policing in the United States and Massachusetts is the war on drugs,” according to Kade Crockford, who directs the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “If the SWAT team is the hammer, the drug war is the nail.”

The use of SWAT in such scenarios has drawn criticism not only from the ACLU, but from within the ranks of tactical officers themselves. In a 2015 editorial for the NTOA’s quarterly journal, Tactical Edge, Phil Hansen, director emeritus of that organization, warned that “indiscriminate use of SWAT uniforms, weapons and equipment in a one-size-fits-all manner during low-risk warrant service or civil disorder missions can only lead to problems and criticism.”

SHALLOW POOL

Smaller police departments face difficulties selecting personnel for their SWAT teams. Tactical operations require disciplined, focused officers, excellent marksmen who are physically fit and psychologically sound. Choosiness is a necessity.

Sid Heal knows how important selection is to a SWAT team. Current president of the California Tactical Officers Association, Heal retired at the rank of commander from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department — the largest sheriff’s department in the country — after spending more than a decade on its special operations team. “When we were doing selection,” Heal said in a phone interview, “we got to pick from one-half of 1 percent of the available applicant pool. Needless to say, the selection process was intense.”

Documents and SWAT policy manuals obtained for this investigation detail training and selection standards for small town teams in Mass. But how selective can you really be when — as is the case in Ludlow — you have to build a SWAT team and have only 40 officers to choose from? In an email, Ludlow’s Lt. Brennan said officers under his command had to meet standards for physical fitness and firearms proficiency, among other qualifications. “Some applicants have trouble with selection process, even if they are in great shape,” he wrote.

Training is another key area where small-town SWAT teams can come up short. Since tactical teams are designed to respond to extremely dangerous situations, it is important that their members are well-prepared. What’s more, because teams may only deploy a handful of times per year, training is how officers gain much of their tactical experience. The NTOA recommends 16 hours per month as the ideal amount of training for a SRT officer. While Ludlow’s team meets that requirement, other small departments often lack the time and resources necessary to provide SWAT officers with the minimum amount of monthly training. Case in point: Whip City.

The Westfield Police Special Response Team was started in 1999 and led for years by Lieutenant Paul Kousch. When Sergeant Jeffrey Baillargeon took over in June 2012 as SRT team leader, he was so concerned about lax training standards for the unit that he sent a memo to the Westfield police chief outlining his concerns. The SRT team “has had at best an intermittent training schedule over the years,” Baillargeon wrote. Years of inadequate training were due to several factors, he added, including “scheduling and money.” Baillargeon concluded his memo with a proposal that each month the chief release SRT officers from their regular patrol duties in order to complete an eight-hour training period.

Although eight hours per officer would represent half of the NTOA’s monthly training recommendation for SWAT officers, such a training regimen, Baillargeon emphasized, would still “set the example for professionalism and increase morale in the department as a whole.”

According to training documents reviewed for this article, Baillargeon’s proposal got off to a good start. Following Sgt. Baillargeon’s memo, in June 2012, records show that the team trained together five times during the remainder of that year. But the initiative would also create an additional burden for a department so strapped for cash that it had previously relied on citizens’ donations and an annual charity golf tournament to shore up its 12-member Special Response Team, and the frequency of their training soon tapered off. In 2013, SRT members completed the eight-hour training goal on only five months of the year; five months of training were also recorded in 2014. By 2015, the available records show the team was able to notch only a single eight-hour training session — in March.

After initially agreeing to answer questions for this story via email, Baillargeon later declined to comment on the training situation for Westfield SRT.

LIABILITY, RESPONSIBILITY

SWAT teams in small cities and towns that are not training to NTOA standards run the risk of “operational failures,” which may then lead to increased liability and exposure, according to attorney Eric Daigle. A former Connecticut state trooper who now runs a law practice specializing in defending police from civil liberties claims, Daigle said, “If you have a team, you need to be running with the standards required by NTOA. If not, you’re going to impose some significant damages on your agency and your officers.”

Stephen M. Clark — chief of police in Newington, Connecticut, and a 24-year veteran of SWAT operations — concurs. For a 2015 research paper, Clark surveyed SWAT officers in the Nutmeg State to get a sense of how frequently their teams deployed and how much training they received. He found a tremendous amount of overlap — there are over two dozen SWAT teams in what is geographically the nation’s third-smallest state — along with a number of small agencies that were not properly training their officers. Clark concluded that when police departments lack the resources to meet “minimum standards for selection, training, and team composition,” then they should consider “either disbanding the team or merging with a regional tactical team.”

Cost savings, as well as gaining an increased edge in the competition for federal grants to law enforcement, may be an inducement for some Commonwealth departments to combine their resources. In much of the state, SWAT teams manned by the numerous “law enforcement councils” are examples of regional, multijurisdictional teams. Given redundancy, tight municipal budgets, and largely inactive units with little to do in low-crime small towns and cities, retired Boston cop Tom Nolan thinks it may be time for some to be disbanded or merged with other teams: “I think it’s fair to question why we have so many SWAT teams in Massachusetts.”

Greater regionalization would reduce redundancy of services across small towns and cities, and decrease liability for departments with SWAT teams that are currently not able to train to NTOA standards. It would also deepen the available pool of applicants for positions on the SWAT team. In an email, Newington’s Chief Clark explained: “A reduction in the number of teams will result in more competition for positions on regional teams. More competition leads to teams having more qualified candidates to choose from.”

Predicted cost savings, as well as gaining an increased edge in the competition for federal grants to law enforcement, has led Ludlow’s Lt. Mike Brennan to consider a future partnership with the SRT team in neighboring Chicopee. In an interview, Lt. Brennan said that he has long wanted to form a regional team out of the two existing units: “Long term, that’s where we want to go, and it has to do with a lot of things: resources, funding, better equipment.” Merger plans are currently only at the discussion stage and may take years to implement. “In the meantime,” Lt. Brennan says, “We have a responsibility to plan for the inevitable.”

But some critics are not convinced that such mergers will be enough. One of them is Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts. Small-town SWAT teams will inevitably lead to law enforcement overreach because, Crockford said, “If law enforcement has a tool it tends to want to use it.” But the bigger issue, they said in an interview, is police militarization, “the degree to which law enforcement thinks it’s appropriate to use these kinds of battlefield tactics in domestic policing.”

As the ACLU continues monitoring the use of police SWAT teams in the state and across the country, Crockford also hopes that someone in the state legislature takes up the issue of SWAT deployments. A short-lived Maryland state law that mandated that police report basic information about how their departments use SWAT teams impresses the civil liberties advocate the most.

“It’s probably more important for law enforcement to be transparent,” Crockford added, “than for any other kind of government agency because we give law enforcement the power to deprive us of our own liberty and to use violence.”


This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and is the first installment in a series about SWAT deployment and police militarization in Massachusetts.

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