A Thoughtfully Agitating Exposition

October 13, 2010
William G. Carter '12

BalkoWhen most people think of a SWAT team, the first image that comes to mind is probably from an overdramatized movie or television show.  People consider SWAT units to be specially trained, organized, rarely used police units that exist merely for the public's protection.  On Tuesday, September 28, Hampden-Sydney's Center for the Study of Political Economy invited Radley Balko, a senior editor for Reason Magazine and a former policy analyst for the CATO institute, to present an intriguing and opposing viewpoint.

Balko, author of the popular libertarian blog The Agitator, has written numerous pieces in prominent newspapers on criminal procedure issues.  He explained the dangers and drawbacks of the increasing number of SWAT raids throughout the United States.  A police force that used to specialize in hostage situations and large riots now arrests people for non-violent crimes as routine as personal marijuana use.  The frequency of the use of SWAT teams has increased to currently around 50,000 raids per year.  To make matters worse, surplus military equipment, such as high-powered artillery, and even tanks, is provided to these officers by the federal government.

Balko revealed the incentives that have encouraged this recent proliferation of SWAT usage.  Most DEA funding to local police departments is based on their yearly number of drug raids.  Not only does this incentivize overuse of SWAT tactics by local police units, but also detracts from their policing of other, often violent, crimes.

As Balko's presented the audience with several examples of instances in which the police broke into an innocent person's house, either by mistake or due to incorrect information, in the middle of the night, the wastefulness of this tactic was brought home.  When the resident attempted to defend himself from what he or she believed to be an aggressive criminal, violence ensued.  Often this violence led to serious injury or death of the civilian, officer, or both.

As a journalist with a specialty in criminal procedure, Balko has focused substantially on the legal precedent of qualified immunity for police officers.  This concept protects police officers from personal liability that results from their actions while on patrol.  Balko explained that this, like the federal grants to police departments, creates a misguided incentive for SWAT members.

However, unlike the grants, which most citizens would consider to be a full-fledged perverse incentive, qualified immunity creates a moral hazard for police officers by preventing the law from holding them accountable for many of their actions, accidental or intended, during these raids.  Furthermore, it creates a double standard, as citizens subject to these raids are held accountable for any and all violations of statutes that occur during the cacophonous few seconds before they realize that they are being arrested, and not robbed or attacked by a criminal.

The protection of police officers from liability while performing their jobs is a contentious issue that generally arouses emotion before reason.  Balko did an excellent job of presenting this vicious cycle of incentives in a measured and thoughtful manner.  The powerful presentation provided a sobering perspective of our increasingly militarized law enforcement system.