ANNAPOLIS – Significant and detailed rules and regulations that determine when and how law enforcement agencies deploy SWAT teams in Maryland could be implemented this year. State legislators introduced a bill to the General Assembly that would limit the activation of SWAT teams and require agencies to submit a report about the deployment when doing […]
ANNAPOLIS – Significant and detailed rules and regulations that determine when and how law enforcement agencies deploy SWAT teams in Maryland could be implemented this year.
State legislators introduced a bill to the General Assembly that would limit the activation of SWAT teams and require agencies to submit a report about the deployment when doing so.
Senate Bill 173, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Gladden (D-Baltimore City), would require law enforcement agencies to submit a detailed report about the activation, limiting the circumstances in which an agency can deploy a SWAT team.
According to the bill, SWAT teams could only be deployed if an agency believes “there is a significant imminent threat to human life, welfare, and safety and the use of regular patrol officers will be insufficient to meet the threat.”
The bill also requires a supervisory law enforcement officer to fill out a report providing a detailed account of the facts supporting the belief there was a “significant threat to human life,” an explanation for why regular law enforcement would have been insufficient, whether pregnant women, children, or elderly individuals were suspected to be present at the scene.
With nine bills on the agenda for the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing Thursday, testimony in support of and in opposition to the bill took longer than an hour.
“This bill starts the process of saying let’s make SWAT team deployments what they’re supposed to be: for very, very dangerous circumstances, and not for perhaps serving of warrants,” Gladden said at the hearing.
The proposed legislation comes a year after the sunset of a previous bill dealing with SWAT team deployment passed in 2009. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Anthony Muse (D-26), took effect from 2010 to 2014 and required law enforcement agencies to submit SWAT team activation and deployment compiled reports to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP).
Gladden’s bill would continue to require agencies to compile SWAT team deployment reports.
Gladden said the current bill’s goal is to try to tone down the way police departments have negative interactions with citizens and limit the way officials use search warrants as a means to inflict fear and harm in community members.
According to a Department of Legislative Services, during fiscal 2014, a total of 1,689 SWAT deployments were activated in Maryland, an increase of 2.4 percent from fiscal 2013. The Prince George’s County Police Department alone deployed SWAT teams 418 times in 2014, according to the latest SWAT team data from the GOCCP, accounting for 24.7 percent of deployments statewide.
Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo testified in support of the bill, recounting his personal experience with a SWAT team incident, which led to the passage of Muse’s bill.
In July 2008, a Prince George’s County SWAT team raided Calvo’s family’s home in search of drugs, held him at gunpoint and fatally shot both of the family dogs. Calvo said he and his family fell victim to an identity theft incident, and officials later settled that he was innocent.
Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law, also testified in support of Gladden’s bill as she described her own personal experience with SWAT team deployment in Prince George’s County.
In November 2011, Arnwine said a Prince George’s County Police SWAT team started banging on her door, threatened to bust it down while in riot gear and invaded her home. Arnwine said officers held her and her family at gunpoint while they searched her home.
ACLU of Maryland representative Sarah Love also testified in support of the bill, describing the dangers that could be associated with sending in SWAT teams to citizens’ homes without significant reason. Love said SWAT teams should not be deployed for part II crimes, such as drug-related offenses, and should only be used for more dangerous situations, such as cases involving an active shooter.
“Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us as war-time enemies,” Love said.
A panel of law enforcement officers from several counties around the state voiced opposition to the bill. Anne Arundel County Police Department Lt. James Phillips opposed the bill at the hearing on behalf of the Maryland SWAT Commanders Committee. Phillips said he has served for 17 years on a SWAT team and a bill such as the one sponsored by Gladden would hinder the ability to SWAT teams to provide safety.
“The primary purpose of a SWAT team is to provide a systematic approach to saving lives in accordance with the priorities of preserving life,” Phillips said.
Every situation in which an agency would deploy a SWAT team is different, he said, and each specific incident, not clearly written guidelines, dictates whether law enforcement has to send out a force to protect the community.
Phillips said he does not oppose legislative oversight, but he does not want to see legislation interrupt the function of SWAT teams by dictating how they can be deployed.
Lt. Tracy Penmen from the Harford County Sherriff’s Office said sending regular officers to dangerous incidents would not be the ideal solution to every situation. Penmen said regular patrol officers are not as extensively trained and equipped, and if a SWAT team handled the same incident, “the situation will result in safer outcomes.”
Other officers from surrounding counties on the panel agreed there are problems with the language specificity in the proposed bill.
The Prince George’s County Police Department did not have representation on the panel.
Lt. Jarrel Jordan, a spokesman for PGPD, said the department declines to provide comment on the proposed legislation until a law is successfully passed.
“At this time, the police department has no comments to provide as we look at everything further,” he said. “Right now, this is proposed legislation. Our job as a police department is to enforce laws as it’s written.”
Gladden said the reports required by his bill are necessary for police agencies to be transparent with the community.
“The community wants to know what is going on,” Gladden said. “I believe that the way we get it together is to collect the data, figure out what is happening, and to figure out how we can stop it.”
If passed, the bill would take effect July 1.