Since the “war on drugs” began in the early 1970s the use of Special Weapons and Tactics units has increased exponentially. These units, originally designed to address unique policing situations like riots or a barricaded gun man, are now deploying approximately 60,000 times a year. Over half of those deployments are for search warrants. Because SWAT units deploy assuming that they are going to a situation with a high likelihood of violence, their tactics reflect that assumption. SWAT means and methods emphasize the decisive use of force to resolve conflicts. These means and methods do not encourage communication between police and citizens, only compliance. At the same time that SWAT units were becoming more common, two professors published the highly influential book Procedural Justice. In that book the authors sought to understand how procedure in the resolution of legal disputes connected to justice. Since then, scholars, most notably Professor Tom Tyler, have empirically examined the connection between procedure and individual perceptions of justice. Much of that research has noted a powerful connection between an individual’s perception of justice and whether they believed they “have had their say” in the resolution of a dispute. This research has also asserted connections between procedural justice and the public’s perceptions of police legitimacy and the further connection between police legitimacy and law abiding behavior. Despite the growing recognition that police legitimacy and procedural justice walk hand in hand, the growth of SWAT has continued. This article examines the rise of SWAT and procedural justice, and discusses how the overuse of SWAT units is harmful to procedural justice and the public’s perception of police legitimacy. Finally, the article suggests that use of SWAT assets during the execution of a search warrant should be at the discretion of judges rather than police. Additionally, the article suggests that command and control over SWAT units should be centralized at the state and federal levels to ensure proper use and training.
Timothy C. MacDonnell,
When More is Less—SWAT and Procedural Justice,
23 Wash. & Lee J. Civ. Rts. & Soc. Just. 135
Available at: http://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/crsj/vol23/iss1/4