When it comes to serving felony warrants, the go-to team at the Colorado Springs Police Department is the Tactical Enforcement Unit, more commonly known as SWAT (which stands for Special Weapons and Tactics).
The unit formed in 1977 with nine officers and one sergeant, after the department decided that "a need existed for a flexible, well-trained and well-equipped unit to handle certain exceptional circumstances," according to a CSPD annual report. "These exceptional circumstances include, but are not limited to, large scale riot situations, armed barricaded suspects, terrorist activities, hostage situations, VIP security, coverage of natural disasters and civil disorders, special events, decoy operations, undercover surveillance and stakeout situations."
Since 2000, SWAT has been a relatively busy team, responding to a call roughly every three days on average.
In 2001, the year SWAT was instrumental in arresting the Texas Seven outlaw group, the separate bomb unit was added to its call-outs. By 2003, the team had grown to 16 officers, and in 2006 an explosives unit was created. But the unit has since been scaled back, with a current count of 12 officers and a supervisor.
"With the robot acquisition in 2003, and additional equipment in 2006, the [SWAT] team has received just under $1 million in equipment to address threats to assist in tactical situations within the Pikes Peak Region," boasts CSPD's annual report from 2006, the same year the unit took on a more militaristic style with the addition of two Large Vehicle Borne IED countermeasure systems that had been deployed primarily in the Afghanistan war. Those systems were obtained from MREL, a Canadian company that describes itself on its website as selling "unique explosives-related products and associated technical services to qualified customers in the blasting, bomb disposal, defence, explosives, humanitarian de-mining, and police communities."
While the $143,074 robot was obtained with grant money in 2003, over the past five years the city's general fund has picked up a $564,283 tab for 10 SUVs and an armored BearCat vehicle, according to records obtained by the Independent. A mobile command vehicle, another big-ticket item, was purchased for $231,913 in 2006.
Richard Myers, now chief of police in Newport News, Virginia, was CSPD chief from 2007 to 2011. He declines to comment about the military escalation of the SWAT unit on his watch, but says via email that use of military-like force should be analyzed by police departments on a case-by-case basis and that perception of what qualifies as militaristic lies largely with the beholder.
"My read, at the national level," he says, "is that while some try to paint with a broad brush on the public concern of a perceived increased militarization of policing, the real concerns arise from the use of a more tactical militaristic approach by some agencies and when that is done."
He notes that using SWAT for crowd control in Ferguson, Missouri, gave rise to debate within the policing profession itself, while use of SWAT to extract a heart-attack victim amid rioting in Baltimore wasn't criticized.
"Individual application of the specific resource," he says, "seems to make a difference in the public perception."
The Independent also gleaned the following from records and its review of data related to SWAT activity in the Springs.
From 2000 to 2013, the most recent years for which annual reports are available—
1,943: Number of times SWAT was deployed, most often to serve felony search warrants.
1,579: Number of people arrested on felony charges.
$2.22 billion: Total value of narcotics seized.
$1.9 million: Total value of property seized.
From 2010 to 2013, the only years these statistics appear in annual reports —
112: Number of rifles seized by SWAT.
154: Number of handguns seized by SWAT.
2002: The year Officer Ron Sheppard, now a sergeant, was honored with the department's Medal of Valor for bravery after taking down a theft-ring leader.
2007: The year SWAT was called to New Life Church to secure the scene of a shooting in which two people were killed. The gunman committed suicide after being shot by a church security guard.
$2,049: Amount the city has paid for five SWAT-related claims of property damage since 2011, including broken fences, windows and an office door. Eight other claims of SWAT-related damage were filed in the same period but denied by the city.