Spring has finally sprung. And with it comes an annual rite as predictable and inevitable as spring itself. I’m referring to the annual crime explosion that occurs every spring in many, if not most, urban centers and surrounding suburbs throughout America.
After months of hibernation, people naturally want to enjoy spring’s warm weather. The result is far more people out in public, and while most are law abiding, the criminal element takes full advantage of the “stocked pond” of springtime victims.
Police departments have known about the annual spring crime explosion for many years, and they have responded with increased, targeted operations known as crime suppression. Also known as directed and saturation patrol and by various other names, crime suppression is a targeted response to high crime areas and hot spots.
A number of police departments do crime suppression 365 days a year, often designating SWAT/Tactical units to supplement patrol. Today, computer applications like CompStat identify crime spot locations, days and times that crimes are more likely to occur, and other intel that allows departments to focus crime suppression activities where and when they’re most effective.
Crime suppression is nothing new. “Extra” officers were sent in to target known crime areas back in the 1950s. And I was privileged to be assigned to two tactical units in the 1970s whose primary mission was to “hit crime areas and arrest bad guys.” At the time, Cleveland was a stocked pond” of crime and criminals, which made our mission all that more enjoyable and rewarding.
Today, little has changed. Take the example of the weekend of April 18 when Chicago experienced a violent crime explosion that resulted in more than three dozen people shot, including nine deaths. Predictably, the Chicago Police Department announced a major crime suppression response by additional patrol units and also SWAT.
A growing number of tactical teams are increasingly becoming involved in crime suppression. Some established teams have been doing crime suppression for many years, including LAPD SWAT, SFPD SWAT, and NYPD ESU. Advantages of using SWAT for crime suppression include putting them out on the street, available to respond to crime and assist patrol. SWAT’s presence, tactics, and teamwork are highly effective in diffusing potential street confrontations, and are reassuring to patrol officers. This helps patrol achieve the mission: crime suppression and crime reduction.
Disadvantages of using SWAT for crime suppression include the potential for reduced training time, which can ultimately adversely affect SWAT in its primary mission. Another potential problem is that SWAT can be stretched too thin to effectively work team tactics.
The reality is that the vast majority of law enforcement agencies are understaffed and this is especially true for patrol. Agencies are constantly looking for ways to beef up patrol and conduct effective crime suppression. And SWAT is viewed as an available source of supplemental manpower.
However, like all of law enforcement, SWAT is also often understaffed. Take the example of one large Midwest police department’s full-time SWAT team, which once had 30 personnel, but today has dwindled to a low of 19. Despite the fact that this team is short 11 officers, its workload has dramatically increased.
The inevitable result is that SWAT is plugged in to the agency’s crime suppression mission. Since “the mission always comes first,” SWAT will do its usual professional best to accomplish any mission it is tasked with, including crime suppression. But at what price?
You’ll notice that I’m not offering any answers or solutions to this dilemma—one that will very likely continue to grow in the coming years. Crime, especially violent crime, has been spiraling up in recent years. And law enforcement has been hard-pressed to try to keep pace. In many major U.S. cities, violent crime (including homicide) is soaring to levels not seen in more than a decade.
This crime increase comes at a time when police departments are facing severe labor shortages, compounded by increasing difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates. The predictable result is that more and more agencies are employing all their resources for crime suppression, including SWAT.
For SWAT, the result is a dramatic increase in workload and a severe challenge to the maintenance of SWAT’s necessarily high standards. That said, I am confident SWAT will meet this and all challenges head-on and do the job the only way we know how, “the SWAT way.”