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Prince George’s County and the SWAT Team: Unnecessary Roughness
Two recent cases have prompted local police departments to rethink their break-down-the-door policies By Kris Coronado
Comments () | Published May 23, 2011
Photograph by David Lindsey Wade

Walking around Cheye Calvo's living room in the Prince George's County town of Berwyn Heights, it's hard to believe it was a scene of such violence and heartbreak. Calvo stands by the fireplace in a green L.L. Bean sweatshirt, jeans, and Crocs.

"Want to see them?" he asks, pointing to a wooden box. On top of it are a framed picture of two black Labradors, a figurine of two dogs, and a stuffed toy puppy. He opens the box, revealing two large Ziploc bags. He takes one in his left hand–"Payton," he says—and lifts the second in his right:"Chase. You know by size."

At seven years old, Payton was slightly larger than four-year-old Chase. Calvo had both dogs cremated in August 2008 after they were shot in a botched drug bust by the Prince George's County Sheriff's Office and the county's Narcotic Enforcement Division.

Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, sued the sheriff's office and police department. In January, just before the trail was to begin, the two sides reached an agreement to settle out of court. Though Calvo will be paid an undisclosed sum, he says his aim in bringing the suit was to change policies on the use of SWAT teams.

Calvo's case isn't the only recent lawsuit over the use of SWAT teams by local law-enforcement agencies. One week before Prince George's settled with Calvo, another high-profile case came to a close: Fairfax County agreed to pay Anita and Salvatore Culosi Sr. $2 million in reparation for the death of their son, 37-year-old Fair Oaks optometrist Salvatore Culosi, who was shot during a SWAT raid in 2006.

The use of SWAT'—Special Weapons and Tactics—teams was once reserved for worst-case-scenarios. In the United States, the units were first formed in the late 1960s in response to incidents such as the 1966 University of Texas massacre—in which a sniper shot and killed 16 from atop a campus tower—and the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. SWAT teams were designed to defuse situations that would put the public at high risk, such as terrorist threats, hostage situations, and riots. The paramilitary-style units are more heavily armed than regular-duty police officers, often carrying submachine guns.

But the use of SWAT teams has become surprisingly common among American police forces. According to a study by Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska, SWAT deployments in the United States went from about 3,000 in 1980 to 45,000 by 2007.

The Calvo and Culosi cases generated media attention and have led to changes in Prince George's and Fairfax counties. But some think it will take another violent incident before more police departments rethink their policies on when and how they use SWAT teams.

"Even if SWAT teams get the address they're looking for every time, you're sending cops dressed up like soldiers to break people's doors down, usually in the middle of the night, for a nonviolent offense," says Radley Balko, author of a 2006 Cato Institute report, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America." Says Balko: "That's not an image most people in a free society would see. I guess they do now."

Next: In Maryland, SWAT teams were deployed 1,618 times between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010.

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Posted at 08:10 AM/ET, 05/23/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles