FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Near the back wall of Sheriff Bill Schatzman’s office in downtown Winston-Salem stands a plaque that says he was among the few people who started the SWAT program at the FBI in the early 1970s, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
“We mirrored that after the Los Angeles police department and New York City police department,” Schatzman said.
“That grew into what it is today, and certainly the same basic theology is there. The same basic tenets are there. The equipment’s better and the technology is a little bit faster, quicker. But the SWAT theory was that they’re more highly trained law enforcement officers … to be involved in special operations that are high risk – the stuff that the beat cop doesn’t walk into – and their purpose is to save lives,” he said.
Schatzman and Maj. Beth Pritchard, during an hour-long interview with the Journal, talked about the way the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office runs its SWAT team, about a month after the American Civil Liberties Union released a report on the militarization of police departments nationwide.
Among the several concerns raised by the ACLU: law enforcement agencies deploying SWAT units for what it considers inappropriate situations, such as standard law enforcement duties as executing search warrants for drugs, and not those involving active shooters or hostages.
Another central point of the ACLU report was that the rising use of SWAT teams for drug raids comes as support for the war on drugs wanes, a trend highlighted by voters’ views on marijuana. Twenty-three states have passed referenda since the 1990s legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. Two of them – Washington and Colorado – have also legalized recreational use of the drug.
SWAT mostly used for drug raids
Like his counterpart, Barry Rountree, the chief of the Winston-Salem Police Department, Schatzman oversees a law enforcement agency that has used its SWAT team more often for situations involving suspected drug violations – coupled with suspicions of a dangerous suspect – than for any other purpose.
In the year ending June 30, the Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT team was activated, or called up, 16 times, according to incident reports obtained by the Winston-Salem Journal through public record requests.
Of those, three activations, all involving a barricaded subject, were canceled because officers on the scene handled the situation, officials said. A fourth activation – an incident involved “swatting,” or a hoax call – was also canceled. It’s tough to say why someone would engage in swatting, Pritchard said: “We just know that there is a phenomenon of people who call in hoax calls and our telecommunicators and deputies do their very best to identify those calls when placed.”
In the end, the SWAT team was activated and used 12 times during the year – mostly to execute search warrants for drugs.
By comparison, the Winston-Salem Police Department, which covers a larger population, deployed its SWAT team more than 40 times during the year ending May 31, mostly to execute drug search warrants.
SWAT teams are being used more often, Schatzman said, because these are different times.
“You can talk about the number of times SWAT gets used today as opposed 20 years ago or 30, 40 years ago,” Schatzman said.
“Well, 30, 40 years ago we didn’t have police officers in schools. Today we have that. The world is a little more dangerous place,” Schatzman said. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Schatzman said, it’s not all too strange for him to wonder whether one of the planes flying out of Smith Reynolds Airport may inexplicably turn course and fly into a downtown building.
“We live in that kind of world now,” he said.
“We’ve learned by experience that people involved in illegal activity, especially illegal drugs, are usually equipped with guns,” he said.
Little is known about deployments
There is little room for error when law enforcement agencies use SWAT teams, the ACLU report said, highlighting several tragic cases, among them a raid in which a flash-bang grenade was thrown in a crib holding a baby.
“Awful. Terrible. Bad,” Schatzman said.
“I have been in an operation personally where we hit the wrong house because the information was bad. The informant gave us bad information,” Schatzman said, referring to his time with the FBI about 40 years ago.
Asked how the public can know whether the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office is using its SWAT team judiciously, Schatzman said that his deputies make decisions based on the information they have with the overall aim of enforcing the law and protecting lives.
“The point is: You work with the information you have and you try to gather within the circumstance of time all of the information that you need, and then you deploy. And it should be done judiciously, with great restraint and as a tactic of last resort,” he said.
Both the Winston-Salem Police Department and Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office have a chain of command through which decisions on SWAT deployments must pass. On the back end, both law enforcement agencies have a review process to talk about what worked and what didn’t.
However, there is little transparency on that aspect of the process.
Neither the police department nor the sheriff’s office would agree to make public their “After Action Reports” related to SWAT deployments, citing exemptions in state public record laws.
Moving ahead, the police department and sheriff’s office are trying to get more body cameras, a move that is supported by Mike Meno, a spokesman for the ACLU-NC.
Those cameras may hold the key for increased public oversight of SWAT activities. But much depends on what policies may govern the use of those cameras – whether police officers will be able to stop recording and whether they will make the video available to the public, Meno said.
“North Carolinians deserve to know that law enforcement officers are there to protect and to serve, and not abuse their power,” he said.