The City Council of Lakewood, Washington has before it a recommendation to continue its participation in Metro Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), “a multi-jurisdictional police task force comprised of several Pierce County municipalities,” according to a 98-page report to the Lakewood City Council, pp.155-253.
When a jury awarded a $15M judgement against Lakewood in 2017 in the case of Leonard Thomas – killed by a Lakewood Police sniper who at the time was a member of the Pierce County Metro SWAT team during a May 2013 standoff in Fife – were the costs born equally across all parties?
No, they were not.
When, in light of that incident, Metro SWAT revised its procedures in 2016, did those procedural changes include equitable risk-sharing by all member jurisdictions?
No, they did not.
To continue participation in Metro SWAT per the 2016 agreement – contributing as Lakewood does the bulk of time, personnel and equipment to SWAT call-outs – would Lakewood continue to be “exposed to a disproportionate level of risk comparative to other member jurisdictions”?
Yes, it would.
Does Metro SWAT “handle bank robberies, terrorist attacks, or school shootings”?
No, it doesn’t.
Is there currently, “a standard, or minimum, financial investment member jurisdictions have to make to retain membership in Metro SWAT”?
No, there isn’t.
Is there “an established financial management plan that monitors the allocation of resources per member jurisdiction”?
Is there “a lack of overall fiscal transparency in Metro SWAT”?
And yet Lakewood “has been an integral member of Metro SWAT” since 2005.
So why are we doing this?
Especially since, as if the above were not enough, the report to the Council says the Thomas award was not an anomaly.
“Nationally, there has been a proliferation of police-involved incidents resulting in liability claims and lawsuits. This trend has been particularly acute for specialized police services, such as SWAT. In step with increasing litigation, awards for damages from SWAT-involved incidents have also substantially increased.
“Costly awards can significantly reduce a municipality’s ability to provide public services and, by extension, erode citizen confidence in their government.”
“There are a number of preventative steps the City can take to reduce the potential for similar future outcomes.”
Here’s one: End participation in Metro SWAT.
“While certain situations unquestionably require specialized responses by well-equipped specialists,” as the report before the Council claims, it’s also possible that the proliferation of SWAT teams across the US and “their significantly expanded utilization” may be as much a matter of image and control, than of importance and necessity.
Acknowledged in the report to the Lakewood Council is the admission that “crime has declined sharply over the past few decades.” Even so, the collection and proliferation of armored vehicles, tactical gear, and expansion of special weapons teams – in the latter case – “has increased approximately fifteen hundred percent.”
All, commonly made possible, by way of federal grant money and the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act and similar federal laws in the 1980s that “assisted the distribution of military equipment to local police departments.”
Not surprisingly then, “the utilization of SWAT teams has greatly expanded and evolved.”
It may be then that adding state-of-the-art SWAT assault vehicles to the arsenal; obtaining the latest in armored trucks, vans, cars, and SUVs on the market; pursuing the most sought after, top-of-the-line Ballistic Armored Tactical Transport (BATT), etc. may have something to do with changing “the way the officers look, how the police departments view themselves, and ultimately, how jurisdictions utilize SWAT teams.”
And justify them.
The City of Sammamish, a mid-size city of 53,387 residents (compared with Lakewood’s 60,665), “is consistently conferred the honor of being one of the safest cities in Washington State, having one of the lowest violent and property crime rates per capita,” according the report before the Lakewood City Council.
Sammamish apparently, however, does not have its own SWAT force but rather “contracts for SWAT services through King County SWAT.”
That’s the direction Lakewood should pursue.
In lieu of Option Two recommended to the Council by City Staff – to enter contract negotiations, clarifications and “confrontations” with Metro SWAT – given recent history, Option Three has much more to offer.
Contract SWAT services to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department (PCSD).
“One of the leading motivations for incorporation as a city was to establish greater local control over public safety,” whereupon Lakewood, incorporated 1996, separated ways with the PCSD in 2004, establishing its own police department.
“While it is unclear why the City elected to leave PCSD for SWAT service provision, shortly following the establishment of LPD, the City became a member of Metro SWAT.”
It’s time to return to our roots and reconnect with the PCSD.
It would provide “access to a SWAT team that is adequately trained, cost-effective, and reduces the City’s overall exposure to risk.”
Had the PCSD supplied SWAT services to Lakewood in 2017 for example, the City would have paid $138,269, again according to the report before the Council.
Far less than a quarter-million annually is certainly a better investment than the $15 million – and-counting – damage endured in the Thomas debacle for which “the City will likely see significant increases in insurance premiums over the next five years” in addition to the City being on the hook to cover $6.5 million.
Contracting with PCSD – should it be willing to welcome back Lakewood to the fold, adding the City to its served clientele – would mean “current SWAT training time and investments would be reallocated to additional regular duties within Lakewood.”
Coming online with PCSD would mean Lakewood would no longer “be responsible for all wrongful and negligent actions of its personnel” as that risk would be incurred by PCSD.
And with “litigation against specialized teams, like SWAT, currently proliferating in the US at a ‘significant rate’” according to the Public Agency Training Council (cited report), that’s a big deal.
PCSD’s SWAT services in Lakewood would additionally “eliminate the need to procure and maintain SWAT equipment; minimize conflict between neighboring jurisdictions as a result of SWAT activity; retain local control over most public safety responses” and even, according to the report: “positively impact citizen moral.”
By contracting for SWAT with PCSD, “the City effectively eliminates the likelihood of incurring major SWAT-involved losses as the frequency at which LPD personnel would respond to high-risk incidents is greatly reduced.
“While mutual aid would still apply, contracting with PCSD would eliminate LPD being immediately called to involvement in SWAT incidents outside of Lakewood.
“Correspondingly, the likelihood of LPD personnel being implicated in SWAT-involved claims or litigation would also be substantially minimized. PCSD would be liable for all damages incurred from PCSD SWAT-involved incidents.”
All of which – advantages – outweigh the probability that “that PCSD will pass costs to customer cities, whether those costs are generated by the customer city and PCSD directly charges that city or an incident occurring outside any city serves as the basis for increasing charges to customer cities.”
Sure, Lakewood wouldn’t have control over SWAT command, operations and training.
No latest and greatest tank-like vehicles to procure.
And even though the lack of such control – somehow – might impact LPD morale (this matter of moral actually listed as a downside of PCSD taking the lead per the report):
Given the forecast of times LPD personnel would be involved in SWAT incidents in Lakewood: zero; and,
Given the expectation that LPD would be involved in other jurisdictions: also zero; and,
Given PCSD SWAT would respond to all high-risk incidents in the City with the consequent high-risk rating being low as PCSD would be liable for SWAT-involved liability losses;
And given “one of the largest punitive awards ever in Washington State for police use-of-force and wrongful death,” happened when LPD was in charge;
Then this decision appears fairly straightforward.