I don’t know how many readers remember the history of SWAT Teams, but I can remember when they started. “SWAT” is an acronym for “Special Weapons And Tactics.” They are to police as Special Forces are to regular army, and they were formed in response to the various urban insurrections and guerrilla movements of the 1960s:

The first significant deployment of LAPD’s SWAT unit was on 9 December 1969, in a four-hour confrontation with members of the Black Panthers. The Panthers finally surrendered, with only three Panthers and three officers being injured. By 1974, there was a general acceptance of SWAT as a resource for the city and county of Los Angeles.
On the afternoon of 17 May 1974, elements of a group which called itself the “Symbionese Liberation Army” (SLA), a group of heavily-armed leftists, barricaded themselves in a residence on East 54th Street at Compton Avenue. Coverage of the siege was broadcast to millions via television and radio and featured in the world press for days after. Negotiations were opened with the barricaded suspects on 26 separate occasions, 18 prior to the introduction of tear gas, and 10 during the ensuing confrontation. Police units did not fire until the SLA had fired several volleys of semi-automatic and fully automatic gunfire at them. In spite of the 3,772 rounds fired by the SLA, no uninvolved citizens or police officers sustained injury from gunfire.

Laudable as it was to combat urban insurrection in the 1960s (or to combat terrorists and rescue hostages today), I am seeing more and more evidence that today’s SWAT Teams are being used not against al Qaida cells or barricaded hostage situations, but for ordinary, routine police work (i.e. serving warrants).
Justin directed my attention to this Reason piece. The underlying story is a real eye-opener (if you’ll forgive the pun) which ought to give pause to the growing misuse of SWAT Teams in this country.
An 37 year old optometrist (who hadn’t taken hostages and who had, so far as I can tell, zero known connections to terrorism) was accused of taking money for sports bets. Yes, if he did that it’s illegal; while you might be allowed to drive to Atlantic City to place bets, if you do it for someone else, that makes you a “bookie.” I’m not sure how many optometrists do this sort of thing, and I don’t know the man’s personal story. If he did it, it might have been for the extra money; maybe for the thrill. But there’s no evidence (or even allegation) that he was a violent criminal in any way. Nonetheless, the SWAT Team arrived at his home last Tuesday night, and an officer “accidentally” fired a .45 caliber Heckler & Koch into his chest.
Very, very few people live after having a .45 fired through their chests. That’s because the .45 was developed to stop berserk Moro warriors during Philippine insurrections, and its “stopping power” is legendary:

During the same time frame that John Browning was working on many of his 128 patents, a tribe of warriors, the Moro, were giving the U.S. Army a very hard time in the Philippines. To prepare for battle, the Moro would bind their limbs with leather, take narcotics, and use religious ritual to gain an altered state of consciousness, this turned them into virtual Supermen. The .38 Long Colt pistol round the U.S. soldiers had simply would not stop the Moro. Of note is the fact that the Krag rifles the U.S. issued were also barely more than useless.
Remembering the experience with the Moros and after extensive testing on animals and human cadavers, Col. John T. Thompson (inventor of the Thompson sub-machine-gun) and Col. Louis A. La Garde, of the Army Ordnance Board, determined that the Army needed a .45 caliber cartridge to provide adequate stopping power.

Whether the .45 caliber round is needed to stop optometrists with gambling issues is at least debatable, but here’s what happened according to the WaPo:

Though most Fairfax officers are issued 9mm handguns, tactical unit officers sometimes are issued more powerful weapons. Police confirmed yesterday that Culosi, who graduated from Bishop O’Connell High School and the University of Virginia, was shot with a .45-caliber pistol made by Heckler & Koch, a larger weapon that authorities said would not have a trigger that could be easily tripped.
“It’s a very safe gun,” said David Yates, a local firearms trainer and range safety officer. “Very high quality. Not a hair trigger. Very reliable. Very accurate.”
Yates said there were two possible reasons why Culosi was shot: “Ignorance and carelessness.” And because police said the officer was highly trained, he couldn’t have been ignorant of gun-safety procedures, Yates said.
“We’re looking at this with the benefit of hindsight,” Yates said. “But it’s not an accident.”

Well, as the saying goes, “guns don’t kill people….”
But are SWAT Teams really just “people” in the ordinary sense? Are they the same as ordinary police? There is something ruthless, warlike, and robotically impersonal about SWAT Teams. I think they are necessary, but their use in ordinary warrant situations like this invites tragedy.
In any event, the most the family of this optometrist can hope to do is get some money from the city, and maybe the latter will be persuaded to discipline the officer. But I seriously doubt that they’ll examine whether it was proper to essentially “send in the special forces” against a healing arts practitioner accused of a victimless, nonviolent crime.
That won’t stop it from happening again, because as Radley Balko points out, it’s now “all-SWAT-all-the-time”:

The phrase “police state” is often overused. It’s almost a cliche. But if the Fairfax police department is serving every warrant with cops decked out in battle gear, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a more appropriate term.
And you’d be hard-pressed to argue against the fact that Fairfax’s all-SWAT-all-the-time policy is the reason Culosi is dead. Had a couple of detectives served the search warrant, in the presence of a couple of troopers, he’d still be alive.
Let’s also not lose sight of what precipitated this raid. Gambling. Fairfax cops sent a SWAT team after a bookie like Culosi (I’m not yet convinced he was a big-time bookie, but let’s assume) out of some paternalistic notion that the government is obligated to protect its citizens from wagering away their rent money.
Meanwhile, in 2004 alone, the Virginia lottery spent $21 million on “advertising and marketing” aimed at persuading its citizens to gamble.
Odd form of paternalism, isn’t it?

Odd, but not surprising.
AFTERTHOUGHT: It occurs to me that this might all come down to money. If the Fairfax SWAT Teams are a separate item in the city’s police budget, then the Police Department might have an economic motivation to “use them or lose them,” because bureaucracy tends to invite budget cuts whenever an entity fails to use its resources. Which might mean that the fewer incidents of hostage taking and terrorism there are in Fairfax County, the less money that’s needed for the SWAT Team. . .
(If a few citizens have to die, why, that’s a small price to pay.)