The Town of Tonawanda’s police chief did well by shutting down the department’s SWAT team in light of a criminal charge against one member and an investigation into another. It’s a good moment to take a breath and assess the situation. But it’s a chance to do more than that, too.
The Police Department and the town should take this opportunity to reconsider whether it needs a SWAT team at all. The key question is: How often does the town of around 73,000 people really need to rely on special weapons and tactics to preserve or restore order? If the answer is “Not very,” then it should consider other options.
It’s no secret that, across the country, many municipalities that don’t need high-tech gear acquire it anyway as surplus military equipment. It’s been a mixed blessing, since the equipment requires care and, in some cases, has helped to drive a wedge between citizens and increasingly militarized police departments. The lesson is that not all gadgets and not all operations are essential.
Tonawanda has had its SWAT team for more than 30 years, and while it has been used occasionally, the troubles now besetting the team have created the space to evaluate whether it needs to continue as it is currently organized or whether it makes more economic sense to share services with other departments. That should be a tempting possibility.
This moment comes following the DWI arrest of one team member and an investigation into the conduct of another who was involved in a car crash and initially told investigators his wife was driving their SUV. Given the allegations of misconduct, Police Chief Jerome C. Uschold III suspended the unit, while planning to reactivate it as a “reconstituted” team sometime later this year.
Uschold acted wisely in shutting down the team, given the inevitable suspicions about its culture. All police need to be trustworthy and law-abiding, but elite teams carry a special burden. They are role models for other officers.
But the chief shouldn’t move too quickly to restock and restore the team. For a period, he can rely on the town’s mutual aid agreement with Amherst while considering whether there is a better way to ensure the ability to respond to a crisis.
The options are extensive. Besides Amherst, Towawanda’s borders are contiguous with the cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, the town of Grand Island and, most notably, Buffalo. The Erie County Sheriff’s Department has countywide responsibilities.
All of these municipalities should be consulted with an aim of creating mutually beneficial arrangements and lowering costs. It’s an unfortunate moment for Tonawanda police. It would be a shame to waste it.