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SAPD criticized over participation in Dubai SWAT competition with human rights violators

Dominic Anthony Walsh

Human rights and police reform advocates said the San Antonio Police Department’s recent involvement in an international SWAT competition in the United Arab Emirates was a dangerous mistake for the communities they serve at home.

The UAE SWAT Challenge is hosted annually by the Dubai Police in Dubai. Its stated purpose is to “foster an exchange of tactical techniques and skills” among the 73 participating police units from 41 countries through five days of courses this year that were intended to showcase physical endurance and skill. This year the event took place between Feb. 1 and Feb. 5.

In a statement, an SAPD public information officer said the department participated in the UAE SWAT Challenge in the spirit of competition.

Ariel Dulitzky, the director of the UT Austin School of Law’s Human Rights Clinic and a clinical professor, said the problem was that many of the special police units SAPD competed alongside are known for their poor human rights records.

“I don't think that it’s advisable for U.S. police units to be associated with any other police department or police unit or with countries with a poor human rights record,” Dulitzky said. “I don't think that it's the type of a partnership that U.S. police departments should seek.”

Members of the SAPD SWAT team about to begin their course on the third day of the UAE SWAT Challenge.
Courtesy photo
Members of the SAPD SWAT team about to begin their course on the third day of the UAE SWAT Challenge.

He said SAPD and the New York Police Department, the only two U.S. police departments to compete in the UAE SWAT Challenge, should not have participated because of current human rights concerns.

SAPD declined to respond to a detailed list of questions about the department’s participation in the event. But the department denied that they shouldn’t compete, and said the UAE SWAT Challenge is like the Olympics, where countries from around the world compete despite geopolitical concerns.

Dulitzky said the competition’s repeated emphasis on an exchange of “tactical skills and techniques” and its lack of universal participation from around the world undermined the comparison to the Olympics.

“Overall, I think that they are completely different from the Olympic Games,” he said. “The exchange of tactics is problematic because … some of these countries or units are known for many human rights abuses committed by the police forces — excessive use of force, illegal or extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention.”

Human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have accused law enforcement from the Philippines, China, and Russia of engaging in extrajudicial killings, repression of speech, and war crimes.

Special units from all three countries participated in the UAE SWAT Challenge.

The SAPD said the Dubai Police paid for their travel expenses, but did not share how much those expenses were.

Dultizky said that taking money from the Dubai Police is another example of the department’s poor judgment.

“I would be very concerned receiving funding from a public source such as the government of the UAE,” Dulitzky said. “I would say that that calls for a basic use of judgment, [of] due diligence, in terms of human rights and being sure that any police unit in the U.S. is not funded directly or indirectly by governments accused of committing human rights abuses. And it appears that the American units that participated in this so-called competition did not exercise the due diligence required by human rights standards.”

The U.S. State Department’s 2022 report on the UAE assessed that there were credible reports of arbitrary arrest and detention and serious restrictions on expression carried about by the government and law enforcement. The Dubai Police is directly overseen by the federal Ministry of the Interior.

The Dubai Police’s two units took home first and second place at the UAE SWAT Challenge. SAPD placed 11th, returning home without any prize money.

Founder and executive director of ACT 4 SA Ananda Tomas announces the new San Antonio Justice Charter in front of community supporters on the steps of City Hall.
Josh Peck
Ananda Tomas, founder and executive director of ACT 4 SA, announces the new San Antonio Justice Charter.

Ananda Tomas, the executive director of the local police reform organization ACT4SA, said it was unacceptable for SAPD to participate in the event. She said these kinds of events make U.S. law enforcement more like the military.

“Gatherings of these types of SWAT teams and police forces … do give the pathway for more militarization, for more violence,” Tomas said.

Dulitzky said that’s a real risk, especially because many of the participants in the competition are not independent from their countries’ militaries.

“When we talk about the exchange of tactics as one of the goals of the competition, it’s fairly problematic that some of those tactics could be military rather than police-oriented,” he said.

Tomas said SAPD already has a problem with its use of force — 22 shootings and 14 people killed in 2023 — and that competitions like these could make it even worse.

“SAPD tripled the amount of people that they killed in 2023 from 2022,” she said. “And cozying up next to known violent SWAT teams, police forces, law enforcement, can do nothing but increase those violent tactics and that type of trend.”

Tomas said San Antonio residents can’t afford for the SAPD to import even more violent tactics from abroad.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the number of participating police units and countries in the UAE SWAT Challenge. It was 73 teams from 41 countries.

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