Remember RoboCop? He had a series of enhanced senses and everything he saw and heard was recorded for use in court. He could see things telescopically or in infrared. He was superhumanly strong with metal body armor covering his skin and he carried a machine pistol holstered in a hollow unit in one of his legs.
As the movie tagline proclaimed, RoboCop was "Part man. Part machine. All cop. The future of law enforcement."
While this movie was just a futuristic fantasy, when it comes to tactical law enforcement, the future is now. Today's SWAT teams have an arsenal of RoboCop-like tools at their disposal.
These high-tech tools have changed the way the men and women in black operate. Sophisticated fibers and ceramics used in today's body armor and helmets armor officers against harm. Less-lethal tools, such as those in the TASER International lineup, enable teams to execute missions while reducing collateral damage. Products like the PistolCam and the TASER AXON capture audio-video recordings during missions, while tools such as the TacView 2500 pole-mounted camera allow teams to see inside before entering. Surplus military equipment and armored vehicles available through the 1033 LESO Program provide added cover and protection. And the list goes on.
If money were no object, every officer in every tactical team across the United States would have these tools. Unfortunately, many times budgetary quandaries reduce access to critical technology.
"Every single department I know is in budget crisis right now," says Jack O'Connor, president and executive director of the U.S. National SWAT Championships. "Administrative policy requires you to have certain things. You've got to have vests; you've got to have pistols and the right kind of ammo; ballistic helmets; eye and ear protection and basic less-lethal weapons. Those and personnel costs take priority, even if some of this really cool technology could be really helpful."
Near-empty coffers mean agencies must carefully plan everything from technology purchases to training. But they cannot go without. "The big drug guys have machine guns, hand grenades, and all this other stuff. It's very violent," says O'Connor. In that climate, the teams called in to deal with the criminal element's worst of the worst need every advantage possible in terms of technology and training.
"You never want to lose the basics, but if you can gain an edge on your adversary, that's always a good thing," says Lt. Thomas Hannon, who heads the Warwick (R.I.) Police Department Reactionary Team. "If we have technological equipment that can benefit us — fiber optic cameras, night vision, and that sort of thing — it puts us ahead of the game."
The trouble with technology
"Technology brings with it both good and bad," says John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA).
It's good that technology, originally developed for military use, is now being adapted for law enforcement. However, Gnagey notes much technology doesn't adapt well to law enforcement use because companies often design products without law enforcement input. "That's bad," he says. "It should be the reverse. It should be law enforcement working with R&D experts, saying, 'Here's my problem, let's work on a solution together.' " When the reverse is true, the resulting technology fits well with existing law enforcement tactics and supports officers as they carry out their duties.
With that in mind, how do departments select the right technology for the right application that fits the way they do business?
First and foremost, Gnagey recommends buying technology that enhances, not changes, existing tactics. "Don't buy a piece of technology then try to figure out how you're going to use it by adapting your tactics to that technology," he warns.
The only way to truly know how a piece of technology will work is to try before you buy. Ask the manufacturer to loan out the equipment for test and evaluation. Ask for references and contact departments already using the products. Pose questions that include: Does the product work as advertised? Did your team have to greatly alter techniques and tactics to incorporate it? Is the product reliable?
"These are all things they need to know before they buy," Gnagey says. "Don't just blindly go in and buy a piece of equipment without checking it out. There are many cases where the product doesn't live up to what the manufacturer says it will do."
Then take a good look at how the technology fits into the team's mission, Gnagey recommends. This too requires asking key questions, including: How often is the team in a situation where this technology is appropriate? Is the technology useful for a variety of applications? Some technological tools might only be useful for barricade situations, for example, or they might be applied to both barricade calls and hostage scenarios. The best technologies offer dual uses.
Be realistic and know the difference between a necessity and a nice to have, adds O'Connor. "You're not going to buy a robot if you're in a place like Garden City, Kan.," he says. "It costs $15,000 and that's your entire SWAT budget. But you might buy the TASER AXON. It's not extremely expensive and it records everything you're doing."
Set the standard
Being part machine, RoboCop didn't need to train as hard as today's tactical officer. Technology — at least for today — does not replace the human element.
"Technology augments a SWAT team's capabilities but it doesn't replace the team," explains Hannon. "It is essential for teams to train in the basics and build from there. It's like playing golf. You can have the world's best clubs, but if you don't know how to use them, you've wasted a lot of money."
The Warwick Police Department operates a part-time tactical unit, comprised of a 15-person react team, a five-person SWAT team, snipers and a four-man crisis negotiation team. Hannon advocates SWAT standards, as adopted by states such as California and Rhode Island and those put forth by the NTOA, have helped Warwick and other teams better prepare and equip officers for tactical work. "Training and standards are the top things SWAT teams must have in order to do a good job," he says.
Rhode Island represents one of a handful of states requiring tactical team certification. In July 2008, Rhode Island followed California's lead requiring SWAT teams to meet exacting standards. The Rhode Island Tactical Officers Association mandates teams be reviewed by three officers from three separate entities to attain certification. The reviewing board looks at core competencies such as weapons and ammunition, equipment, team movements, tactics and decision-making, safety policies and more. Certification lasts for three years, at which time teams must reapply.
The NTOA recommends tactical officers train a minimum of 16 hours a month on perishable skills, meaning movement, shooting, cover and concealment. An officer adding a specialty, such as sniper, needs an additional 8 hours of training. Furthermore, those officers selected to use a new technology, such as a robot, must tack on at least 8 more hours a month. "You can see how it compounds," says Gnagey. "Not only do officers need to train on new technology, they also need to learn to maintain it. That all goes into how many hours they spend training."
Hannon purports technology can and should be incorporated into training scenarios to limit extra technological training time. As the Warwick tactical team stays current with its core skills, it puts new technology through the paces, allowing officers to see what works and what doesn't in given situations. For instance, as the team prepares for an explosive breaching training scenario, members select tools they think will benefit them. "We train with those tools to learn things like: How big a charge has to be. What type of charge is needed. Where it should be placed. How it affects the team as they make an explosive entry," Hannon says. "We need to train as a team with the equipment to become familiar with it, and see its capabilities and limitations."
However, using high-tech tools in regular training does not eliminate the need for individual officers to log additional training hours, cautions Gnagey. Enhanced training may still be required, depending on the type of equipment. If the department issues night vision devices to every team member, these devices can be easily applied to every training scenario. "But if a robot is operated by just one or two officers, they need ongoing and extra training, because it's not something they use daily," he explains.
Test the training
The Los Angeles SWAT team carries a reputation as being the best of the best among tactical teams. "They select top officers to become part of the team, they do their own training — which is excellent — to get them up to speed, and they go out and perform hundreds of missions each year. But who tests them to find out if their skills are really good or not?" O'Connor asks.
That's where competitions, such as the U.S. National SWAT Championships and the Connecticut SWAT Challenge, come into play. "SWAT competitions are a culmination of training," he says. "Too often I hear, 'Oh, that's just a game.' But the people who say that don't get it. They are the kind of people who look at everything as an expense and not an investment. They are the ones who say, 'I'm not buying new gear because our old gear is good enough.' Or, 'I'm not sending my guy to FBI Academy training because we know what to do in our jurisdiction.' That's old thinking."
SWAT competitions offer several key benefits, including:
- Testing the teams on the skills and technology officers have trained on. "These challenges put a lot of stress on officers," O'Connor says. While no one shoots back and no one gets killed in SWAT competitions, the stress of competing among their peers and in front of the public cannot be undervalued. "I've had officers tell me there is more stress in this competition than serving a warrant at a drug house," he says.
- Entering improves skills. Once a team registers for competition, members train harder with their weapons and on their tactical skills. And the payoff is big. "It doesn't matter how good or how bad they do at the competition," he says. "Their skill level is higher because they decided to enter and beefed up their training to prepare."
- Networking with peers. Participants rub elbows and share ideas with Los Angeles tactical officers and the GSG 9 der Bundespolizei counterterrorism unit of the German Federal Police all the way down to officers from Garden City, Kan. "No one has a monopoly on good ideas," O'Connor explains.
- Putting teams in front of the public. Generally, tactical teams operate in a cloud of secrecy where citizens have little opportunity to see what they do. These competitions shed new and positive light on tactical teams and their work.
- Providing access to the latest and greatest technology. SWAT challenges allow teams to actually use equipment they may not have access to otherwise. The U.S. SWAT Championships, for example, introduces new technology that makes sense and builds it into competition scenarios.
"You get to see and put your hands on equipment to determine whether it's worth bringing back to your department," says Hannon, whose team competes annually in the Connecticut SWAT Challenge.
Technology isn't everything
Being part machine, RoboCop's technology became second nature to him. The same can be true of today's tactical officers, provided they train and train hard. Technology offers many advantages, but it is no substitute for good training where officers can hone their decision-making skills, which O'Connor says outranks any technology out there.
Law enforcement is all about people confrontation, he explains. When there's a confrontation that escalates, SWAT comes in to put an end to it. Then there's an investigation, where tactical teams may be called out again to arrest others. What is the one tool, he asks, that makes all of this possible?
"It's all about judgment. When do I put this skill into operation?" he says. "Whether it's a car stop, a domestic, a drug entry in a high-risk situation, the cop has to make decisions. Do I draw my gun? Do I shoot? Do I use less-lethal? Can I talk him down? There are so many decisions that have to be made in an instant. The essence of training is to teach officer's skills, but also the correct application of those skills."
The future may be now in terms of technology, but correct application of the technology still has its roots in the past where training, not technology, was the name of the game.
Ronnie Garrett is the former editorial director of the Cygnus Law Enforcement Group. She may be reached through her Web site at www.garrettncostudios.com.