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."