For a number of years the Minneapolis Police Department and the FBI had a joint SWAT team. The idea for a joint team came from then-Special Agent (SA) Al Garber, the SWAT team leader and his long time partner and friend in crimefighting, SA Steve Gilkerson. They had a small team of highly motivated team members, but the other team members lacked the background and experience that comes from working the streets in full uniform with a full array of tools at your beltline. Garber, a former Army Ranger, and Gilkerson, a former Marine captain, both Viet Nam combat veterans, recognized the limitations of having a team with little experience in combat, unless you counted oral arguments during law school. The small size of the team also limited the scope of the team's capabilities.
Just as important, there wasn't a lot of emphasis on applying the officer survival tactics learned in SWAT training to the day-to-day duties of the average FBI agent. The primary emphasis at that time, prior to 9/11, was on white collar crime and serving a warrant often meant calling up the suspect and "inviting" them to come down to the office to "talk." Working with the Minneapolis cops in SWAT training, and in the relaxed conversations over a beer or two at the end of the day, those agents gained a different viewpoint on the importance of everyday officer survival tactics. It was good for the agents and it was good for the cops, but it took a lot of time off the streets for some of Minneapolis's better and more aggressive street cops.
Yesterday I had breakfast with Al and Steve. We have remained friends since the beginning of the joint SWAT team idea and we still get together pretty regularly. Our conversation was mostly about family, kids, my grandkids, prostate medicines, blood pressure medicine side effects, and the best bet for hearing aids. At one point Steve started to laugh and said "We used to talk about sex, taking down bad guys at gunpoint, and SWAT tactics. Now, we've been here for two hours and not one of has even mentioned the fact that our waitress is really cute. Instead we talk about our pills. What happened to us?" We all laughed. Then Al brought up a quick change of topics.
"I've thought a lot about our joint team and what it took to get the Minneapolis cops the time off the streets to train." He said. "I would have to talk to supervisors and explain the importance of what we were doing. And their argument was that every time I took their cops to some training, it was taking the better cops off the street and it was the precinct and the city that lost out. They didn't see the value of the training and they didn't like the fact that the FBI could take their cops away for two days a month, just for training. Now as I look back, I think maybe they were right and I was wrong. We didn't really use the team very much. It was mostly just training." I stopped Al right there.
"Al, I understand what you are saying, but I think you're wrong. We put on two or more SWAT schools a year for a lot of years. We trained hundreds, if not thousands, of cops in tactics that they would never get through their regular in-service training. More importantly, the vast majority of those officers were in those SWAT schools because they were the most aggressive and active street officers and they in turn became the department trainers and supervisors down the road."
"Maybe you're right," Al said Then it was time to split the check. Our breakfast had turned into two and one half hours of visiting time.
A few years back when Al was the U.S. Marshal in Minnesota, he told me that we can try to change things, but in the end we probably won't make much difference. Rocking the boat and pushing the limits of what we can be or should be is fine and good, but in the long run things stay pretty much the same. I found that a strange thing to hear from a man who had made such a difference in the level of tactical training for the cops in Minnesota and North and South Dakota. I know he was referring to my book on the code of silence, but it made me think about the importance of what we do on a daily basis.