Learning From SWAT

SWAT has gotten a bad name over the last few years in some segments of law enforcement. With nicknames such as the "hut-hut boys" to "prima donnas in black," some rank and file officers as well as police supervisors seem to hold a grudge against police tactical teams. Some of this may be warranted based on ego and the personalities involved. My experience, however, is a lot of this comes from people that once tried to get on SWAT and couldn't or those who knew they never could make it. New wave journalists (writers with "issues") such as Peter Kraska and his accusations that we are "militarizing Mayberry," to James Bovard ("Flash. Bang. You're Dead," Playboy) to Radley Balko's recent "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Raids in America" from the CATO Institute, these attitudes and articles have ignored the valuable contribution that police tactical teams have made to our communities and the police business since their formation. We can and should learn from SWAT. The following are some areas that patrol officers and supervisors can learn from special weapons and tactics teams.


Police tactical teams live and die by their training. By and large, SWAT training tends to be more dynamic and realistic (read: harder) than standard line officer training. We can and should learn from this. Performance in an actual situation is directly related to the quantity and quality of training. The more dynamic the training and the more that this training is based on skills that can actually be performed under stress, the better. In my opinion, training for patrol officers and detectives should be more frequent and more realistic. Many departments have strayed from training programs that truly challenge their people because of the whiners and complainers. For instance, if a program is too physical and a few minor injuries result, management oftentimes will ask trainers to back down intensity levels. I can say that my agency does not do this and understands the importance of dynamic training. An agency near us is completely opposite, with a patrol officer that works the streets every day, but has a handicapped placard in his own vehicle. Line officers enjoy and benefit from intense and realistic training.

When my agency recently engaged in force-on-force type training with Airsoft pistols, most officers stated, "We need to do more of this." The whiners and complainers will shoot their mouths off regardless of the training. Let's stop training with these people in mind. Let's raise the bar, and they either pass muster or are deselected. Throughout the U.S., SWAT teams understand the importance of competency in core critical tasks. These tasks, such as shooting and suspect control are those skills where lack of ability can lead to tragedy. For this reason, most SWAT teams shoot every month. This should be the goal of every agency for all personnel. In Ohio, where I live, the vast majority of agencies get their people to the range only once or twice a year. Skills are perishable whether we're talking tactical teams and operators or patrol officers and investigators. Train more often and more realistically in core critical tasks!


The SWAT community within the U.S. keeps its finger on the pulse of new technologies. If the equipment works and is sound, the word will get around. Experienced tactical operators tend to look at equipment based on need, not what's cool. For instance, SWAT has long since known of the advantages of long guns over pistols. The accuracy potential and increased ballistic performance of a sub-gun or carbine is leaps and bounds over what an officer can accomplish with a handgun. This has filtered over to the patrol force which now understands the advantages of the police carbine or rifle and many agencies are now equipping their forces with them. This also the case with kinetic energy impact munitions (shotgun beanbag rounds and such). These options prior to the TASERĀ® and even since the TASER's deployment have given options to patrol officers theretofore not available. Equipment in and of itself won't win the day, but some equipment has proven itself to increase the odds in worst case situations.


Law enforcement tactical teams engage in a methodical planning process. Borrowed and adapted from the military, these models allow teams to plan and initiate operations in a short amount of time. In my opinion, if there is an area that is lacking in police supervisory training, it is this. A now-retired police supervisor once stated that the most tactical type of question he was asked in any promotional test he ever took had to do with the length of chain on a towed vehicle. Certainly, police supervisors are not promoted based on their tactical acumen. But when in a supervisory position, it is their responsibility to handle logistical and tactical issues in an emergency. With no training in this area, they could learn much from SWAT team leaders. For instance, a standard planning model is SMEAC: Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration and Logistics, Command and Signals. This planning model gets supervisors and officers focused on what they face, what they want to do, how they are going to accomplish their mission and how they will support and communicate it. A patrol supervisor that has no experience in this area can be quickly overwhelmed with all the minutia that rears its ugly head during any type of unusual situation, be it a barricaded bad guy, shooting or riot. A plan sketched out in the dust of a trunk lid is better than no plan at all. And as someone much wiser than I stated, "Those that fail to plan, plan to fail."


The ability of a group of officers to work together to solve a problem is the reason that police tactical teams succeed. No supervisor or patrol officer, regardless of skill, can achieve as much or be as successful as a group working together. Whether it's you working with your partner or other officers on your shift, you must take the time to come up with basic strategies and tactics. Whether it is employing the excellent tactic of contact and cover as developed and propagated by the San Diego Police Department, or you or a supervisor taking the time to talk about how you and your fellow officers will approach certain calls, these strategies and tactics when deployed in an actual incident will pay massive performance dividends. When on-duty officers responded to the Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City recently after a gunman went on a rampage, they quickly entered the mall in a rapid deployment strategy where they assisted off-duty officer Kenneth Hammond, and were able to neutralize the gunman. This combination of well-trained and -equipped officers working together to execute a well-thought-out and pre-planned tactical concept stopped a shooter in minutes who certainly hoped to wreak more damage and devastation on mall-goers.

Tactical planning and operational concepts are not limited just to SWAT. Street officers, investigators and supervisors can learn much from police tactical teams. By focusing on the best that SWAT offers law enforcement and applying sound tactical concepts across the board, we can deploy more safely, plan more methodically and soundly and decrease officer and citizen injuries. That is a goal that is common to all and whether in a patrol uniform, a suit and tie or tactical team BDUs, we should strive to work and learn the best and safest way to police in what can sometimes be very challenging world.