Turn the pages on SWAT

On Aug. 1, 1966, a married 25-year-old former U.S. Marine and college student climbed to the observation deck of the campus tower at the University of Texas at Austin and opened fire on the crowd below. Charles Whitman, a clean-cut blond engineering...

John Gnagey, NTOA’s executive director and a seasoned SWAT officer, says that although SWAT is still reactive in nature, it’s evolved into a thinking man’s game. Gone are the days of relying on brute force to make an entry, says Gnagey. “The philosophy has changed; there are multiple ways of doing things. You have to think about it and do risk assessments. That’s an ongoing thing. And the minute you put that plan into operation, things will change,” he says.

Gnagey says flexibility is key for today’s SWAT teams. “You have to be able to think and not just be rote ... because that’s the way you were taught to do it.”

Terrorism, technology and sophisticated weaponry have changed modern law enforcement and the way it approaches policing. The success of SWAT operations hinges on how adaptive teams and their departments are.

“We like to tell trainers and commanders that it’s like a three-dimensional chess board. You have to be at least three moves ahead of the individuals you’re operating against,” he says.

SWAT of the future

Gnagey is well positioned to see both where SWAT has been and where it’s going. He says SWAT planning involves not simply examining the types of call-outs a team receives, but also an assessment of the surrounding infrastructure.

“What is in my community that could be of viable interest to either a home-grown domestic terrorist or an international terrorist? Of course you look at New York and Dallas and big places like that, but you also have to look at your own city. It may be 65,000 people but it may be of major interest to some organization,” he says.

Gnagey endorses force multipliers like regional multijurisdictional teams, which, he says, are a good idea even if the agency has an excellent team. In an age when terrorists are able to launch Mumbai-type attacks, no team should remain standalone.

He also says more progressive teams are telling manufacturers what equipment they need to do their jobs. Instead of letting the supplier call the shots, SWAT should work with companies that will accommodate the team’s needs. One example he offers of technology being developed for SWAT’s use is radar that allows police to see through walls. “They said ‘We need something different from what the power companies and fire departments use,’” says Gnagey.

But, he cautions, there are still many issues confronting future SWAT commanders and the departments that sponsor them. Chief among those are budgetary challenges, which threaten to derail some teams. Gnagey says he does not foresee SWAT’s extinction, especially with the constant threat of terrorism, but believes many teams may find themselves with other duties between call-outs. Versatility could be one of the saviors of SWAT, along with territorial flexibility, especially where midsize and smaller departments are concerned.

“Departments will sit down and say, ‘Maybe we can’t do this ourselves, but we can do this together,’” he says.

As for predictions of where SWAT will be in the next decade, Borelli, McCarthy and Gnagey concur: Events in other parts of the world, such as the recent economically inspired riots in the United Kingdom, will ignite similar situations on U.S. shores. They say SWAT needs to be ready.

“We need to watch and take notes,” says Gnagey. “All law enforcement is going to have to do a significant revision to include what’s happening today in order to be ready for tomorrow.”


A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at carolemoore_biz@yahoo.com. Moore is also the author or The Last Place You’d Look: True Stories of Missing Persons and the People Who Search for Them (Rowman & Littlefield, Spring 2011).

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