The fact is that women are still underrepresented in law enforcement (between 10 – 20 percent of the force, according to expert estimates), and some departments have no women at all on their tactical, SWAT units.
This, however, is slowly changing as law enforcement in general begins to see beyond gender and evaluate tactical team members as individuals.
Some tactical units have had female members for decades, while many others still have none. It’s rare enough that stories are still done in the mainstream media about the first female member of a particular tactical team.
Role models are essential in promoting a particular career, and the more women who get on tactical teams, the more role models there will be for other women who want to go the same route.
“Women in general are changing – it’s the issue of empowerment and role models more than anything,” says Lou Ann Hamblin, MA, CEO, Louka Tactical Training. “Women in our industry don’t see these role models. This limits the vision of young, aspiring female police officers. Unless they know these roles models personally, they don’t know these women exist. You are only a role model if people can see you. Role modeling is particularly important at this critical stage.”
Jennifer A. Louis, Lieutenant, Berkeley PD Special Response Team, emphasizes how important it was that women had been successful before her. “Our SRT team has been in place since 1976 and our first woman was on the team in 1988,” she details. “Knowing it was possible was key. It’s up to each one of us to do the best we can do in the position we are in, and we have to reach a hand down to help those that are coming after us. We have to be better, to move farther and to open new doors.”
The times they certainly are a’changing. “Women historically haven’t been accepted, but I think that’s in the past,” says Jolie Macias, patrol sergeant and SWAT team member, Newark (CA) Police Department. “Agencies are much more open to women being on tactical teams. There have been many of us that have proven that we can stand side by side and do the same job as men. I got on the team almost ten years ago now and I was the first woman from my department on the team. Initially, there was skepticism from older operators and it took them seeing compete and perform better than some of these guys on physical challenges to accept me.”
J’Nean Caserta was the first female SWAT team member in the Philadelphia PD, and one of two on the team now. “I think you have to prove yourself when you come into any specialized unit,” she says. “I was singled out because I was new, not because of my gender. I was a police officer for 13 years and I knew I was going to have to start all over again as a rookie."
Caserta has become a role model, an inspiration for other women who might not have considered SWAT before. “I believe that many women feel that they might not be able to perform the duties, so not many go for SWAT,” she says. “When I got here, my name got out there in the department and all of sudden, we saw an increase in female applicants.”
Most agencies have a specific fitness and skills test to qualify for tactical teams. Some would argue that these tests are too heavily skewed towards upper body strength, while others feel that there should be no special considerations given to women who want to join SWAT.
“Sure, SWAT teams have to carry additional weight and you have to train yourself to have the strength and stamina, because the call outs last for hours,,” says Louka Tactical Training’s Hamblin. “I would argue that they need to start looking at physical tests as relates to the job tasks. There has to be a foundational level of fitness and wellness for tactical team. Everybody is a team member, but not everyone has the ram in their hand, not everyone is going to be a sniper. Every member has a specialty and a backup specialty.”
There is no standardized, national test. “When we first implemented a fitness test for our team, there was discussion about whether there should be different standards for men and women,” Berkeley’s Louis remembers. “My push has always been that everyone should be held to the same standard. The old image of the SRT operator that is a hulking, former football player is not the case anymore. The fit, athletic body type that is the standard now is much more attainable for women.”
The Situation Today
For women, joining a tactical team is an uphill battle, with the odds often stacked against them.
“I started trying out for the SWAT team before I was even eligible,” recalls Heather Williams, sergeant and SWAT team member, Chattanooga (TN) PD. “I tried out five times and passed all five times, but I was not selected until my fifth try. Even though I had a lot of support, there were still some team members that were not ready for females to be part of the team. I felt all I needed was the opportunity to prove myself.”
Sara Ahrens, retired SWAT, had a very difficult time making it onto SWAT. “My agency never had women on their SWAT team -- I was on a tactical team working in Vice, but there were no standards for that team,” she recalls. “After six years, SWAT had 18 openings on a 26 person unit, I took the test. I was in the top three of the 18 people testing, and 14 out of the 18 were selected, and I was not one of them.”
Ahrens eventually made the team, but nothing came easily to her, other than the actual skills she needed for SWAT. “I never had any issues with the guys on the team, they were extremely helpful,” she adds. “The administrators, on the other hand, really made it difficult. They gave me XL BDUs, an XL helmet, I wasn’t given certain equipment – I had to buy all my own equipment. I think they were setting me up for failure.”
Advice for Women Officers
The women already in place on tactical teams, or who have worked on tactical teams and moved on, have plenty of advice for the women of today’s law enforcement who are interested in following in their footsteps.
Every officer has to prepare for trying out for SWAT, but women have to do even more. “I can’t say enough about physical preparedness,” says Newark’s Macias. “Most of us have a size disadvantage, so if you can have a great baseline of strength and cardio, that will give you the edge. SWAT is much more of a thinking person’s game, and having that ability to make critical decisions at split seconds keeps an operator on the team.”
There is a lot of additional training available today, and women should take advantage of that. “I definitely suggest that women get extra training,” advises Chattanooga’s Williams. “Often, women don’t understand what is necessary to join the units.”
Find someone sympathetic to your goal of joining a tactical team and do everything you can to get ready. “I recommend that if women are serious about it, they have to let their interests be known to someone who they are comfortable with,” says Louka Tactical Training’s Hamblin. “It might take a couple of years to prepare for the unit physically, mentally and emotionally. You should be over-prepared. Find out what the standards are and train yourself to do more than the standard.”
SWAT is too hard, and demands too much, to be something you just “try.” “You have to make sure that this is something you really want to do,” says Philadelphia’s Caserta. “Once you get it, if you get it, all eyes are going to be on you. If you don’t have the passion, don’t even try. When I got here, it was hard for me, physically and mentally, and as the days and months went on, with the camaraderie we all have, this was the best decision I ever made in my career and I love it.”
Don’t Give Up
Berkeley’s Louis stresses that women shouldn’t take the opportunity lightly. “I would tell women interested in tactical teams to have awareness of their unique position, and the obligations that this involves,” she says. “They have to be passionate about the work, they have to be willing to put in the blood, sweat and the time to be a good teammate. Women very much have a role in SRT and have something to add to the team, but there will always be a magnifying glass on us. The mistakes of one woman can be applied to all women.”
When you make it to SWAT, concentrate on your performance. “You have to focus on being a part of the team,” says Ahrens. “Do not complain. People won’t remember the men who complained, but they will remember the women who did. You can’t go in to try to change things. You have to get along and blend in.”
Getting through it all and onto the team is worth it, according to Chattanooga’s Williams, who has been on SWAT for seven years now. “It is everything I thought it would be,” she says. “The team is much different now than when it first started -- we work so well with each other and support each other. The camaraderie and relationships I have are awesome. Not giving up and coming back and trying harder was all worth it. The struggles and setbacks I went through made me a stronger teammate, officer and leader.”
The job of a SWAT team member is hard and very demanding. “Honestly, I didn’t really know what it was going to be like,” says Newark’s Macias. “It’s a lot of work to commit to be on the team. It’s additional training every month, above and beyond your regular assignments. It’s a big sacrifice, but it’s been worth it. I have so much more experience than the majority of my peers. I am more confident in any type of critical situation.”
The future looks bright for women on tactical units. “I am sure there are still some agencies where tactical units don’t want to accept females, but that mindset is changing,” Chattanooga’s Williams admits. “If women just hang with it and keep a strong, solid mindset and receive more training, they should have no problem getting on tactical units.”
Those women that have made it to SWAT teams know that every team needs a variety of skills to be successful. “On SWAT, you need a wide range of types,” says Newark’s Macias. “You don’t just need the big guy who is going to be your breacher, you need other skills and you need your team leader. Early on they found I was really valuable to climb stuff and get into tight spaces, but I am no longer just an operator, I am one of three team leaders.”
On the Berkeley PD, the force is 22% female and the overall SRT element is 20% female, according to Berkeley’s Louis, so progress is being made.
But there is still a long way to go. “We have participated in Urban Shield since it began and every single year we have had at least one woman on the team,” Louis details. “In one recent competition, with 30+ tactical teams, more than 200 operators, there was me and one other woman, so you can see it’s still a very male-dominated field. In 2013, at the award ceremony, I was stopped by several women who thanked me for ‘representing’ and one said, ‘I can’t wait to tell my daughter that there was a woman on the winning team!’”