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A specially trained tactical unit could be the winning weapon in your
by Dean Scoville
Special Weapons and Tactics teams have been a part of the public
consciousness since "S.W.A.T." made its television debut in 1975. The
images of their real-life counterparts are also embedded in our
memory: shooting it out with the Symbionese Liberation Army
descending onto the grounds of a Colorado high school campus;
deploying at a North Hollywood bank robbery.
To the appreciative hostage whose life they have saved, SWAT team
members are knights in shining ballistic armor. To their critics,
they are gung-ho macho men, prone to wrong house entries and
preemptive shootings. Somewhere between the images, the perceptions,
and accusations lies a truth: If ever an entity embodied the
philosophy of "hope for the best, but plan for the worst," it is the
The new millennium has brought with it the omnipresent threats of
school shootings, acts of workplace violence, and terrorist activity.
It would seem that in this day and age a vast majority of police
departments would have some SWAT support available to them. But of
the 2027 police agencies contacted by phone in a recent study, 843
(41%) did not have a full- or-part-time SWAT/tactical unit.
There are several reasons for this. First, not every agency has the
resources to man its own SWAT team. Fear of liability is also of
great concern. Yet, despite the cautionary parables that might give
pause, many police agencies are creating their own SWAT teams. For
many, it's a smart call.
But convincing the brass that a SWAT team would be beneficial to your
department and your community is a complicated matter.
Justifying a Need
Quantifying the good that comes from having a SWAT unit is difficult.
For example, evaluating what might have otherwise happened in the
absence of a successful SWAT deployment is speculative at best; and
how many SWAT officers' lives have been saved as a result of their
SWAT training is impossible to know.
Tracking the deployments of SWAT teams' is a relatively new practice
and obtaining information is often difficult, as many frustrated
analysts working with the National SWAT database have found out. But
of those agencies responding to requests for statistics, the numbers
are impressive: of 759 SWAT deployments audited, 702 were resolved
without shots being fired by SWAT.
If you think a SWAT team might be good for your agency, but you're
still on the fence, you might note that not having one can present
its own problems. The failure to develop and maintain a SWAT unit,
where viable, can be costly. Courts may not mandate that an agency
have a SWAT team, but they can encourage its creation.
A 1982 barricade situation ended with an Anchorage patrol officer
taking a suspect's life. The court ruled the officer's actions
justifiable, but concluded that the absence of mitigators, i.e., a
SWAT unit, limited the police department's options in resolving the
situation. The city was held liable for the suspect's death. Such was
the impetus that gave rise to the Anchorage (Alaska) Police
Department's SWAT team.
As the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) notes, "Any
community can be a victim of a major violent incident and there must
be a system in place to respond immediately." This means that any
agency could have to deal with incidents requiring expertise and
equipment beyond that normally found in any given shift's field force.
Once it's been established that a SWAT team would benefit your
community, how does your agency fund a unit and maintain it? What
makes for a good SWAT team?
The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) recommends a
step-by-step process that starts with community evaluation and
projected costs. To determine how to develop your SWAT team, ask
yourself the following questions.
What are the demographics of the area? Does its population change
radically within any 24-hour period (e.g., such as in a city heavily
populated with businesses)? What venues offer a strong potential for
a tactical call out? Are there any prisons or half-way houses in the
area? Mental institutions? Large scale sporting or entertainment
events? What kind of environmental conditions can affect a team's
response; in fact, precipitate it?
Unfortunately, the same sales points in favor of the development of a
SWAT unit can become sticking points. Politicians may have a
financial stake in venues posing greatest tactical concerns, creating
a situation rife with perceived conflicts of interest. And regardless
of the nature of the reticence, if city hall and residents are not
supportive of a unit's development, they are apt to prove resentful
once its need is realized.
This is why the police department and the community it serves need to
be candid from the outset about their respective concerns,
reservations, and what can-or can't-be accomplished.
Operating costs, while substantial in the short run, may ultimately
prove much cheaper than lawsuits that may be incurred in the long
run. Although front-end costs may be more obvious, additional capital
needs to be set aside for recurrent training and equipment
replacement. Training is one of the biggest operational costs, and a
A SWAT team has to acquire enough tactical versatility to address a
variety of volatile situations. This reality, coupled with the
prospect of arming personnel with weapons capable of firing 10 or 15
bullets with one pull of the trigger underscore the need for ongoing
training. Especially when these bullets are capable of passing
through walls or windows while other officers and citizens are in the
area. There is no getting by "on the cheap."
As Lt. Douglas Cave of the Fullerton (Calif.) Police Department puts
it, "If money is that much of a concern in developing a SWAT team,
you're better off delaying, or foregoing, the start of a SWAT unit
than to promulgate an inevitable failure."
That's not to say that agencies should not explore getting financial
assistance wherever available. Agencies can apply for grants, such as
the federally sponsored Bullet Proof Vest (BPV) grant, which will pay
for half of an agency's body armor. Additional grant sources are
available through the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of
Justice Assistance. Depending upon a SWAT unit's collateral training
needs, some funding may be available through the Department of
Homeland Security. Also, civic groups and local businesses may
sponsor equipment requisitions.
Once undertaken, no aspect of the SWAT unit should be left open to
speculation. It is imperative to have clear-cut lines of
responsibility, whether it is a mission statement, a selection
process, or an organizational chart. If something goes wrong, you
don't want anyone to be able to second-guess your team's tactics.
Deciding on a Team
As with every aspect of starting a SWAT team, cover all your
bases-for the safety of your team members and the community. There
should be no question that the right type and size of SWAT team for
your area has been chosen.
Agency size is subordinate to the availability of qualified
personnel, and many agencies composed of 70-100 officers have proven
capable of fielding 10-member teams, although a 24-person squad would
be a preferred complement.
Regardless of the number of officers assigned to a SWAT unit, the
NTOA asserts that the selection process must be based upon
performance standards, not quota appeasement. Similarly, written
standards should be in place for safety equipment, team incident
reports, and after-incident critiques. Mutual aid policies should
also be clearly defined.
Recognize that police agencies evolve at different rates. Larger
police agencies have the luxury of being able to field regular SWAT
rosters 24/7, availing them an opportunity to train with greater
consistency. For smaller agencies incapable of individually fielding
SWAT units, a regional selection process drawing from several
departments may offer a collective solution and defray costs.
An example of a multi-jurisdictional team experiencing success is the
North (Orange) County SWAT team in California. Lt. Douglas Cave,
assistant unit commander, says that the year-and-a-half old team has
proven to be mutually beneficial to all agencies involved.
"Any one of the departments-Fullerton, Brea, La Habra, or
Placentia-would otherwise face severe constraints in providing a SWAT
team whenever one was needed," Cave notes. "Certainly, maintaining
the integrity of sensitive cases would be compromised if we weren't
capable of serving warrants at multiple locations simultaneously. So
far, it's worked out for the betterment of all involved."
Cave says, the agencies involved in the North (Orange) County SWAT
team have each brought something to the table. "By pooling our
resources together, we have brought online a SWAT unit that is cost
effective and tactically effective. Logistically, we're better
situated than any one of us would be otherwise. We had a mobile
command post; Placentia brought in a Hostage Rescue Vehicle. Each
agency brings something to the table that another might not have, but
needs," he explains.
When deciding which type of SWAT team will work for your department
or region, take into account the needs of the area your unit will
service. Maintaining a high level of service necessitates extensive
and continuous training.
Maintaining a disciplined SWAT team is a heady enough proposition.
The LAPD SWAT team requires each team member to attend a minimum of
four days of training each month with the .45 caliber automatic
alone, in conjunction with other weapons (two days with long rifles).
Advanced tactical drills include shooting on the move, engaging
moving targets, one-hand shooting, pistol-retention drills,
transition drills (from shoulder weapon to .45 caliber), malfunction
drills, multiple target drills, speed loading, flashlight technique,
prone positions, kneeling positions, barricade positions, target
selection problems, and hostage-rescue targets.
It follows that their equipment is designed to handle a variety of
contingencies. Common tactical gear includes a two-piece Nomex
flame-retardant combat suit, adaptable load-bearing gear, a
plate-blank tactical vest with insertable ceramic plates, and a
helmet equipped with an integrated Motorola personal radio/microphone.
Ask for Help
Lt. Blair Ulring oversees the Stockton (Calif.) PD SWAT unit. He
recommends that any department contemplating the development of a
SWAT unit contact agencies of comparable size that already have teams
in place and look at how they recruit, train, and equip their units.
"There is no use reinventing the wheel. Learn from those who have
already taken the necessary steps to put a successful team together.
Learn from their setbacks and their victories."
Fullerton PD's Cave echoes this sentiment. "The handball games of the
'84 Olympics were held at Cal State Fullerton, and that served as the
catalyst for our department to create its own team. We relied quite a
bit on LAPD, and I can't tell you how helpful NTOA Board member Ron
McCarthy was toward that end."
Whether an agency decides to go with its own SWAT team, or to be part
of a multi-agency unit, it has to make sure that it has enough
qualified personnel, equipment, and opportunity for training for the
long haul. "Otherwise, it's just opening a can of worms for itself,"
says Ulring. "Accidents will happen. But the important thing is to do
everything possible to minimize the likelihood of accidents while
maximizing the opportunity of success in every deployment."
Ulring cautions that agencies should also anticipate that the actions
taken by a SWAT team are apt to be second-guessed by the community.
"And that's appropriate. Any time a life is taken there ought to be
some Monday morning quarterbacking. If you're doing things right and
you've done the right training, you have effectively diminished your
To further ensure that its decisions and actions are proper, the
Stockton SWAT unit meets regularly with other SWAT commanders. In
addition, the members keep up to date on legal issues through its
city attorney's office on everything from "knock-and-notice"
requirements to issues surrounding the deployments of percussion
While keeping on top of federal and statewide legal issues is
important, a SWAT team also needs to be aware of the specific needs
of the area it serves.
Each city has its own unique personality, some of which can be
schizoid in nature. As Sgt. Anthony Henry with the Anchorage SWAT
unit notes, his city has a relatively small population throughout
most of the year, but that changes during the summer months due to
Though geographically isolated from the continental United States,
Anchorage is readily accessible through rail lines, ports, and an
international airport. Because of the nature of the work that takes
place in and around Anchorage, there's also a greater likelihood of
confronting suspects armed with explosives than in some more
metropolitan areas. All of these factors-plus the ubiquitous
alcohol-have at one time or another played into the departments SWAT
And when a SWAT call out necessitates officers' presence in 25 to 30
degrees below zero temperature, environmental factors play a role in
determining what type of equipment it needs to field.
While recognizing the tactical merits of one autoloader shotgun
routinely deployed by SWAT teams, Sergeant Henry prefers the modified
Remington 870 currently fielded by their team. "It's more
environmentally compatible. A unit's decision to go with a semiauto,
or a pump-action, is going to be dictated by its unique needs. For
us, the Remington shotgun affords us more options when it comes to
Selecting SWAT Members
Regardless of a SWAT unit's size, configuration, or equipment, the
team begins and ends with the officers selected to work this
assignment. While the prestige and excitement promised by working the
SWAT unit assures no shortage of interested applicants, special
premiums are placed on good working attitudes and the ability to work
within the team environment.
That environment and the duties expected of team members varies based
on the type of team. Whereas the LAPD SWAT team can focus its
attentions on entering a location quickly and securing it, then
disarming bad guys, other units may end up having to pull double- and
triple-duty. They may, in fact, be the detectives and investigators
responsible for authoring the same search warrants they are serving.
When it comes to personnel, Lt. Ed Drain, commander of the Plano,
Texas, SWAT team, places a premium on "the ability to think in crisis
situations. You want someone who will not get too pumped up and will
be able to think calmly through the adrenaline rush." To this end,
applicants for the Plano SWAT team go through rigorous psychological
and physical assessments. Drain wants to make sure that his officers
have both emotional and physical stamina.
Stockton SWAT's Blair notes, "Every officer on my team is a range
master and a firearms instructor. Not only does this ensure a higher
degree of proficiency in each team member's performance, but it
affords some latitude in scheduling of training for other
As Capt. Kim Kolluch with the Lincoln, Neb., SWAT team notes, team
members are not immune to observing incidents while off duty. Beyond
giving agencies additional latitude and resources, training benefits
personnel away from work, as well.
"Because of their knowledge and the availability of equipment in
their vehicles," Kolluch explains, "they've been able to take action
they might not otherwise have been able to-in effect, solving
problems before lives were lost, or before situations escalated out
The dividends of developing a SWAT unit can be considerable. Aside
from the inevitable responses to the situations for which they've
been trained, SWAT members enjoy collateral benefits, as their
participation in attendant training exercises doubtlessly fosters
better officer safety practices for those officers still working
patrol. Competency and morale are boosted. Liability is lessened. And
Community goodwill is fostered through their success.
As Anchorage SWAT's Henry explains it, "Contrary to the views held by
some, a SWAT team doesn't enhance the likelihood of deadly force--it
Sgt. Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor for the Los Angeles
County Sheriff's Department and a frequent contributor to POLICE.
These articles are reprinted with permission from Police
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