What makes a great SWAT operator? Well, lots of things. And many departments do an excellent job evaluating and selecting SWAT operators from a pool of candidates. The typical selection process includes physically-demanding events which test candidates’ fitness, perseverance, and mental toughness. It likely includes realistic scenarios to test candidates’ decision-making skills, judgment, tactics, and coolness under pressure.
There are firearms qualifications to measure candidates’ marksmanship and safety and leadership-type exercises to evaluate candidates’ ability to work as a team, accept feedback, and provide feedback. Perhaps there’s a panel interview to determine candidates’ written and verbal communication skills, and knowledge of policies and procedures.
That One Thing
All of these are critical in evaluating a candidate’s ability to be a good fit, but what is the most important indicator of an individual’s potential for success on a team?
During one SWAT selection cycle, I had Team Leaders (TLs) with divergent views as to what made for a good SWAT operator. One TL was a phenomenal shooter and gravitated toward candidates who showed great shooting skills.
Another TL was in incredible shape and preferred candidates who demonstrated extremely high levels of physical fitness. Two other TLs considered themselves to be “tough guys” and liked candidates who were good at defensive tactics.
After observing and then administering several SWAT tryouts, I learned that:
1.) We had great TLs who were all talented instructors
2.) We could teach someone to shoot fast and accurately
3.) We could get someone in better physical condition
4.) We could teach them proper tactics and techniques
5.) We discovered that it’s very difficulty (almost impossible?) to teach someone good judgment or the ability to remain calm and calculating in a crisis
Because of that, I preferred the candidate who had the right “personality” for SWAT. If someone could shoot reasonably well, was reasonably fit, and was trainable, I was confident we could make them a solid SWAT operator if they had the right motivation and passion.
Making the Team
As a new agent freshly arrived at the FBI Los Angeles Field Office in 1987, my goal was to eventually become a member of the SWAT team. The SWAT Commander at that time — Myron — was a legend known for his profanity-laced tirades, no BS attitude, and unquestionable courage.
As a brand new guy, I was a little hesitant to approach him, particularly after he had berated an academy classmate of mine who had the audacity to enter Myron’s office and announce he would like to try out for the team. Knowing this, I was careful in how I expressed my interest in the team and how it was my LONG-TERM goal to try out.
I carefully explained my interest and respectfully asked Myron what I should be doing now to prepare myself for the SWAT selection in the distant future. I was expecting a tip on how to improve my shooting or a good reference on tactics, but Myron’s response surprised me.
Myron said, “If you want to be a good SWATter, then be a good agent first. Great agents tend to make great SWATters.”
Among his many other admirable qualities, it turns out Myron was also a very wise man. After being selected for the team — and years later selected as the team’s Commander — I repeatedly saw the truth in Myron’s words. As I look back, the best SWAT operators were also some of the most productive and well-respected agents.
The worst SWAT operators were, not surprisingly, lacking as agents.
I’m sure this is true for almost every department — your best SWAT operators are likely to be among your best officers. It makes sense.
For many departments (including the FBI), SWAT operators receive no additional compensation (although they do get really cool weapons and equipment). Therefore, those interested in SWAT pursue being on the team because they believe in the mission.
They are typically aggressive, hard-chargers who want to make a difference. It’s not easy to maintain the physical, tactical, and firearms proficiency to stay on a team, so these people are also usually hard working and dedicated.
I’m not saying all SWAT officers are great, because I know that’s not true. I am saying that all the great SWAT operators I knew were also successful at the other aspects of police work. SWAT usually doesn’t attract those officers who tend to be lazy and shirk extra work and responsibilities.
Once you’re on a team, you can expect to be called out at any time on any day. I think this is another indicator of when it’s a good fit.
Nothing is more exciting to a good SWAT operator than to get the call at two in the morning, because you know it must be great call-out. Conversely, you know it’s time to hang up your gear when you get that same 0200 call and you think, “You know, I’d rather just get a good night’s sleep.”
Past is Prologue
The formal selection process is a great tool for determining who will make it on the team. But there is more to it than the scores posted during a one-day or even several-day tryout.
If you have a couple of superstars during selection who are incredibly fit and great shots, but have an “it’s all about me” attitude, don’t pick them up because they will destroy a team.
Don’t forget the wisdom passed on to me by Myron almost 25 years ago. Great officers will probably make great SWAT operators.
The past is a good predictor of the future. Look at supervisor evaluations and the reputation the candidate has among peers.
Those who have consistently demonstrated they are bright, stable, hard-working, dedicated, unselfish, and tactically proficient, are likely to continue those traits.
When you look for good SWAT operators, first look for good officers.