20 years after Waco: The lessons we learned
Part four of a four-part series
Waco gave law enforcement the opportunity to watch a human drama unfold in real time like some bizarre reality television show long before anyone had heard of the Kardashians.
At the time of Waco, I was a SWAT trainer and tactical operator. Afterward, I eventually became a team leader and commander of a SWAT Team.
The lessons of Waco never left me.
It is to a team’s advantage to gather as much information about the layout of the target, such as approaches, exits and available cover. Intelligence should include the criminal history, mindset, weapons, capability and deployment of the suspects. There should be eyes on the target, when possible right up to and including the entry.
The Officer in Charge and Team Leader should identify potential problems and prepare for the expected and unexpected contingencies. The team leaders must have the authority to alter or even abort the plan in the event that conditions at the scene have changed making the original plan untenable.
From Waco on, SWAT operations became less one dimensional. Dynamic entry was still viable, but no longer used as a default option. It was used when surprise appeared to be total and victory seemed assured by using this tactic.
My personal favorite time to use it was for what I liked to call the “Full Bladder Entry.” I scheduled the serving of the “No Knock Warrant,” pre-dawn — or “Zero Dark Thirty,” if you will — and hit the target while all suspects were asleep. We had success because it appeared suspects rarely fought if the surprise was total and the bladder was full.
Dynamic and full speed was no longer the be all and end all of SWAT operations after Waco, however. Teams trained at the three speeds; stealth (slow and deliberate) warrant (smooth is fast) and hostage rescue (as fast as one could move together as a team and still hit a suspect in a gun fight).
Often, SWAT teams merely secured the perimeters on warrants. With this done, negotiators could make contact and begin to negotiate suspects out.
A variation of this developed called the breach and hold. During this operation, the target was breached and after a “beachhead” had been established, suspects were talked out.
At the time of Waco, our agency was a mixture of revolvers and semi-automatics. The only long gun available to officers was the Remington Model 870 shotgun. Officers carrying semi-automatics like myself initially were required to purchase their own weapons, ammunition and attend the transition training on their own time with their own dime.
Every conversation about law enforcement weaponry after Waco seemed to include the word “outgunned,” and the phrase, “officers must be prepared to meet modern threats.”
Within a very short time, every officer was armed with a Glock and every squad had a Benelli M-1 semi- automatic shotgun up front in the rack. Trunks contained the old reliable Remington 870s, which was now loaded with less lethal munitions. MP-5s and M-16s were available SWAT operators.
I wanted all tactical team members trained as negotiators and all negotiators trained as tactical operators. The reason was to ensure that all tactical operators would have the ability to effectively talk to the suspect if that opportunity presented itself. If a suspect is talking he is not shooting.
I also believed that if negotiators were crossed-trained, they not only would better understand the need to have a tactical option at the ready, but also they would be able to supplement the tactical operators, during operations, when more bodies were needed.
This cross-training paid off often and continually.
Waco made us realize we must work with multiple agencies at times to solve problems. We doubled efforts to prepare to work together by:
1.) Establishing mutual aid agreements.
2.) Continuing to attend multi-agency In-service trainings.
3.) Maintaining “Unified” or shared tactics.
4.) Working out communication protocols.
5.) Working with local, state, and federal agencies well, when the conditions called for collaboration.
6.) Area tactical teams training together.
One Waco-inspired message that came through loud and clear was the commander at the scene must be a person, who is a part of the team deployed. It must be a commander who knows the capabilities and limitations of the units involved. The commander of the units deployed should not be given just the responsibility, when things go wrong, but the authority to make all decisions without political interference to ensure things go right.
Sun Tzu once described this key ingredient of success, “He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious.”
A Success or a Failure?
I have always kidded people that I can’t build a bridge, but I can talk people down from one. The unfathomable tragedy at Waco prepared me to accept emotionally the times when, try as we might, there would be people who would succeed at jumping off that bridge.
Koresh dreamed of his apocalyptic end and he succeeded in making his dream come true. The fire was started by Koresh and his adult followers.
I truly believe that for them, it is burning still.
Law enforcement has learned a great deal from this tragedy. Ultimately, however, Waco was not law enforcement’s failure, but David Koresh’s success.