Building an agency’s first SWAT team

Editor’s Note: Three weeks ago, PoliceOne polled our members with the question: Your department’s ERT/SWAT capabilities are...? Nearly 40% said “Nonexistent—we’re too small an agency.” This result led us to numerous discussions with our members, several of whom said things like: “We’re a small department in a small but active city and don’t have any SWAT/ERT...Although it may be difficult for a smaller department to maintain on its own, it seems a regional team would fit our needs. I’d love to hear any suggestions.”

Upon seeing this poll result and hearing such statements from our members, we asked SWAT Columnist Dan Marcou to write the following article aimed to help you build your agency’s first SWAT team. If you have suggestions or additional information that would be useful to other PoliceOne members, please add a comment below or email us your thoughts.

Many circumstances spur an agency administrator to come to the realization that it is time to develop a SWAT team. One can be the result of a risk manager coming to the conclusion that no matter where the agency is located, there are times when a group of specially trained and equipped officers is best suited to handle calls with a special set of conditions or a particularly high degree of risk.

Another circumstance that inspires an administrator to form a SWAT team is purely reactive. A bad thing has occurred that has made that administrator decide, “Now is the time for a team.”

The third circumstance is when members of the agency have applied positive and persistent pressure on the Chief or Sheriff, who trusts the valued opinion of these department members.

PoliceOne recently asked the question, Your department's ERT/SWAT capabilities are...? and nearly 40% of respondents said “Nonexistent—we’re too small an agency.” (PoliceOne Image)
PoliceOne recently asked the question, Your department's ERT/SWAT capabilities are...? and nearly 40% of respondents said “Nonexistent—we’re too small an agency.” (PoliceOne Image)

Once the decision is made to develop a SWAT team, the agency administrator will put together a group of people to begin the process. The mistake too often made by those assigned to this endeavor is that they look at teams that have been operating for years and immediately become overwhelmed at how far they have to go to be “like them.” It is imperative to remember that all SWAT Teams started exactly where you are right now: with no equipment and an idea that bad situations can be handled better with a particular type of specialization. Be patient and stay positive and persistent in your progression.

In the beginning the first squabble will be one of the biggest. “What should we call the team?” You will be pressured to use any name but SWAT. Chiefs and Sheriffs may find it an easier “sell” in their jurisdiction if the team is called something else. If this compromise gets you a SWAT team, go for it and have a happy day! A number of years ago, one fledgling team had to come up with a name other than SWAT and one member suggested that the team be called the “Fast Action Response Team.” The name was met momentarily with enthusiasm and immediately discarded. Who could have figured?

The most important element of the tactical team is its membership. Set a standard from the beginning and hold to it. You want candidates with some experience. The officers selected should be personnel who have no history of being anything but stellar officers. If you interject problem employees into your team to fill the ranks you will regret it but once...continually. You want them to be in top physical condition and in possession of excellent verbalization skills, empty hand skills, and firearms skills.

The selection process should have a skills component, a physical component, an interview component, and some agencies include a psychological component. The physical skills component should be repeated for all team members at least once a year after entry level. Once the team is operational the interview for the team should be conducted by team members, the Officer in Charge and Team Leaders.

In starting a team, personnel selection is what will make the team soar—or crash and burn.

Just as there should be a selection process there should also be a process in place for removal of members from the team. Work this out in advance of needing to use the procedure. Get members of the union involved in the creation of this procedure. Include the procedure in the SWAT policy, which will outline everything from “who’s in charge” to call-out procedures and weapons authorized.

Once you have highly-motivated, team-oriented personnel, it is time to ensure that they are also highly-trained.

All team members should be trained initially in a Basic SWAT Course. These courses are offered all over the nation by many highly skilled and experienced trainers. Check out the credentials of the trainer, however, before entrusting your personnel to them.

This is just the start. Having Basic SWAT Training does not make an officer into a SWAT Officer. What makes a person SWAT is when individual skills are practiced to the point where these skills can be incorporated successfully into a team plan along with acquired team skills.

After team members are trained in Basic SWAT, they will return to the department even more enthusiastic about SWAT than when they left. Do not take them to the mountain top and then send them out into the desert. The team must train together and this training must take place regularly. Every team should meet at least once a month to physically train together. More is better. Less is unacceptable.

It is imperative that the team have trainers on the team otherwise the training will be too expensive and too difficult to schedule. Schedule a variety of training that not only teaches skills, but also applies skills in the team setting. Everything a team does on the street will be done in a team setting, which creates a new dynamic.

Once the team is selected there are specialty positions that will need additional training. The Chief or Sheriff will need to appoint an Officer in Charge and the Officer in Charge will need to appoint Team Leaders. Each of these positions warrants an assignment to another specialized training.

As the team progresses and equipment is acquired, you may wish to also train personnel in special munitions, breaching or explosive entries, distractive devices, night vision tactics, counter-sniper training, and shield tactics. There are also special courses in Basic Warrant Service to enhance your team’s performance capability in this area.

There is an absolute need to have personnel assigned to handle Crisis Negotiation. Countless times in the past, negotiators have secured surrenders that most thought to be impossible, and delayed the impending dastardly acts of suspects long enough for tactical teams to formulate and carry out successful plans.

No Tactical Team should be without Negotiators. No negotiators should be without a tactical team. Cross training negotiators and tactical team members will expand the flexibility of a small team.

Some teams become the crowd control unit for agencies that have no other options. Crowd Control is a topic for another day.

There are many opportunities to get quality specialized training for your teams that are sometimes funded. Many agencies have taken advantage of the high quality training offered at The Center for Domestic Security in Anniston Alabama. A second source for high quality tactical training is Northeast Counter Drug located in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

A variety of top notch tactical offerings are available. The point here is that there are countless sites around the nation for developing tactical expertise and tactical leadership and that often the training is funded.

Seek and ye shall find.

In today’s budget climate, the thought of the expenditure needed to equip a team can be absolutely depressing, but it does not have to be. Establish a five-year plan and realize that no one gets everything at once. Good things come to those who wait. To avoid frustration, learn and understand the budget process and use your newfound understanding to your advantage.

There are ways to get a good start with little expense. Communities do not warm up to fund raisers for weapons, but Community Groups do get excited about raising funds to protect their police. Vests, shields, and Kevlar Helmets can get a community to rally around the team and help out.

Another source of funding can be Metro Enforcement Group confiscated drug monies. There are teams that have started up and made nearly all purchases with confiscated drug funds. Joint teams have better luck obtaining these funds than single agency teams.

Another great source where equipment can be obtained is the General Services Administration. Have you ever wondered what happens to the vehicles, computers, weapons etc. that the military no longer needs? They give it away to law enforcement.

There are agencies that have SWAT vehicles with 9,000 to 12,000 miles on the odometer after obtaining the vehicles from the program. Many agencies have equipped their teams with carbines and fully-automatic weapons from this excellent program.

The give-away program is being coordinated by the federal government through state representatives. Agencies that become involved will pick representatives that will be able to obtain needed equipment on the department’s behalf at no cost. It is an excellent way for a new team to get off the ground.

Department of Homeland Security also has given a great deal of attention to law enforcement of late. Particularly notable is the timely placement of BearCat armored personnel carriers throughout the U.S. There are many stories of Chiefs and Sheriffs being chastised for a military mindset in bravely acquiring these vehicles for their counties. After taking no small amount of grief from their local media and citizenry, time and time again the photos of the bullet-shattered but intact windshields of BearCats become a story the press can not ignore, because of the lives that were so visibly saved by these fortresses on wheels.

Your Team
If you take on the responsibility of developing your agency’s first SWAT team you will always be a part of its history. Years from now you will be passing the photo of the first team with you and your team-mates’ young and thin faces looking back and the memories will flood into your thoughts like a tsunami. A bittersweet smile will imperceptibly cross your face. You will know that you were a part of something that you still belong to and will always belong to. Your heart will well up with pride with the realization that once you were once SWAT …and SWAT you will always be.

Stay safe, stay strong, stay positive.

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