AP Photo/The News-Star, Terrance Armstard
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In his book Chief: My Life In The LAPD, Daryl Gates wrote about one of his department’s innovations, the nation’s first SWAT team. The name—let alone the concept—wasn’t an easy sell to the higher-ups.
Gates proposed that the new element be labeled SWAT, but initially suggested that it stand for “Special Weapons Attack Team.” That was quickly shot down, so his next option—Special Weapons and Tactics Team—became part of our culture. However, based on the behaviors of some young, new SWAT dogs, there have been times in my training career when I wondered if it shouldn’t stand for Special Weapons and Testosterone.
From the onset, the SWAT philosophy recognized that training was critical to its success and to the team’s continued existence. Talking to LAPD SWAT plank-holders like the highly respected Ron McCarthy and Mike Hillmann makes this clear.
At the time—and indeed even into today—there were fellow officers who didn’t appreciate the benefits a tactical team brings to law enforcement and therefore didn’t support the concept. This is analogous to some of the challenges that Green Berets and other military special ops teams have faced. Segments of the military’s more mainstream elements didn’t see the value of such units, to the point of even trying to derail their continued evolution. But successful operations—military or law enforcement—often have a way of deflecting such challenges. I doubt anyone today would propose disbanding the Navy Seals or the Army’s Delta Force.
In my opinion, the component that contributes most to tactical triumph is training. Unfortunately, there have been too many incidents where training deficiencies may have led in one way or another to tragedy.
One such case involved the death of an innocent 11-year-old boy at the hands of a SWAT officer. During a search warrant service, the kid complied with orders to get on the floor only to die due to a blast from the officer’s shotgun. To one degree or another, the root cause was the mishandling of the weapon. In another search warrant case, a SWAT officer entered a room but exited back into the hallway through another door. He didn’t announce his presence as he did so. A fellow SWAT cop saw him, but in the darkness and flashbang smoke failed to identify a blue-on-blue situation. He mistakenly fired, killing his partner. These are just two tragic examples of what can go wrong.
Use of the term SWAT (or whatever your descriptor might be) carries with it a built-in expectation that the team members are better trained than an average officer. The California Peace Officer Safety and Training (POST) commission recognized this on the heels of an operation that went bad. Since it oversees law enforcement training, this agency mandated that all new California SWAT officers must complete an approved SWAT Academy before they will be considered minimally qualified to work as part of a tactical team. In addition, some years back, the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) made a recommendation that tactical teams train for 16 hours per month in order to be mission capable.
One way of getting your team ready is to identify the team’s defined role within its department and community. Next identify the training most appropriate to this role. This begins with what kind of missions the team may face. The goal is to train to at least a level of competency. If a team philosophy is reflected by an attitude that says, “We’re the best—we can rise to the challenge” then they’re in trouble.
SWAT Training Plan
Many teams have adopted an annual training plan, which is wise. Such an approach identifies the team’s training needs and maps out how the core competencies for the individual members, the specialized elements and the entire team are to be accomplished and maintained throughout the year.
Typically, the baseline should be defined skill sets for firearms, tactics, movement and use of important options, such as breaching techniques, chemical agents, diversionary devices, less-lethal munitions and armored rescue vehicles.
To break it down more, firearms standards should encompass proficiency with handguns and shoulder weapons, as well as chemical agents and less-lethal launchers. Understanding when not to use an option is just as important as making the decision to go from 2.5 lbs. of trigger pressure to 3 lbs. of pressure, thereby sending a round downrange. Shoot/no shoot drills are an integral part of the proficiency factor. Correct use should be trained and tested on a regular basis, including the sometimes overlooked importance of proper maintenance.
Important: We must recognize that tactical training sessions have varying degrees of risk attached to them. A way of minimizing this is through a Training Safety Officer (TSO) program, which is responsible for monitoring the safety of practical application training. The TSO should be backed up by safety guidelines that make clear how the training should progress with a minimum of risk. As SWAT officers train for the next mission, never think, “It won’t happen to us.” A TSO who recognizes the importance of this assignment provides a valuable contribution to the goal of safe tactical training.
Go Left or Right
On another level, tactics training opens up into a wide range of options. But first a relevant truth from Gen. Al Gray (USMC, Ret.) should be understood: “In tactics, the most important thing is not whether you go left or right, but why you go left or right.”
Tactics should be simple. The principles and techniques used should be developed and validated by the team under realistic conditions through scenario-based, force-on-force training. Dynamic and slow/deliberate entries, hostage rescue, limited penetration, breech and hold, surround and call out, delivery missions and mobile interdiction are all examples. None can be carried out successfully unless officers are trained as a team and on an individual level. The latter may even mean that a proficient SWAT officer recognizes the need to invest some personal funds to acquire additional, quality training.
We must be clear on this: Hope isn’t a tactic! I cringe when I hear a trainer or mission planner say something like, “Hopefully everything will go right.” Instead, common sense tactical decision-making is the correct approach and in line with Gen. Gray’s thinking. Training is an essential element in developing this skill: Real, hands-on experience isn’t as frequent as we’d like. (A real SWAT call out can be the best of training exercises but, depending on where you work, they might be rare.) Tabletop scenarios are a great tool for realistic decision making, especially when you have an experienced officer playing the role of the suspect as the leaders develop their tactical response.
Learn from Others
Example: If a recent high-profile situation took place at a nearby city, consider asking a supervisor from that agency who was directly involved to share the lessons learned. This process may take your SWAT tacticians—and even command staff—away from other duties for a few hours, but it’s a good training investment.
Presented with the initial circumstances, they would engage in a tabletop-based tactical planning exercise while the guest officer could even role play as the suspect. Any flaws identified in the common operational picture can freeze-frame the progression of events, allowing
officers to identify what’s wrong and why.
If fatal flaws are observed, the training could include the decision makers paying the ultimate penalty administratively through the “death” of a civilian or officer. This would also serve as an ego check: If the planners’ actions trigger such a potential training scar, how do they handle the fact that they screwed up? Do they recognize and admit their error or do they go into anger and denial? By default, the latter attitude identifies another training need that must be addressed: Get a grip, your training embarrassment is your fault—so fix it.
As necessary, the poorly planned scenario could either be rewound or, with corrections made, be allowed to continue on more tactically sound footing. Well-played scenarios should be complemented, but also remembered. After all, what professional doesn’t want to be tactically schooled in a training scenario so they’re better prepared for the real deal?
Proficiency is Key
Like many other aspects of law enforcement, documentation of tactical training is a legally defensible must.
In addition to training, after-action reports may also maintain records on an officer’s competence. At the SWAT Academy, we do this through use of a training proficiency check-list, documenting whether a student met our standards in force-on-force, firearms, weapons-safety, chemical agents, diversionary-devices and entry training. At the end of the course, the original is placed in the class file. A copy is sent to the student’s agency.
You might also administer a written test. “Whoa! WHAT?!” This may cause a variety of responses, including perhaps acceptance. It’s another way of validating and documenting techniques and principles that are at the core of your team’s training and tactical awareness.
Training and the department manual: Relevant department polices, as well as those integral to the SWAT team, should be a training topic within your manual. These include the obvious and the obscure that might apply to a team’s operation. The point is that SWAT officers should be role models expected to operate in compliance with these guidelines. As appropriate, the manual should be communicated and understood. Including occasional policy reviews in the training process certainly lacks “tactical sex appeal,” but it would certainly help prevent bad outcomes.
Pay It Forward
Another focus of SWAT training should be the sharing of training and information. This ranges from the agency’s top to the lowest ranks. The SWAT commander and the chief (and/or other higher ups) should meet and reach a generic understanding of how a tactical operation will be managed based on the department’s values, policies and priorities. This will help ensure that if the SWAT commander is competent, he or she will be trusted to make the right decisions without interference.
Similarly, it would be wise for the team leadership to invest some time with watch commanders and field supervisors to train them on their roles in a critical incident. Finally, SWAT officers should be helping fellow cops by sharing techniques and ideas that would be beneficial on the streets.
Tactical training is about preparing for the worst. In this context, individual skills and team drills are equally important. At some point they should all be put to the test with full scenarios in preparation for the real operations that may be in your team’s future. In his book, Leadership and Training for the Fight, Master Sergeant Paul Howe (U.S. Army Delta Force, Ret.) tells us that, “Rehearsals are the lifeblood of a successful mission.” To close this discussion, the training provided should fit into Howe’s equation in a way that’s made clear through the tactical triumphs of a well-prepared SWAT team.
Train safe. God bless America.