Let me begin with a disclaimer: Tactics and other issues are controversial for a reason. What works for one SWAT team might not for another.
In May, I shared some thoughts on firearms training topics. This month, I’ll consider a different aspect of tactical team training. I hope we can agree on a common goal of SWAT training that’s relatively safe and tactically sound, which also addresses long-term liability exposure. Some of my suggestions may not work for you, and that’s understood. So long as you have a team philosophy of how to carry out tactical operations that meets the criteria of being safe, sound and legally defensible, you’re on a firm foundation.
If you didn’t get to read last month’s article, we discussed what to look for in a SWAT team’s firearms training program. This time, our focus is on accomplishing the mission, whatever that may be. Two important questions pertinent to any tactical operation are: “Why are we here?” and “What do we want to accomplish?”
These have value for team training, as well as for the best type of practical application—a real SWAT call out. How—and how well—a team responds to these questions should be within the scope of the training goals.
Identifying whether there’s a valid justification for SWAT involvement is a critical element that should be part of tactical thought process. Example: A mentally unstable person barricades himself. No crime has been committed, but there may be a gun in the house. Does a legally defensible reason exist for SWAT to respond? Maybe not. An analysis based on “Why are we here?” minimizes negative consequences— read: unnecessary loss of life and big-time legal judgments against your agency.
“What do we want to accomplish?” has a broad as well as a specific application. Let’s look at the big one first. My friend Sid Heal calls it “envisioning the end state”—the tactical bull’s eye that an operation is aiming for. It’s important for any tactical decision-maker—from the commander down to the “SWAT dogs”—to understand what the focus of their efforts is and how the team is going to direct its resources toward that end.
The primary goal is to resolve critical incidents by correctly using the team in a manner that is appropriate for the circumstances at hand. Typically, this means getting the suspect in custody using tactically reasonable methods and returning the community to as much of a state of normalcy as possible in the wake of the incident. It also includes an all-ranks realization that, although the safety of those involved is of immediate importance, the future liability of how a team is judged will be based in part on its response to the “What do we want to accomplish?” question.
Take a moment to look at the specifics. There are usually incremental tactical aspects that allow a team to reach its primary mission goal. These center on identifiable tasks, such as containment, chemical agents deployment, delivery missions (e.g., food, throw phones), immediate action teams, breaching and so on. To one degree or another, training SWAT requires an instructor who can help the officers comprehend and retain applicable core skills. The ability of team members to apply these skills—preferably with no loss of life—is a critical aspect of SWAT training.
Sound SWAT tactics aren’t intuitive. SWAT cops—especially new ones—may have ideas about how to carry out a certain tactical technique, but these are sometimes based on flawed or flat-out unsound techniques learned from Hollywood, computer games or even prior military service. One basic goal for a SWAT instructor is to train his tactical operators to not make errors that lead to parks, public buildings and highways being named after police officers. On an individual, as well as a team level, quality instruction in the core skills will help prevent this from happening.
Further, the officers must maintain training to keep their tactical abilities ready. For this to happen, instructors must know what they’re doing and keep the team’s methods dialed in. The SWAT trainer—working with the team leadership—should develop the officers’ ability to carry out mission-specific tactical activities or sub-missions. Teams that invest in developing their own instructors, as well as balancing it with exposure to outside methods and concepts, are more competent and confident in applying these critical skills during a real incident.
Preplanned Call Outs
Within the SWAT training program, there should be a review of the team’s philosophy and culture regarding standard types of tactical problems. Generally there are two categories: Suspect-driven emergency deployments and preplanned operations, such as high-risk warrants.
The process of obtaining the warrant—and the document itself—should be closely examined. Verify important information. Be wary of the use of “cut and paste” in generating the necessary documents. Ensure that whoever reviews a warrant and/or an affidavit does so from a focused perspective.
When these documents are prepared, they’re often drafted using a previous version from another operation. If information from the previous operation isn’t properly replaced prior to the warrant service—such as the wrong address or conflicting information—then the blame for any negative outcome during the operation will most likely come back at the SWAT team faster than you can say “Johnny Cochran.”
With preplanned operations, a certain amount of prep time is necessary. Training the team to plan and prepare an operation within the context of the time available is pretty darn important. Once SWAT is given the mission (i.e., serving the warrant) the clock is generally running as far as how many days or hours are left before the operation should be initiated. How efficiently the team responds to this assignment may affect whether or not investigative units ask SWAT to handle future missions.
When authorized, a well-trained team that has been primed for this challenge will scout the location, evaluate priorities—for example, surround and call out vs. dynamic entry—and develop with minimal delay the tactical plan. A well-trained team will use the tactical plan to address anticipated complexities, including:
Emergency Call Outs
SWAT teams that have been well trained for preplanned operations will be better suited at critical incidents initiated by the unexpected actions of a suspect. The pressures inherent with such emergencies require that the core skills of individual operators, as well as the overall team response, be well developed. To a great extent, the suspect, at least initially, controls events. This may continue until the police response forces a change in the confrontation’s dynamics.
The ability of the first-in SWAT operators to act with little or no supervisory direction can be decisive. Time is often critical. Example: If team members have been trained to establish (or take over) containment, as well as form an immediate response team, then those first few minutes start the progression to the desired “end state” more quickly. This is a concept called “self-deployment.” It means that SWAT officers will quite possibly arrive on scene individually rather than as a cohesive team. Although some form of rudimentary command post will most likely be present, the more formal establishment of that centralized point of authority and decision making will not happen for a while.
Rather than waiting for that to develop, taking the initiative away from the suspect through self-deployment prevents officers waiting for broad-based directions. For the preliminary tactical response, it also removes the time consuming process of the entire team forming up at the station, as well as waiting at a command post for the SWAT command structure to establish itself, orient to the problem and then give directions. Obviously, this process will have to take place at some point, but if the immediate mission is to protect lives—including patrol cops—and gain some level of control over events through the deployment of SWAT officers, the initial tactical response should be as rapid as possible. By this point, I’m hoping that you have recognized the infamous North Hollywood, Calif., shootout’s final moments as an excellent example of this issue.
I’ll agree that due to logistics and other concerns, self-deployment may at first appear to be impractical for tactical teams. I’d suggest, however, that through training and leadership, SWAT teams—even though they may be part time—can develop themselves to incorporate an appropriate approach that is adapted to their resources and may be key in resolving a rapidly developing critical incident.
A final training concern centers on a SWAT team’s succession planning. This has a long-term connotation, as well as a more immediate one. In the case of looking toward the future, the team leadership (and certainly the department) should be developing and training the next generation of command. This means that officers and supervisors who demonstrate character, competence and confidence should be identified. They should be looked at as future team leaders or team commanders and steps should be taken to prepare them for those assignments.
In the more immediate application, SWAT teams should follow the example of the military, where it’s not uncommon to find subordinates who are trained up to the next level. This means that if a superior isn’t present, there are others who may be of lower rank but are ready and able to step into command and leadership roles. A SWAT application of this concept translates into the tactical commander giving the team leader the support and guidance so that the latter can fill the commander’s shoes if he or she is not able to make it to the next call out.
By now you’re probably tactically dazzled by these truths and tips I’ve shared. Don’t be. Although some of the above is from my mental SWAT toolbox, I must acknowledge the influence of others, most importantly, again, Cmdr. Charles “Sid” Heal, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (Ret.). If you want to pursue this further—and you should—I suggest you read his book, Sound Doctrine: A Tactical Primer. Just be prepared for a mental challenge. Sid writes to the level of where you should be as a tactical decision maker, not perhaps where you are now.
In addition, another resource that I’d suggest is California POST’s “SWAT Operational Guidelines and Training Recommendations” document, which is available at www.post.ca.gov/training/swatmanual/SWATmanual.asp. It will give you some excellent ideas, as well as a list of both individual and team core skill sets we discussed above.
I hope that on your next SWAT operation you will be asking, “Why are we here?” and “What do we want to accomplish?” I suspect these questions will prove valuable to resolving the tactical problem. Train safe.