For the past two months, we’ve talked about issues related to SWAT training. In the first installment, we outlined some aspects of firearms instruction and use. After that, the focus was on the decision-making that goes into a SWAT operation. In this final chapter, we look at entry training concerns and concepts—tactical fundamentals that a SWAT team must do well. An entry team must be technically and tactically confident to achieve success.
I’m often reminded of an entry training session I did with my team a while back. Locations for entry training should, of course, be as realistic as possible to the training goals. In this particular case, however, I had an additional agenda when I selected the site: Prior to this training day, my lunch had regularly been the victim of someone’s evil intent. At times, I would find that my entire meal had been stolen from my city car, while on other days I’d found a large bite would be MIA from a sandwich or apple.
Here’s why. When I took over as a team leader, I instituted a “brown bag” rule. This meant the team had to bring their meals rather than going out to eat. This GTF (grand theft food) went on for months until finally my wife and I swore eternal reventge. The night before the next training day, we lovingly made up a special batch of chocolate chip cookies that, as a bonus, were heavily laced with Ex-Lax. Sure enough, by lunchtime that day the cookies were MIA.
Now here’s where the training site comes in. I had specifically arranged for our entry training to take place at a closed elementary school that no longer had functioning plumbing. As the night progressed, it soon became evident who the unindicted co-conspirators were. And you know what? My lunch was never tampered with again.
So what about entry training? Since we’re presuming there’s a legal justification for the operation to take place, the logical starting point would be with the type of tactics used. Today, there are a variety of options to consider. However, in the past, when it came to search/arrest warrant service, dynamic entry was often considered the only way to accomplish the mission. Now, the SWAT instructor (and leadership) should consider customizing the entry tactics to the specific circumstances. That means an accurate threat assessment has been made, as well as a “terrain analysis” of the target site. Although a dynamic entry may still be viable, other methods include limited penetration, slow and deliberate (or “stealth”), window porting and even surround and call-out.
One way or another, the team will eventually have to enter and clear the location. That typically means establishing at least one or more “breach points.” As a prelude to this, there’s normally a requirement for “knock and notice.” This is dependent upon your state’s guidelines, but generally we have to announce our presense, our purpose and demand entry.
Orchestrating this should be an important part of your tactical training. When practical, one component—the notice—should be handled by someone other than the officers at the door. One method is to have a prerecorded announcement played over a police vehicle’s PA system. This relieves the SWAT cops at the breach point from having to deal with it. It also makes it more likely for the occupants and the whole neighborhood to take notice. Members of the public become potential witnesses to the team’s legal conduct and can testify that they heard the announcement.
Creating an “entry point” into the location logically follows from the legal requirement of knock and notice. Some trainers refer to this as establishing a “positive breach.” Often this is accomplished through the use of specific tools intended to force a door or break in a window. There are important training needs attached to such a process. For example, if the team is using a ram to breach a residential door, the officer assigned to this tool should know how to use it properly.
Question: What does the team do if the breaching officer can’t get the door open within a reasonable amount of time? The element of surprise leaves us pretty quickly under such circumstances. Now that the suspect is aware of our presence and intent, safety becomes a concern for the breaching officer still trying to force entry as well as the entire team. Does your training address the fact that you may not always be able to get inside?
If the door is forced open, what’s the breacher’s role now? We don’t want to see the officer with the ram continue to stand in the open doorway (the fatal funnel) with the rest of the team behind him, drop the ram at his feet, draw his weapon and then start into the room. This is neither proper nor safe. Instead, the SWAT instructor should stress that the correct process is to hold onto the breaching tool, step away from the entry point and wait for the rest of the team to go through the door. While this takes place, the ram—or whatever tool is used—is deposited outside where it can be easily located should it be needed further into the structure.
Try the Doorknob
A final point on this topic: When I was a young narcotics detective, I successfully worked up my first dope search warrant, which in those days meant that I would be the “point man” on the warrant service. Early one morning, the dope team followed me to the target location’s front door. Visions of “booting” the door danced in my head as I delivered the first kick, while I also tried to make the obligatory knock-and-notice announcement. Nothing happened. I tried two more of my powerful kicks to the door with similar results. A more experienced narc in the stack behind me whispered: “Try the door knob.”
I did. Sure enough, the door was unlocked, and in we went. “Try the door knob” should be a training point for you to share with your SWAT cops.
The next component of our entry instruction should be the choreography of how team members move through the breach point, as well as any subsequent doors they encounter. There are varieties of options out there: criss-cross, button hook, first officer crosses, modified entry and so on. To one degree or another, all of these focus on teaching at least the first few SWAT cops how to get through the door in a sound and efficient manner. Developing the team’s philosophy and ability to accomplish such an entry is important and requires a significant amount of training. The goal should be for all members to be trained, so they don’t have to discuss what technique they’ll use while standing at the door preparing to go in.
The entry element’s movement through the tactical environment is another important training topic. In my narc days and the early stages of my SWAT career, we literally stampeded through. We couldn’t have shot accurately—let alone fully assess what was going on—even if we wanted to. An important rule to help control the effects of testosterone and adrenaline under such circumstances is this: Only move as fast as you can shoot accurately. This is a training topic that should be practiced both on the range and during force-on-force training scenarios.
Watching a team go through its entry training, one of the skills to look for is how they clear a room once they are inside. I recommend that one officer covers while the other searches. The process is initiated when a SWAT cop verbalizes “searching,” which then draws the response “covering” from another operator in the room. In this fashion, there’s no doubt about responsibilities. In addition, before they leave, the officers can switch roles to make sure a thorough search has taken place. This is preferable to both officers searching the room simultaneously.
How the officers exit the room is another factor that gives us an idea of the level of SWAT training. Before stepping out of a room they’ve just searched, officers may verbally announce that they are about to do so, such as, “Miller—coming out!” This is followed by first waving the non-gun hand up and down at the doorway. Finally, the individual officer should consider taking a look left and right before completing the movement into the next area. The intent here is that we avoid blue-on-blue drama and trauma. We don’t want members of the entry element shot by fellow officers as they exit a room they have just searched.
The Tactical Jack in the Box
The expectation when a team makes a high-risk entry is that there may be individuals inside. Duhhhh! But there are two important aspects to talk about.
Perhaps you’ve seen the first of these: A SWAT operator is searching a room and opens a closet door. It’s quite likely that the officer will be startled by the sudden discovery of a person inside. If this does happen, then the tactical operator has just fallen victim to the “Jack in the Box” effect. In some cases, this even results in unwanted reflexive actions such as firing a gun at unarmed subjects. It’s preferable to develop a SWAT team mindset geared toward thinking and anticipating that they will find and deal appropriately with someone—maybe a suspect, but maybe also an unarmed subject—located behind each door, under each bed and around each corner.
Who’s the Most Important?
The other aspect of entry training focuses on the SWAT cops’ actions when they find children inside a location. If an officer discovers a child during a high-risk entry, it’s a sound option to, if possible, exercise extra care. It may even mean that the operator scoops up the kid and shelters in place. Putting his or her body and body armor between the youngster and the threat until the location is secure may be the right thing to do. This is especially true when we operate in low-light environments with flash bangs going off, doors coming down and SWAT cops moving through a house. Otherwise, the child may run through the environment with tragic results. I think the children found inside become the most important people present, and we should take steps to protect them.
No Missing Link
Once the location is under a team’s control, another training aspect that may sometimes be applicable is to establish a tactical interconnecting link. By this I mean that the officers position themselves at various spots throughout the location. From the front door to the deepest portion of the structure, officers then create a verbal communications chain as well as a visual linkage with SWAT cops stationed at other vantage points. The team leader can use this to confirm the status of officers and individuals inside as well as check that all rooms have been cleared and secured.
By now you’re probably thinking I’m a certified “SWATosaurus.” And yes, you’re right. That said, even now I still know that a high-risk entry is one of the most difficult aspects of tactical work. Solid techniques, proper awareness and a dialed-in mindset are all important to everyone’s safety and the success of the SWAT operation. Training your folks in techniques and concepts such as we have discussed above, as well as throughout this series of articles, will prepare them for the challenges ahead.
I wish to take a moment to remember retired LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates, who recently passed on. He cared about the good cops in this world. He knew they carry out their job with dedication and honesty, despite the pressures from those who don’t understand police work. Although Chief Gates was not a perfect man, he was tremendously better than some portrayed him. What matters now is that we’re better off becasue of what he did for us. He stepped forward at the moment of SWAT’s genesis to help lead the way. He continued this dedication to the SWAT concept—and to you and me—virtually to the end of his days. Wherever he is now, I’m sure that he expects tactical trainers like us to work with a similar level of commitment. God Bless Daryl Gates. —R.K.