Special weapons teams have been around since the 1970s. Since then, the concept of a specialized team that s well-equipped and tactically trained has grown and now even very small departments often have at least some SWAT capability. However, some community leaders and even some police administrators have expressed a concern that policing has become too militarized, that officers are now armed and outfitted like an occupying military force. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that equipping police with heavy weaponry has made their communities more dangerous. Have we gone too far, or are we properly equipped considering the job that we may be called to do?
This isn t an easy question to answer. With power comes an awesome responsibility, and there s no doubt that a SWAT team in a community is like a tank on the battlefield: It s truly a symbol of power. Perhaps there s truth on both sides.
A couple of years ago, I worked with a vendor to get some high-level armor to an agency that was in the process of building a SWAT team from scratch. The department had a lot of motivation but almost no money. The vendor came through, and the agency was appreciative. About a year later, I checked in with them and learned that its newly formed SWAT team had almost caused a disaster. I got a candid explanation: They d obtained the requisite fire power and equipment but had not properly trained. As a result, the team s first mobilization was almost catastrophic.
We re just really fortunate that we didn't kill the wrong guy or one of our own, the commander shared with me. The mistake, he explained, was that they had assumed that a capable SWAT team could be formed by providing special equipment to competent police officers. After the realization of their deficiency, the team began regular and intense training with a well-respected team in a neighboring jurisdiction.
Few jobs have a training matrix as challenging as that of policing. Some of the most high-risk and potentially deadly tasks are those that officers may never have to perform.
Contrast this with the job of landing a passenger jet. It's hard to imagine anything more risk-prone than having a large metal tube containing 300 people and flammable liquid dropping out of the air at 150 mph toward a long narrow strip of asphalt (often further complicated by inclement weather). Nonetheless, for commercial pilots, this is routine and safely performed thousands of times a day without a problem.
A Look in the Mirror
How do we ensure our SWAT teams are sufficiently capable? The obvious answer is training, but it goes deeper and is best explained by continuing the passenger jet analogy. Pilots are screened; they face regular physical examinations; and they must have wide-ranging simulator training, documented check rides and thousands of hours of flight time before they are entrusted with passengers. Even then, they must fly in a second-seat capacity before they can assume full command. They personally inspect equipment and ensure it gets regular maintenance. They must function as part of a team. For the sake of your department and your community, stop and consider what s gone into your SWAT team:
Have you carefully selected your personnel?
Are they physically fit and have they been screened? (Unfortunately, some officers who looked physically fit have died when engaged in a strenuous activity because of unknown medical problems.)
Do they train relentlessly in a variety of conditions and with a mixture of scenarios?
Are they periodically tested on their individual skills? Almost every team member has a specialty, and they should have to demonstrate proficiency on a regular and documented basis.
Do you have a system of gradually increasing responsibility? Ideally, new team members should have a chance to be mentored and critiqued by those who have been there and done that much like a co-pilot/pilot relationship.
Is their equipment top-notch, well-maintained and regularly inspected?
Finally, are they capable of working as a team yet able to make a critical decision independently?
Don't wait until a day of reckoning to find out. Evaluate your team and its members and train like the lives of your loved ones depend on every single member of the team.
Dale Stockton, Editor in Chief