In the spring of 1989, I was a special operations sergeant with the Springfield (Mo.) Police Department (SPD). The job involved proactive work on career criminals, armed robbery stakeouts and, when we could find the time, special weapons and tactics. We dressed in black BDUs, carried HK MP5s and filled our trunks with high-speed/low-drag nylon tactical gear. We had it all with the exception of the knowledge, skills and training needed to be a SWAT team in more than name only.
In July of that year, we were put to the test when a violent prison escapee barricaded with a 20-year-old female hostage. Our team responded, and we learned in fairly short order how ill-prepared we were to handle a legitimate tactical emergency. In the end, all we could offer was a well-armed perimeter that stood silent vigil, praying the negotiators would successfully secure the girl's release.
Two really good things came out of that event:
1. The negotiators were successful; and
2. Everyone involved including our chief recognized the impotent position our department had been placed in as a result of a lack of training, and committed to never let it happen again.
The structural transformation process was easy, and it literally occurred overnight. On the day following the barricade, SPD SWAT became a full-time operation with no collateral duties. In stark contrast to our previous, train when you can find time rotation, 25 percent of on-duty time was now mandated to tactical course work.
Unfortunately, our instructor cadre lacked the basic tactical skills required to take full advantage of such an intensive training schedule. Contrary to popular belief, practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect, and at the time of this transition, our in-house trainers didn t have much of that (perfection) to offer. In order to get up to speed, we needed to commit time and money toward laying contemporary tactical building blocks, and figuring out what real SWAT teams in America were doing to resolve challenging police situations.
On the Road
Armed with the chief's blessing and a generous travel/training budget, team members set out on a three-month journey visiting agencies from coast to coast, and participating in a wide variety of SWAT supervision, operations and technical training courses. Our goal: to observe, work with, and learn from those who had been there/done that, and take the benefits of that collective knowledge and experience back to our own organization. Were we able to directly transfer everything we learned to our own operation? Did we even try? Absolutely not, on both counts.
America has roughly 17,000 law enforcement agencies, and most are run by a chief or sheriff who wants to do a good job as defined by contemporary law enforcement standards. They also want to remain employed. Therefore, policy decisions including those involving SWAT are rarely made in a contemporary law enforcement standards vacuum, but one filled with additional considerations such as:
Community norms and expectations; and
The understanding that the agency will police the aftermath and consequences of its own actions.
Generally accepted SWAT principles abound, but most tactical problems can be appropriately resolved using a variety of different methods. Case in point: search-warrant service. One of the first and most experienced teams we observed took 22 operators on every warrant, and routinely cleared/controlled all the ground-floor windows via break-and-rake. This worked well for them, but we didn t have 22 officers on our entire team, and we recognized that like it or not, our community would not support such overt and significant property damage on a routine basis.
Not that the tactic was wrong it just wasn't right for us. During our initial observation and training phase, we adopted the Ozarks adage, Chew up the fish, spit out the bones, and approached each interaction with the expectation that the knowledge gained whether we implemented it or not would move us closer to where we wanted to be. We were exposed to and learned from some of the best in the business, and treated with more patience, dignity and respect than we deserved. From D Platoon to Prince Georges County, we examined SWAT through the eyes of those who created it, and those who proudly carried on the tradition as though they did, including folks like John Kolman, Ron McCarthy, Sid Heal, Dick Webster and Chris Whitcomb, and training programs from the IACP, the NTOA, and many manufacturers that work hard to serve the SWAT profession.
Primary Lessons Learned?
We picked up much during this process and beyond, and addressing all that we learned would go well beyond the scope of this article. However, certain aspects of our growth and development process rose to the forefront, and I'll briefly outline them below.
The most valuable asset in any organization is the people that work there, and we found this especially true when it came to our team. Stephen Covey1 said the path to achieving any worthwhile goal begins with the end in mind, and the excellence we strive for in SWAT clearly begins with the folks assigned there.
Selection processes vary, with most agencies focusing on marksmanship and physical fitness. Unfortunately, putting too much weight on such things can result in less-than-positive outcomes. I m not suggesting technical skills are unimportant, just that emphasizing things such as character, initiative and a selfless attitude remain far more likely to have a positive impact on your team. Determining whether an applicant possesses such traits is labor intensive, but well worth the effort.
Job-related practical skills are very important, and meeting minimum standards in key operational areas such as shooting and strength/endurance must remain part of every selection process. But these skills should only be qualifiers to advance to the next, more important phase that evaluates inherent human traits, as opposed to technical skills that can be taught and learned.
When starting a team, look for people who will:
Exercise self discipline. Operators must demonstrate attention to detail and commitment to developing individual characteristics that add collectively to the team. You will want your team members to stay in top physical condition, control destructive eating and drinking habits and maintain a good-to-go readiness status (such as keeping gear in order by cleaning, replenishing and securing equipment immediately after every operation, even when tired).
Look out for their teammates. Some police officers are notorious practical jokers and take great pleasure in singling out others for a few laughs. In reality, there s nothing funny or logical about victimizing someone who might later hold your life in their hands. Humor is an awesome force multiplier, but only when applied fairly and with a caring attitude. Those who make sport of other team members do not contribute to the health of the program, and should be dealt with accordingly.
Develop an area of expertise. Team members have normal assigned duties, but each should choose an area of specialized expertise and develop a hunger for mastering the skills that come with it. A breacher, for example, should find new and better ways to open the door; build tools that get the job done faster and safer; write an article in a trade journal to share their knowledge; write a lesson plan and teach a class that people want to attend; and raise the team s stock by being the person other agencies seek out when they have questions about breaching.
Develop a tactical knowledge base. A team member should assume the responsibility of researching, collecting and archiving relevant information that pertains to their area of expertise. There will come a time when higher authority will question why something was done a particular way. A knowledgeable operator can immediately respond with data and documentation that convincingly argues that not only are the practices contemporary thinking, but on the cutting edge.
Practice humility. Dr. Richard Carlson2 says, People are drawn to those with a quiet, inner confidence, who don t need to make themselves look good, be right all the time, or steal the glory. Operators should think about team before self. The victory is found not in what I do, but what we did.
Develop a positive and accepting attitude toward change. Change is the nature of SWAT, and you can t change that. SWAT operators must accept that reality or be removed from the team. Those who grouse about being asked to do one thing, then sent to do another, fail to grasp the reality that flexibility and quickly adapting to change remains one of our greatest assets and the reason SWAT teams are the focus and solution to many of our agencies most challenging events.
I believe leadership is the single most important aspect that determines the outcome at a crisis site, and that true leaders do everything in their power to prepare their teams prior to arriving at that point. They do this through:
1. Selecting the right personnel;
2. Operational readiness; and
3. Team building.
I outlined No. 1 above. No. 2 is a relatively simple process that involves:
An agency/community threat assessment;
Procurement of the appropriate tools and equipment in response to the threat assessment; and
Ensuring team members have the necessary specialized training to address the likely threats based on unit mandates and the threat assessment.
No. 3 is more complicated, and in my opinion the unseen force multiplier that dramatically increases the probability of coming out on top when things go loud. It s an abstract concept when compared to personnel, training and equipment, and as such harder to quantify. As a result, many team leaders fail to address it. We believe in the value of team building, and have achieved much success in this area through physically demanding programs that create shared adversity.
Whether it s a SWAT team, SEAL team or football team, strength, unity and team are forged between the hammer and anvil of mutual suffering. Those who endure such things come out stronger and more unified on the other side. The challenge: Finding the appropriate mechanism in the civilian law enforcement realm to take advantage of this.
The most common and productive venue appears to be extremely demanding physical training exercises. Team iron policeman and SWAT Roundup type contests drive participants to their physical limits and effectively build a unifying mentality. If one operator falls back, the team must regroup and share the load in order to complete the exercise together.
Another option that is not for the faint of heart (or the agency risk manager), is the United States Army Urban Combat MOUT (Military Operations-Urban Terrain) School located at Fort Hood, Texas. This program accepts a limited number of civilian tactical teams willing to take the pain during a one-week team-building exercise. Billet in the barracks, chow hall for mess. A mandatory running/crawling tour of the city occurs at dawn each morning before PT. The Sergeant Major who runs the program is not impressed with civilian SWAT officers who enter his city, and teams that endure to the end will leave better for it. Expect long days and short nights, claustrophobic subterranean tunnel work, copious amounts of hot gas and Fear Factor-style high-wall/rope exercises minus the safety net. This isn t a police program, though many of the tactics and concepts relating to operational planning are directly related. This program is the essence of team building. Strength. Unity. Team before self. MOUT generates a level of physical and mental intensity that is hard to imagine, and only those who possess the urban-combat certificate can adequately describe the experience and its value. All of our full-time operators have successfully completed this course and consider it one of the high points of their tactical careers.
For those who like the idea but can't take the team to Texas, the London Metropolitan Police Public Order Training Unit can bring the MOUT conditions to you. The MET enjoys a well-earned reputation as the most proficient crowd-control agency in the world, and they have achieved this status via the school of hard knocks. They know how to prepare a team to win against all odds, and their one-week training course will have your officers on the deck before dawn and c mon mate, give it go during battle PT. Vomiting between drills is optional, though by the end of the day everyone seems willing to join in, and the petrol-bomb training (honest) will ignite fears that your operators didn t know existed. Team members will carry tires, barrels, each other, railroad ties and other instruments of torture as they attempt to solve mind-bending puzzles while fighting off the fog of battle created by the overpowering physical exhaustion.
Why would anyone subject their officers to such mental and physical abuse? What do these programs accomplish, if anything? SWAT team members who suffered such exercises would respond, If you have to ask the question, you wouldn't understand the answer. The bond formed through such adversity holds the bunker up as cover for hours on a barricade, sits motionless in a steaming-hot raid van during a high-risk drug operation and pulls a wounded teammate from the line of fire. Lesser officers look for the eject button.
It's been 17 years since my department s catalyst event and the remanufacturing of our tactical program that followed. During that time we have:
Served more than 3,000 search warrants;
Performed countless high-risk prisoner movements, protection details and buy/bust operations;
Resolved 200-plus barricades;
Rescued seven hostages; and
Never been subject to a single civil litigation.
Team members have been compelled to use deadly force on more than a few occasions, and blessed to have been subjected to it with effect only once. Team members have transitioned from student to trainer and from trainer to instructor-trainer, returning to the SWAT community what was graciously given across the United States and in 33 foreign countries.
Looking back, what did we really learn from all of this? What did we glean from the blood, sweat and tears shed during thousands of hours spent in observation, operations and training? What real benefit was there to having our boots on the ground at diverse locations such as the Branch Davidian Compound and the Police Training Academy in Mogadishu, Somalia? What contributed most to increasing the probability of a positive outcome? Was it the need to procure the latest high-speed tools and equipment? Hardly. Was it focusing only on the most athletic operators, who always shot the perfect score? Not quite. In our view, the crux of all this can be reduced down to the following three things:
1. Courage under fire;
2. Know your job, do your job and remain willing to bet your life your partner will know/do theirs; and
3. Advanced SWAT remains a mastery of the basics.
1. Covey, Dr. Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. New York: Fireside Books, Simon and Schuster Inc., 1989.
2. Carlson, Richard, PhD. Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. New York: Hyperion, 1997.
3. Hanzhang, General Tao. Sun Tzu's Art of War, The Modern Chinese Interpretation. Translated by Yuan Shibing. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1987.
Steve Ijames is a major with the Springfield (Mo.) Police Department and has been a police officer for 28 years. He formed his agency s full-time tactical unit in 1989 and worked his way through the structure from team leader to special-ops commander. Ijames was an original member of the NTOA board of directors, and was the course developer/lead instructor for the NTOA and IACP train the trainer less-lethal programs. Ijames has provided training across the U.S. and 31 foreign countries, and frequently provides agency litigation defense when the use of such tools is called into question. Contact him at email@example.com.