The explosion of SWAT teams in America over the past 40 years has been nothing less than spectacular. The same is true for SWAT’s remarkable success record defusing thousands of volatile incidents, with a minimum of injuries to innocent persons, police, and even suspects. The creation of SWAT has literally changed the face of law enforcement. Despite detractors’ claims to the contrary, the overwhelming evidence is that SWAT is also successful in accomplishing its mission: saving lives.
Yet from its beginning, many law enforcement agencies have struggled to define exactly where and how SWAT fits into the overall scheme. We need look no further than heated debates about subjects ranging from SWAT’s full-time or part-time status, range of duties, management and oversight, policies, and so on. What is deemed acceptable in one agency may not be acceptable to another, although it should be noted that regional and multi-agency SWAT teams have succeeded in reducing or eliminating many of these once insurmountable barriers.
The debate over SWAT is also evident within individual agencies, where shifts in administrators often change how, when, and where SWAT is used. Some agencies use full-time SWAT teams for a wide variety of risk-involved assignments, as primary or backup responders. On the opposite end of the spectrum, other agencies are reluctant to use SWAT for anything except the highest risk assignments. Predictably, these SWAT teams are rarely called out and such agencies often target SWAT for budget cuts, leading to reductions in training, equipment, and personnel.
Administrators’ views of SWAT range from a valuable asset to a necessary evil. It’s not difficult to predict which view provides resources and backing for their teams, and which view rarely calls on SWAT. One team, in particular, is essentially a “paper tiger” because its chief refuses to allow it to do anything without him personally running the show, including making entries. Such attitudes run contrary to what most of us have been taught—that once a situation is turned over to SWAT, the team determines and executes the tactics.
Unfortunately, this kind of micromanagement goes on all too often and defeats the purpose of having a specially trained, equipped SWAT team designed to handle high-risk situations. And very often the reason has a name—usually a chief, sheriff, or other high ranking officer, who for any variety of reasons, dislikes, distrusts, or even despises his own SWAT team and the SWAT concept itself.
All of which brings me back to the question of how, when, and where should SWAT be used, and who should run the show? SWAT should be entrusted to act as its department’s trusted tactical advisor, determining the tactics and then implementing them without interference. By design, SWAT specializes in tactics and strategy, and wise police administrators should welcome their input. When agencies are in synch, SWAT is part of the process. However, when things are out of synch, SWAT is left out in the cold.
Since most tactical assignments involve SWAT anyway, serving in the role of tactical advisor ensures that SWAT team commanders and leaders will have input to their own destiny. This input will filter down to the entire team, an integral part of the SWAT planning, executing, and debriefing process, and allows operators to become a meaningful part of the solution. If this system works for SWAT, it is conceivable that it will work for the rest of the department, including the brass. Today’s SWAT operator will become tomorrow’s team leader or commander, and someday their department’s top brass.
There is light at the end of the SWAT tunnel. After 40 years of SWAT, a growing number of law enforcement administrators are former SWAT and usually pro-SWAT. With this kind of support from the top, SWAT team commanders/leaders need to keep this positive momentum moving forward. Continue doing what SWAT does best—handle high-risk situations professionally and successfully. Success breeds more success and with it, confidence from the brass at the top.
What SWAT can do right now is to always do what we do best and do it all the time.