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Bob Parker

Bob Parker

Lt. Robert Parker served with the Omaha (Neb.) PD for 30 years and commanded the Emergency Response Unit. He is responsible for training thousands of law enforcement instructors in NTOA's Patrol Response to Active Shooters courses.

Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Jose Medina

Jose Medina

Officer Jose Medina is an active member of the Piscataway (N.J.) Police Department's SWAT team and runs Awareness Protective Consultants (Team APC) tactical training.

Who's In Charge?

Establish clear policies to put tactical experts in command of SWAT operations. Confusion causes injury and death.

December 13, 2007  |  by Robert O'Brien - Also by this author

The question of who's in charge during SWAT operations continues to be widely interpreted and debated 40 years after SWAT was first introduced. On the surface, it seems the answer would be obvious: the chief or sheriff is ultimately in charge of all operations occurring in his or her agencies, but delegates the authority for SWAT operations to a field commander.

In some agencies, the field commander is determined by rank, not expertise—not the optimum situation. In some agencies, the field commander is also the SWAT commander—an ideal situation that tightens command and control.

From SWAT's beginning, the most widely accepted interpretation of who's in charge is that once a situation has been turned over to SWAT, the SWAT Commander is in charge of all tactics. This is simple, effective, and works in theory, but not always in the real world where the human element is a factor.

Red Light, Green Light

Early in SWAT, the buzzword was "green light," meaning authorization for use of force by SWAT. However, many police brass interpreted it as "red light," meaning SWAT not allowed to use force or do anything "aggressive." Sound familiar? It took SWAT years to eliminate the "green light" system. End of problem, right? Unfortunately, not for a growing number of agencies and SWAT teams.

For a period of years, SWAT retained overall charge of on-scene tactics once the situation had been turned over to the SWAT team. The advantage is obvious. SWAT is trained, equipped, and specializes in tactical solutions with an impressive track record of success.

However, for many agencies the pendulum seems to have swung back to the early days of "green light." The new interpretation goes like this: SWAT isn't allowed to do anything "aggressive" without direct authorization from the chief, sheriff, or field commander. Additionally, any and all SWAT tactics must be pre-approved before being implemented. To me, this sounds like a big step backward.


The following are examples of how this theory plays out in the real world:

  • Chief of police exchanged himself for a hostage in a car, then was killed in ensuing shootout between suspects and police.
  • Chief of police exchanges himself and a detective for hostages during an armed robbery, and then emerges "triumphantly" handcuffed to the robbers.
  • From HQ miles away, the chief issues direct orders to SWAT to use "No Gas"  during a barricade situation involving murder suspect who fired on responding patrol.
  • Chief shot and wounded by drug suspect while leading entry team on point during search warrant execution.
  • Tactical team issued conflicting orders to change positions during hostage situation by ranking non-tactical brass.
  • During an incident with a barricaded suspect who killed a police officer, deputy chief prevents SRT team from using their MP5s. Later, the same DC's radio blasts during SRT stealth approach, causing the suspect to shoot through the walls, forcing SRT to enter prematurely. Tragically, SRT point man is killed.
  • During search warrant surveillance, chief confronts suspect alone. Suspect killed in the ensuing struggle and shootout. No mention of SWAT on scene.
  • Chief denies his SWAT team from assisting adjacent jurisdiction's team with barricade. Subsequently turns into suspect being shot and killed by SWAT.
  • Same chief orders SWAT not to deploy ARV during hostage situation.

There are numerous other examples of similar situations that have occurred, and continue to occur, during SWAT incidents. No doubt, many readers can share their own similar horror stories.


Now that we know the problem—one of perception and interpretation—who's in charge? What's the solution?

Do what has proven successful during the past 40 years: Once the situation is turned over to SWAT, SWAT determines and executes the appropriate tactical resolution. This is a rule Ron McCarthy, a retired LAPD SWAT sergeant, has been teaching SWAT for many years.

The prerequisite to this rule is a relationship of mutual trust and cooperation between SWAT and the chief or sheriff, the result of constant communication and hard work. Some chiefs trust their SWAT teams to such a high degree they volunteer to be "rescued" during live-fire training. These enlightened chiefs have great confidence in their SWAT teams. Such confidence is a necessary element of successful SWAT operations.

On the flip side, some other command officers view SWAT as a necessary evil not to be trusted, so they micromanage every move SWAT makes.

I've always felt that SWAT officers should be treated like bomb techs. Have you noticed the brass never tells bomb techs how to do their job? I've yet to hear of any brass looking over a bomb tech's shoulder, telling him or her how to deactivate any explosive device. Nope. Instead the brass are as far away from the scene as possible, allowing the bomb techs to do their jobs undisturbed.

The ideal situation is when chiefs and command staff work in synch with SWAT, mutually supporting each other to accomplish the mission at hand. That's because the mission comes first.

Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

crawfordpd @ 12/14/2007 7:35 AM

Bob- I am a retired SWAT Commander with the Alexandria, VA Police Department and served on the team for over 27 years. All to often the Incident Commander winds up being the patrol shift commander who is ultimately in charge of the incident. What I found over many years of experience is that you have incident commanders who are usually Lieutenants and who normally do not have a lot of incident command experience. As such, they are making decisions based upon their limited experience. Our Incident Command System incorporated a three-prong approach which included the incident commander, the hostage negotiations commander, and finally the SWAT commander. As the incident was unfolding, all three commanders would make up the "think tank" and supply information so that the incident commander could make informed decisions. However, once the incident went tactically, then the SWAT commander had ultimate control of the incident.

Having inexperienced incident commanders running a particular incident, they would tend to be influenced by higher ranking personnel (who would stop by the command post to get an update), or who might be influenced by outside pressure (i.e. school children dismissals, rush hour traffic, overtime costs, etc.). Another issue was that these inexperienced commanders would require explanations for every action SWAT was planning in order to become better informed. As you know, this slowed some of the process down. Stopping to explain why we were doing something was cumbersome.

What was eventually decided was to develop incident command-staff teams who would be assigned to respond to critical incidents. These commanders, and support staff personnel were experienced, had proven abilities to make sound decisions, and were familar with both hostage negotiations as well as SWAT tactics. We found that having this expertise in place, allowed inci

delco2528 @ 12/15/2007 6:34 AM

I worked SWAT back in the early 80's when "Green light" was still a term used. Back then, if we had a call up, we would arrive, stage and await the "Green Light". Once it was given, the scene was ours. And this should still apply today. If a Incident Commander has gone through all his resources, and exhausted all measures; such as negotiations, and the time for SWAT / SRT, or whatever you call your team, has come; then it should be the SWAT Commander who is now in charge. And once that authority is passed on, you, as the incident Commander have to own your decision to transfer power, and accept the outcome. Just my two cents, stay safe out there!

deltaalpha @ 12/15/2007 4:22 PM

My belief is all SWAT units should have a Senior or Lt Senior in charge exactly as SQUADS who are given 1000x more responsibility in Iraq or Afghanistan searching homes of foreign suspects who may be 1000x more dangerous than some Drug dealer or fugitive in USA. They have just a High School education 100x more firepower and international responsibility. SeemsSWAT units should be able to function in the same manner with exactly same techniques and objective if the circumstances warrant it.

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