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.