Last time, I asked readers of this column to comment on what you believe are the most pressing issues and predictions for 2008, and where you see SWAT fitting into the bigger law enforcement picture. Not only did you respond, but you did so with concise, articulate views that speak to the heart of what SWAT and patrol are today.
Not surprisingly, most responses dealt with the issue of how active shooters have changed the roles of both patrol and SWAT. Patrol cannot afford to wait for SWAT while innocent people are dying. Columbine was the "wake-up call" that changed everything.
Change After Columbine
Columbine was the final straw in a series of active shooter incidents that began with the 1984 San Ysidro (San Diego) McDonald's massacre that left 24 dead, and continued with the 1997 North Hollywood bank shootout that left 11 LAPD officers wounded. After the McDonald's shooting, San Diego SWAT was expanded, with SWAT officers assigned to patrol areas. After the North Hollywood shootout, LAPD issued 600 rifles throughout patrol divisions.
However, it was Columbine that changed SWAT and patrol tactics radically across the nation. For the first time since SWAT's inception, first responders were now being trained and told to "go to the sound of the gunshots," instead of waiting for SWAT. This is a dramatic shift in strategy, and is forcing law enforcement to revisit the role of both patrol and SWAT. A role that has come full circle during SWAT's 40-year existence.
Which brings me back to readers' responses to my last column. Readers' number one priority is more training and equipment for patrol. The rationale is since first responders are being told to "go in now" against active shooters, patrol rightfully needs more/better training and equipment. And who better to train patrol than SWAT, who are the best trained and best equipped of all?
Learning From SWAT
One result is a greatly enhanced mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation between patrol and SWAT in many agencies today. However, an unintended effect in some agencies is SWAT's role is being relegated primarily to backup, extended and/or planned missions. The danger of SWAT's diminished role is atrophy and eventual elimination. The ideal solution is to strike an acceptable balance between patrol and SWAT; one where they work together toward a mutual goal, subscribing to the rule "the mission always comes first."
That effectively takes all emotional "jealousy" out of the equation, and replaces it with the goal everyone will likely agree on. The reality is patrol will almost always be first on the scene, and therefore needs to be trained and equipped to react effectively. Part-time SWAT need to spearhead first response, which means with ALL of their weaponry and equipment, taking advantage of their enhanced training.
With the exception of NYPD ESU, few, if any, full-time SWAT teams have the luxury of providing 24/7 coverage—especially on the streets. That said, too many full-time SWAT teams are woefully understaffed, and the result is they're often relegated to either " patrol" duties or traditional "SWAT."
Metro Division Model
A highly effective compromise solution in a growing number of departments (especially larger agencies) is a version of LAPD's original Metro Division. In LAPD, SWAT is D-Platoon of Metro Division, a larger umbrella unit of highly trained officers assigned to high-crime areas, supplementing both patrol and SWAT. Metro is also the "feeder" unit for D-Platoon, a proven effective system for many years.
San Francisco PD has its own variation of the LAPD Metro concept, with a full-time Tactical (SWAT) Unit supplemented by trained/ and equipped "specialists" assigned to patrol. Anaheim (Calif.) PD also has its own variation of this highly effective system. The beauty of having two complementary "tactical" type units is readily apparent.
"Trained/equipped" personnel are on the street 24/7, ready to spearhead the first response to active shooters and other high-risk incidents. This allows SWAT to focus on high-risk missions such as snipers, hostages and barricades, high-risk warrants, etc. The agency also benefits by having more "tactical" coverage, and better trained and equipped personnel—a win/win/win situation for everyone.
Back to smaller agencies for a moment. One reader recommended that more emphasis should be placed on training and equipping all officers, rather than SWAT only. The reality is smaller agencies lack adequate personnel. So, having all officers "tactically" trained (not necessarily as a SWAT team) will greatly improve the agency's capabilities.
The bottom line is active shooters have changed the way we respond to deadly in-progress incidents, where controlled rapid response by better trained and equipped personnel is the key to successful missions. But we can also never forget why SWAT was born in the first place. And that is to handle those situations beyond the scope and capabilities of patrol to handle. The challenge for SWAT is to continue doing what it does best – high-risk dangerous missions, above and beyond patrol's capabilities.