In a recent column, I asked for reader input about what you consider the most important issues facing SWAT. Your responses were both insightful and significant, primarily focusing on the respective roles of patrol and SWAT in response to active shooters. The consensus was patrol will always arrive on scene before SWAT, and thus needs the proper degree of training and equipment. Thus relegating SWAT to "trainers" and "mop up" if and when active shooters turn into extended incidents.
As one full-time team SWAT commander correctly pointed out, we can't expect patrol to be trained to the level of SWAT—especially full-time SWAT teams. The NTOA recommended minimum amount of training time is two days a month for part-time teams, and a 25 percent of duty time for full-time teams—a goal that many SWAT teams are challenged to meet. To expect patrol to train to the level of SWAT is unrealistic.
Let's take a closer look at the overall functions of patrol and SWAT. Patrol is almost always first on scene for in-progress assignments. Conversely, SWAT is tasked with "special" missions—those considered "above and beyond" patrol's capabilities. Prior to SWAT, patrol handled everything—until the advent of the sniper phenomenon in the 1960s. Patrol was outgunned and outmatched, because snipers typically barricade themselves in high-ground positions, and are armed with precision long-range rifles, usually targeting responding police.
In contrast, active shooters tend to be "up close and personal," shooting as many victims as possible in the shortest amount of time. For both, time is NOT on our side. Active shooters have essentially replaced snipers, and the result is we've come full circle from patrol to SWAT back to patrol as the primary response to neutralize the threat. However, active shooters are far from the only missions SWAT is tasked with. And this requires taking another look at SWAT missions.
I prefer the analogy of response to high-risk situations to emergency medical response. Both require similar levels of training, equipment, and specialty. Back in the era before EMTs and paramedics, emergency medical response was "scoop and run" and "load and go." I experienced this firsthand in my early days on the job when we were the "EMS," with a bare minimum of first-aid training and police "ambulances" (station wagons with flat stretchers).
Then came EMTs, followed by paramedics, replacing us with a level of sophistication that today includes trauma centers featuring life-saving specialties available 24/7.
The result is a dramatic increase in lives saved due to enhanced medical response and capability—from paramedics to trauma centers to surgical specialists.
Think of law enforcement in similar terms, and the blurred lines of role confusion become clear. Patrol officers are the first responders, similar to paramedics, and need to be better trained and equipped to handle immediate response threats.
SWAT is similar to medical surgeons and specialists who make "house calls." SWAT is afforded far more training and equipment, and like their medical surgeons, with obvious advantages over patrol. Paramedics know and respect their limitations, and the same is true with patrol. There are missions that require "specialists" in the form of surgeons and SWAT.
Law enforcement needs to reassess and clarify the roles of patrol and SWAT, and then train and equip them for the roles they're best suited for. While SWAT may not be the answer to today's short-lived active shooters, SWAT is clearly necessary for more complex threats, above and beyond the capabilities of patrol.
Any rivalry between patrol and SWAT needs to end—now. While SWAT has an obligation to help patrol whenever and wherever possible, patrol needs to realize its limitations and defer to SWAT's expertise. By working together as a team, patrol and SWAT combine to form a far more effective and efficient entity.
One recommendation that bridges the gap between SWAT and patrol is for SWAT to be officially designated as the agency's tactical advisors. By its expertise, training, and mission, a SWAT team is ideally suited to advise its agency for high-risk operations.
In order for this to occur, law enforcement command needs to recognize SWAT as the agency's tactical advisors. Will this ever happen? That's a question each individual department must answer. I know this much: SWAT is always ready, willing, and able to do what it does best—handle high-risk missions safely and successfully.
** Those of you who will be at TREXPO West 2008 in Long Beach, CA Feb 19-22, 2008, I look forward to meeting you in person.