Last week I attended the 2008 TREXPO East conference and expo, held in Chantilly, Va. And once again, as always happens when I attend a worthwhile conference, I emerged with ideas and enthusiasm about how to tackle the issues facing today's law enforcement, and how SWAT best fits into the overall scheme of things.
I've been around long enough to have followed SWAT through its life stages. From SWAT's infancy in the 1960s to today's mature adulthood, and the years of awkward growing pains in between. I've also noticed that despite SWAT's sterling record of significant contribution to law enforcement, more than 40 years later SWAT is often still seen as a "necessary evil step-child."
In the beginning, SWAT's biggest challenges were simply getting started, followed by what role SWAT would play. Often, the biggest hurdle was what to call teams, since there was often vehement opposition to the name SWAT. The early years were an uphill battle and a study in perseverance and patience. Many SWAT teams were not allowed to form until years later—into the 1980s and beyond—and often still shied away from the term SWAT. This is how so many name variations came to exist.
During my team's early years, we labored under the pressure that a single "mistake" would result in us being disbanded. But that was then, before SWAT became law enforcement's primary response to high-risk incidents. That is, until Columbine and a proliferation of active shooters, when for the first time in 40+ years patrol became primary, with SWAT secondary.
The active shooter track courses I sat in on at TREXPO East indicate active shooter strategy continues to evolve. First arriving officer(s), joined by additional responders, followed by SWAT in a strategy known as multi-tiered response—which utilizes time, tactics, and training to full advantage.
In response to Columbine and the North Hollywood bank shootout, patrol is becoming better armed, equipped, and trained (often by SWAT). All of which combines to improve LE's tactical capability as a whole, as well as draw patrol and SWAT closer together.
Prime examples of such close tactical cooperation include patrol and SWAT in North Hollywood and the Army Rangers and Delta Force in the "Blackhawk Down" incident. When the bullets are flying, everyone's in it together, and the better trained and equipped all good guys are, the better the outcome.
This closer cooperation between SWAT and patrol working together is already resulting in enhanced overall LE tactical response. The future of LE's tactical response is becoming that of "them and us" instead of SWAT's early days of "them against us." Although none of us has a crystal ball to predict the future, today's increasingly violent world is providing us a sneak preview for what's coming. The reality is patrol and SWAT need to work together to get the job done.
SWAT began as the counter to the sniper phenomenon of the 1960s (the precursor of today's active shooters). Since then, SWAT has taken on additional duties: riots, hostages, barricades, high-risk warrants, etc. Each new duty has resulted in new tactics, mostly developed by SWAT. Because tactics are what SWAT specializes in. And eventually, the rest of law enforcement ends up adopting SWAT's tactics because they work.
Now that we're getting a handle on active shooter response, what's next for LE and SWAT? Street/drug/prison gangs are growing more dangerous and widespread every year, and many experts believe it's only a matter of time before the U.S. and Canada will experience another terrorist attack.
SWAT is the tactical spearhead whose duty is to lead the tactical way for all of law enforcement. Active shooter response is a prime example of SWAT showing the tactical way for the rest of LE.
So, what's next for SWAT? Continue doing what we do best, and do it all the time. Continue the SWAT tradition of identifying and anticipating the next threats and develop innovative strategies and tactics to defeat them.
As LE's tactical advisors, SWAT's obligation is to continue to lead the way. This means all levels need to "improvise, adapt, and overcome" with strategies and tactics to defeat the rapidly changing threat environment today and tomorrow.
And always remember, all of us in law enforcement, SWAT included, are in it together.