Even in the best economic times, establishing and maintaining a "good" SWAT team is no easy task. In today's bad economy, this has become an increasing challenge for many SWAT teams.
Let's face it, the reality is many cities and their law enforcement agencies are struggling financially to stay afloat. The predictable result is LE cutting back to the bare bone essentials. "Non-essential" things like new and replacement equipment, outside training, travel, training time, ammo, and overtime are all cut back or cut completely out.
Hiring freezes have become the norm, and worse yet, a growing number of agencies nationwide are laying off personnel. Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, police layoffs were unheard of. That all changed in the early 1970s when my department (Cleveland) became the first major city in the United States to lay off officers. A phenomenon that has spread nationwide ever since.
In December 2009 Cleveland again laid off (67) police officers and (38) firefighters, demoted a number of CPD/CFD supervisors, and canceled hiring a planned recruit class. In 2003, CPD laid off a staggering 254 officers, and it took three years to eventually rehire them all back.
Cleveland is not alone in its distress. Vallejo, Calif., declared bankruptcy recently. This city of more than 100,000 people promptly laid off police. Vallejo PD has already lost 48 of its 150 officers, with many being rehired by neighboring departments. With the next round of scheduled layoffs (July 2010) VPD is expected to drop down to only 85 officers.
Not surprisingly, Vallejo's crime rate is soaring, with a number of high-profile violent crimes. Vallejo is now requesting assistance from outside agencies to try to prevent crime from spiraling out of control.
Cleveland and Vallejo are far from alone in this troubled economy. Everyone is being forced to bite the bullet. This includes SWAT. Outside training is often the first casualty. And full-time teams are experiencing loss of personnel via transfer to beef up patrol.
Over the years, I personally know of at least four times when my team had personnel transferred or detailed to basic patrol. Prior to forming the CPD SWAT Unit, two Tactical Units I was a member of were summarily "deleted from the organizational structure." One "deleted" due to loss of federal funding; the other due to downsizing.
As a growing number of LE agencies struggle to stay afloat, it's logical that SWAT teams will feel the impact. Expect continuing cutbacks in personnel (especially full-time teams), equipment, training, and even callouts. All will be scrutinized for their "necessity." So what can SWAT do about it?
While all SWAT officers are responsible for bettering their teams, SWAT commanders and team leaders bear the primary responsibility for their teams. That's what effective leaders do: They take care of their teams. As leaders they need to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to anything that might possibly affect their teams. Always with the goal of ensuring the team's continuing existence.
During the late 1980s, one large Midwest city's SWAT unit was on the verge of being "deleted." This was a very good team, and the reason was the chief "didn't like SWAT." At substantial risk to his departmental future, the SWAT commander fought to keep SWAT alive.
The commander presented his well-thought-out reasons for keeping SWAT and made sure they fell into the right hands. The word spread quickly inside and outside the department. This was a highly respected team, and it wasn't long before public outcry effectively changed the chief's mind about deleting SWAT.
Today, this SWAT team still exists, and it has become an integral cog in the department's tactical response. It owes that existence, in large part, to the tireless efforts of its former commander who risked his personal career future in order to save his team.
When SWAT first began in the mid 1960s, the concept was very slow to catch on nationwide. It wasn't until a decade later-after the deadly New Orleans Howard Johnson Hotel sniper and LAPD SWAT SLA shootout-that SWAT started catching on.
During the 1980s and 1990s, SWAT became entrenched as LE's response to critical incidents and situations. The trend continued during the last decade, and today, SWAT teams are universal throughout the United States and Canada.
I honestly can't recall there ever being a time in SWAT's 40-plus years of existence that team members haven't had to fight for what we believe in. With many teams having to fight for their very existence more than once.
This current period of budget strain and belt tightening is a good time for all SWAT teams, particularly team commanders and team leaders, to take long, hard, in-depth looks at your teams. Ask yourselves these questions:
Have budget cuts affected your readiness? Does your agency believe enough in your team to keep funding it? Is your SWAT team where it should be? If not, why not? And what can you do to make your team as effective as possible and communicate its necessity to your administrators who may view it as an expensive luxury?