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How to...Start a SWAT Team

A specially trained tactical unit could be the winning weapon in your agency’s arsenal.

March 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams have been a part of the public consciousness since "S.W.A.T." made its television debut in 1975. The images of their real-life counterparts are also embedded in our memory: shooting it out with the Symbionese Liberation Army descending onto the grounds of a Colorado high school campus; deploying at a North Hollywood bank robbery.

To the appreciative hostage whose life they have saved, SWAT team members are knights in shining ballistic armor. To their critics, they are gung-ho macho men, prone to wrong house entries and preemptive shootings. Somewhere between the images, the perceptions, and accusations lies a truth: If ever an entity embodied the philosophy of "hope for the best, but plan for the worst," it is the SWAT unit.

The new millennium has brought with it the omnipresent threats of school shootings, acts of workplace violence, and terrorist activity. It would seem that in this day and age a vast majority of police departments would have some SWAT support available to them. But of the 2027 police agencies contacted by phone in a recent study, 843 (41%) did not have a full- or-part-time SWAT/tactical unit.

There are several reasons for this. First, not every agency has the resources to man its own SWAT team. Fear of liability is also of great concern. Yet, despite the cautionary parables that might give pause, many police agencies are creating their own SWAT teams. For many, it's a smart call.

But convincing the brass that a SWAT team would be beneficial to your department and your community is a complicated matter.

Justifying a Need

Quantifying the good that comes from having a SWAT unit is difficult. For example, evaluating what might have otherwise happened in the absence of a successful SWAT deployment is speculative at best; and how many SWAT officers' lives have been saved as a result of their SWAT training is impossible to know.

Tracking the deployments of SWAT teams' is a relatively new practice and obtaining information is often difficult, as many frustrated analysts working with the National SWAT database have found out. But of those agencies responding to requests for statistics, the numbers are impressive: of 759 SWAT deployments audited, 702 were resolved without shots being fired by SWAT.

If you think a SWAT team might be good for your agency, but you're still on the fence, you might note that not having one can present its own problems. The failure to develop and maintain a SWAT unit, where viable, can be costly. Courts may not mandate that an agency have a SWAT team, but they can encourage its creation.

A 1982 barricade situation ended with an Anchorage patrol officer taking a suspect's life. The court ruled the officer's actions justifiable, but concluded that the absence of mitigators, i.e., a SWAT unit, limited the police department's options in resolving the situation. The city was held liable for the suspect's death. Such was the impetus that gave rise to the Anchorage (Alaska) Police Department's SWAT team.

As the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) notes, "Any community can be a victim of a major violent incident and there must be a system in place to respond immediately." This means that any agency could have to deal with incidents requiring expertise and equipment beyond that normally found in any given shift's field force.

Getting Started

Once it's been established that a SWAT team would benefit your community, how does your agency fund a unit and maintain it? What makes for a good SWAT team?

The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) recommends a step-by-step process that starts with community evaluation and projected costs. To determine how to develop your SWAT team, ask yourself the following questions.

What are the demographics of the area? Does its population change radically within any 24-hour period (e.g., such as in a city heavily populated with businesses)? What venues offer a strong potential for a tactical call out? Are there any prisons or half-way houses in the area? Mental institutions? Large scale sporting or entertainment events? What kind of environmental conditions can affect a team's response; in fact, precipitate it?

Unfortunately, the same sales points in favor of the development of a SWAT unit can become sticking points. Politicians may have a financial stake in venues posing greatest tactical concerns, creating a situation rife with perceived conflicts of interest. And regardless of the nature of the reticence, if city hall and residents are not supportive of a unit's development, they are apt to prove resentful once its need is realized.

This is why the police department and the community it serves need to be candid from the outset about their respective concerns, reservations, and what can-or can't-be accomplished.

Operating costs, while substantial in the short run, may ultimately prove much cheaper than lawsuits that may be incurred in the long run. Although front-end costs may be more obvious, additional capital needs to be set aside for recurrent training and equipment replacement. Training is one of the biggest operational costs, and a legitimate one.

A SWAT team has to acquire enough tactical versatility to address a variety of volatile situations. This reality, coupled with the prospect of arming personnel with weapons capable of firing 10 or 15 bullets with one pull of the trigger underscore the need for ongoing training. Especially when these bullets are capable of passing through walls or windows while other officers and citizens are in the area. There is no getting by "on the cheap."

As Lt. Douglas Cave of the Fullerton (Calif.) Police Department puts it, "If money is that much of a concern in developing a SWAT team, you're better off delaying, or foregoing, the start of a SWAT unit than to promulgate an inevitable failure."

That's not to say that agencies should not explore getting financial assistance wherever available. Agencies can apply for grants, such as the federally sponsored Bullet Proof Vest (BPV) grant, which will pay for half of an agency's body armor. Additional grant sources are available through the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Depending upon a SWAT unit's collateral training needs, some funding may be available through the Department of Homeland Security. Also, civic groups and local businesses may sponsor equipment requisitions.

Once undertaken, no aspect of the SWAT unit should be left open to speculation. It is imperative to have clear-cut lines of responsibility, whether it is a mission statement, a selection process, or an organizational chart. If something goes wrong, you don't want anyone to be able to second-guess your team's tactics.

Deciding on a Team

Physical fitness is an essential selection criterion for any elite police tactical team, and it must be maintained in training.

As with every aspect of starting a SWAT team, cover all your bases-for the safety of your team members and the community. There should be no question that the right type and size of SWAT team for your area has been chosen.

Agency size is subordinate to the availability of qualified personnel, and many agencies composed of 70-100 officers have proven capable of fielding 10-member teams, although a 24-person squad would be a preferred complement.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Ricardo jansen @ 3/13/2011 6:09 PM

hey there my name is ricardo and im from Namibia... and i would love to began ay swat unit and i just hope that somday will come... reading your side really did help me organise and plan much better... but hey anyway thanks so much... ps: ricardo.

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