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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

Regardless of the number of officers assigned to a SWAT unit, the NTOA asserts that the selection process must be based upon performance standards, not quota appeasement. Similarly, written standards should be in place for safety equipment, team incident reports, and after-incident critiques. Mutual aid policies should also be clearly defined.

Recognize that police agencies evolve at different rates. Larger police agencies have the luxury of being able to field regular SWAT rosters 24/7, availing them an opportunity to train with greater consistency. For smaller agencies incapable of individually fielding SWAT units, a regional selection process drawing from several departments may offer a collective solution and defray costs.

An example of a multi-jurisdictional team experiencing success is the North (Orange) County SWAT team in California. Lt. Douglas Cave, assistant unit commander, says that the year-and-a-half old team has proven to be mutually beneficial to all agencies involved.

"Any one of the departments-Fullerton, Brea, La Habra, or Placentia-would otherwise face severe constraints in providing a SWAT team whenever one was needed," Cave notes. "Certainly, maintaining the integrity of sensitive cases would be compromised if we weren't capable of serving warrants at multiple locations simultaneously. So far, it's worked out for the betterment of all involved."

Cave says, the agencies involved in the North (Orange) County SWAT team have each brought something to the table. "By pooling our resources together, we have brought online a SWAT unit that is cost effective and tactically effective. Logistically, we're better situated than any one of us would be otherwise. We had a mobile command post; Placentia brought in a Hostage Rescue Vehicle. Each agency brings something to the table that another might not have, but needs," he explains.

When deciding which type of SWAT team will work for your department or region, take into account the needs of the area your unit will service. Maintaining a high level of service necessitates extensive and continuous training.

Maintaining a disciplined SWAT team is a heady enough proposition. The LAPD SWAT team requires each team member to attend a minimum of four days of training each month with the .45 caliber automatic alone, in conjunction with other weapons (two days with long rifles).

Advanced tactical drills include shooting on the move, engaging moving targets, one-hand shooting, pistol-retention drills, transition drills (from shoulder weapon to .45 caliber), malfunction drills, multiple target drills, speed loading, flashlight technique, prone positions, kneeling positions, barricade positions, target selection problems, and hostage-rescue targets.

It follows that their equipment is designed to handle a variety of contingencies. Common tactical gear includes a two-piece Nomex flame-retardant combat suit, adaptable load-bearing gear, a plate-blank tactical vest with insertable ceramic plates, and a helmet equipped with an integrated Motorola personal radio/microphone.

Ask for Help

High-risk traffic stops are part of the job for SWAT teams. Above, the Anchorage PD team practices how to safely approach a vehicle and take custody of the occupants.

Lt. Blair Ulring oversees the Stockton (Calif.) PD SWAT unit. He recommends that any department contemplating the development of a SWAT unit contact agencies of comparable size that already have teams in place and look at how they recruit, train, and equip their units. "There is no use reinventing the wheel. Learn from those who have already taken the necessary steps to put a successful team together. Learn from their setbacks and their victories."

Fullerton PD's Cave echoes this sentiment. "The handball games of the '84 Olympics were held at Cal State Fullerton, and that served as the catalyst for our department to create its own team. We relied quite a bit on LAPD, and I can't tell you how helpful NTOA Board member Ron McCarthy was toward that end."

Lessen Liability

Whether an agency decides to go with its own SWAT team, or to be part of a multi-agency unit, it has to make sure that it has enough qualified personnel, equipment, and opportunity for training for the long haul. "Otherwise, it's just opening a can of worms for itself," says Ulring. "Accidents will happen. But the important thing is to do everything possible to minimize the likelihood of accidents while maximizing the opportunity of success in every deployment."

Ulring cautions that agencies should also anticipate that the actions taken by a SWAT team are apt to be second-guessed by the community. "And that's appropriate. Any time a life is taken there ought to be some Monday morning quarterbacking. If you're doing things right and you've done the right training, you have effectively diminished your legal anxieties."

To further ensure that its decisions and actions are proper, the Stockton SWAT unit meets regularly with other SWAT commanders. In addition, the members keep up to date on legal issues through its city attorney's office on everything from "knock-and-notice" requirements to issues surrounding the deployments of percussion grenades.

While keeping on top of federal and statewide legal issues is important, a SWAT team also needs to be aware of the specific needs of the area it serves.

Each city has its own unique personality, some of which can be schizoid in nature. As Sgt. Anthony Henry with the Anchorage SWAT unit notes, his city has a relatively small population throughout most of the year, but that changes during the summer months due to tourism.

Though geographically isolated from the continental United States, Anchorage is readily accessible through rail lines, ports, and an international airport. Because of the nature of the work that takes place in and around Anchorage, there's also a greater likelihood of confronting suspects armed with explosives than in some more metropolitan areas. All of these factors-plus the ubiquitous alcohol-have at one time or another played into the departments SWAT call outs.

And when a SWAT call out necessitates officers' presence in 25 to 30 degrees below zero temperature, environmental factors play a role in determining what type of equipment it needs to field.

While recognizing the tactical merits of one autoloader shotgun routinely deployed by SWAT teams, Sergeant Henry prefers the modified Remington 870 currently fielded by their team. "It's more environmentally compatible. A unit's decision to go with a semiauto, or a pump-action, is going to be dictated by its unique needs. For us, the Remington shotgun affords us more options when it comes to 'action/carry' decision-making."

Selecting SWAT Members

Regardless of a SWAT unit's size, configuration, or equipment, the team begins and ends with the officers selected to work this assignment. While the prestige and excitement promised by working the SWAT unit assures no shortage of interested applicants, special premiums are placed on good working attitudes and the ability to work within the team environment.

That environment and the duties expected of team members varies based on the type of team. Whereas the LAPD SWAT team can focus its attentions on entering a location quickly and securing it, then disarming bad guys, other units may end up having to pull double- and triple-duty. They may, in fact, be the detectives and investigators responsible for authoring the same search warrants they are serving.

When it comes to personnel, Lt. Ed Drain, commander of the Plano, Texas, SWAT team, places a premium on "the ability to think in crisis situations. You want someone who will not get too pumped up and will be able to think calmly through the adrenaline rush." To this end, applicants for the Plano SWAT team go through rigorous psychological and physical assessments. Drain wants to make sure that his officers have both emotional and physical stamina.

Stockton SWAT's Blair notes, "Every officer on my team is a range master and a firearms instructor. Not only does this ensure a higher degree of proficiency in each team member's performance, but it affords some latitude in scheduling of training for other departmental events."

As Capt. Kim Kolluch with the Lincoln, Neb., SWAT team notes, team members are not immune to observing incidents while off duty. Beyond giving agencies additional latitude and resources, training benefits personnel away from work, as well.

"Because of their knowledge and the availability of equipment in their vehicles," Kolluch explains, "they've been able to take action they might not otherwise have been able to-in effect, solving problems before lives were lost, or before situations escalated out of control."

The dividends of developing a SWAT unit can be considerable. Aside from the inevitable responses to the situations for which they've been trained, SWAT members enjoy collateral benefits, as their participation in attendant training exercises doubtlessly fosters better officer safety practices for those officers still working patrol. Competency and morale are boosted. Liability is lessened. And community goodwill is fostered through their success.

As Anchorage SWAT's Henry explains it, "Contrary to the views held by some, a SWAT team doesn't enhance the likelihood of deadly force — it decreases it."

Contacts for Starting a SWAT team

National Tactical Officers
Association (NTOA)
P.O. Box 797
Doylestown, PA 18901

Ron McCarthy and Associates
1402 N. El Camino Real
San Clemente, CA 92672
[email protected]

Sgt. Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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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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