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When first responders need help, they call SWAT, but who can SWAT call?

March 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

Bad guys watch TV. They go to movies. And one of the things they have been taught by Hollywood is that when the SWAT team shows up, it's "game over."

In popular culture, tactical police teams are invincible. Maybe that's one of the reasons why well over 90 percent of all critical incidents that involve tactical police response are resolved without a gunfight. The bad guy looks out the window, sees the SWAT team, knows that tear gas and maybe armed assault will follow, and decides that further resistance is futile. So he throws down his gun or turns it on himself. That's how intimidating a SWAT team can be.

And there's nothing wrong with intimidation. Having a rep for being "demons of darkness" and "lifetakers and heartbreakers" is one of the best weapons in the tactical police arsenal. It's a good thing that many bad guys believe SWAT cops are superheroes.

But it's not a good thing for fellow officers and especially not for SWAT cops themselves to believe that tactical police units are invincible and invulnerable. A healthy respect for the capabilities of the enemy is one of the keys to success in all conflict, whether it involves a SEAL team scouting an Iraqi village or a police tactical unit facing a deranged gunman in the local grocery store.

There is a tendency among all law enforcement to believe that no matter the odds, their bravery and training can save the day. It's an instinct that a good SWAT officer must overcome. Because believe it or not, there are times when even a SWAT team may be outgunned or otherwise need help.

Kill A/C

This Level II ballistic vest stopped a 12-gauge slug but not a .308. The only protection from armor-piercing rifle ammo is hard armor.

A barricade incident several years ago made Lt. Tim Cameron, commander of the St. Mary's County (Md.) Sheriff's Department team, realize that a SWAT team can be outgunned.

In that incident, sheriff's deputies went to the apartment of a local man on a "check the welfare" call. He opened fire on them through the door, then barricaded himself in his home.

Arriving on the scene, Cameron learned the subject was ex-Navy, and he had, according to his neighbors and the maintenance staff of the building, an "arsenal." Cameron then surveyed the scene, and he realized things could be very bad. The subject's apartment was an end unit, and while it was on the ground floor, it offered clear fields of fire into the police perimeter and to the road beyond. Worse, the subject had covered his windows with black garbage bags, blocking any outside surveillance. Cross-shaped fighting slits were cut in the bags.

The incident ended without a gunfight. The subject killed himself. And what the team found inside that apartment made them thankful that they hadn't been forced to engage the gunman.

"One of my SWAT guys got physically ill when he saw all the weapons the guy had and how he had fortified that apartment. He was loaded for bear. He had rifles and shotguns in significant, and I mean significant, numbers. We found a Benelli M4 Super 90 loaded with slugs, .223 rifles, .308 rifles, an M1 Garand with a scope, and he had plenty of armor-piercing ammo. Near every window there were loaded mags and speed loaders, including hundreds of mags of loaded .223 ready to go."

What the gunman's intent was for all his firepower is still unclear, but the St. Mary's SWAT team found a chilling clue on the front door. "There was a little yellow sticky note on the door that read, 'Kill A/C.' I don't know what that meant. It could have been a reminder to turn off the air conditioning or a declaration that he wanted to 'kill all cops.' I don't know."

And Tactics

Looking back on the "Kill A/C" incident, Cameron says he feels that at the time his unit could have been in trouble if the gunman had chosen to stand and fight, especially if, along with all his weaponry, the subject had a gas mask. While, technically, the SWAT team had automatic weapons, body armor, ballistic shields, gas, and superior training, the gunman was in a fortified position and his rifles neutralized the value of the officers' body armor. "He was much better equipped as far as firearms than us. I just hope our discipline would have been better and that would have made the difference."

National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) board member Lt. Robert Chabali believes that Cameron has hit on the reason why it rarely matters what weapons the bad guy is wielding in a SWAT action. "It's called 'Special Weapons and Tactics' for a reason," the veteran Dayton (Ohio) Police Department SWAT commander says. "Yes, we have weapons, but we also have tactics. Suspects may have weapons, but, ultimately, very few suspects can match the capabilities of a well-trained, professional SWAT team."

SWAT veteran and NTOA board member Ronald M. McCarthy agrees, explaining there is no better example of how training and tactics can equalize a tactical team's footing with a better armed opponent than the 1975 shootout between the Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team and the Symbionese Liberation Army. And McCarthy should know; he was there.

"The SLA had .30 caliber carbines with cyclic rates of 1,250 rounds per minute, and they immediately began firing at us with them. We didn't have automatic weapons with us, and we got on the radio and called for our M-16s."

But the M-16s were not the decisive factor, and McCarthy believes they were the wrong tool for the job. "We deployed the M-16s and burned up a ton of ammo, firing full auto when semi would have been a far more sensible and judicious use of rounds. We learned something from that: Just because the opponent has something, it doesn't mean that you have to have it. The SLA had explosives and we didn't. So there was a request for us to have grenades. It was denied. They had them and they used them. But did their grenades cause us to lose? No. When it was over, six of them were dead, no citizens were killed, and no officers were injured."

Tactics will win the day in a critical incident, but that doesn't mean that a SWAT team that feels outgunned should ever just accept the situation. Immediately following the "Kill A/C" incident, the St. Mary's SWAT team acquired new weapons and refined its tactics. "We had 9mm H&K MP5s that night. Now we have a choice of H&K MP5s, or H&K G36s and Colt M-4 carbines in .223 in case a subject is wearing body armor. We are also more conscious of sniper over watch and we have much more gas," Cameron says.

In addition, shortly after the incident, the Calvert County SWAT team, which forms a joint tactical team with St. Mary's, acquired an armored vehicle. "We had and still have the ballistic shields, but in some cases the armored vehicle is much better. With a ballistic shield, something's got to stick out and something's uncovered. Let's just put it this way, if I was taking a pounding from a .308, I wouldn't want to be behind that thing, even though the shield would stop .308 rounds."

Experience Counts

Armor-piercing ammo, such as these .308 and .223 rounds, is readily available to the public—and that includes the bad guys.

One of the reasons that some SWAT teams could be outgunned is not a lack of hardware but inexperience. Since the overwhelming majority of police critical incidents end without a firefight, many SWAT leaders and their officers have never been under fire. Which begs the question: how can they make themselves ready for the one time in 20 that the bad guy decides to stand and fight? This is an important question, considering that the chances a team might run into such motivated shooters have grown since 9/11.

Veteran SWAT officers and commanders point to two solutions to this problem: the right personnel mix and force-on-force training. McCarthy believes the most important element of any tactical team is experienced SWAT officers. "The more you're involved in critical incidents, the more that you confront crisis situations, the more likely you are to have positive outcomes in critical incidents in the future," he says.

Not only is the presence of veteran SWAT officers essential to the success of the mission, McCarthy argues that it helps calm the fears of inexperienced officers and prevent the tragedies that come from overanxious and overeager team members. "If you're standing in a stack, and you look to your left and the guy there has the same experience as you, and that's minimal, and you look to the right and see the same, it doesn't do a lot for your confidence. But if you look to your left and the guy has nine years of experience and more than 700 entries and to your right that guy has 15 years and more than a thousand entries, and they say everything's going to be all right, it makes a big difference."


Of course, not every department can field such battle-worn veterans. Dayton SWAT's Chabali serves as a paid consultant for a regional SWAT team comprising officers from four suburban agencies that's called out fewer than 10 times per year and has never come under fire. And while the Ohio communities of Vandalia, Huber Heights, Fairborn, and Beaver Creek are not hotbeds of street crime, they are just the kind of quiet, affluent small towns that make the news as locations for school shootings and other critical incidents. Worse, because of their proximity to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the communities could be targets for terrorism.

Sgt. John Turner of the Beaver Creek (Ohio) Police Department is commander of the regional team, and he says all of these concerns are reflected in its monthly training regimen. "Our training is based on what is going on in the community, and we try to hit the basics in terms of our tactics," he explains.

Chabali says he also advises Turner to adapt his team's exercises and drills to what's happening in the news. "You have to train as a SWAT team for what's going on in the world," he explains. "Don't ever get comfortable with your training. See what's happening out there and adapt your training to it because there are a lot of copy cats."

The team also practices force-on-force scenarios using Simunition FX marking rounds because Chabali believes that force-on-force training is the best thing an inexperienced team can do to prepare for a very bad incident. "If you are a true tactical team, and you understand what your mission is, then you need to train for those events, for the worst case scenarios. Your training has to be realistic to those scenarios," he says.

Unfortunately, those departments that have access to marking rounds and all the necessary conversion kits and protective gear for using them in training, rarely have more than pistol conversions for their weapons, so officers don't experience what St. Mary's and Calvert County SWAT could have faced in the "Kill A/C incident," long guns firing ammo that can punch right through a ballistic vest.

"You can buy Simunition FX kits for long guns, but most departments don't have them," says Chabali, who adds that it doesn't really matter. "The main benefit of Simunition training is the force-on-force decision making, and you can increase the learning curve just by using pistols."

CONTINUED: Outgunned «   Page 1 of 2   »

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