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Cover Story

The State of American Law Enforcement - SWAT: Breaking the Mold

Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

August 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Lowering Standards

The report—and the LAPD's response to the report—gets a lot more controversial, however, when it addresses selection and testing of new SWAT personnel. This is also one of the primary areas of concern for other teams founded on the Los Angeles SWAT concept. The question the chiefs of those cities may soon be asking their SWAT commanders is: If this is good enough for LAPD SWAT, then why isn't it good enough for you?

Earning the right to sew an LAPD SWAT badge on your sleeve has never been easy. And it still isn't. But under the recommendations of the board of inquiry—which are now in effect unless overturned by a Los Angeles Police Protective League lawsuit—it is easier.

And the reason for making it easier is perceived by many as an insult to the officers who have tried hard to make the team but failed. Chief Bratton and the board want to diversify the unit.

The panel says that the selection process makes it difficult for women and minorities, specifically African Americans, to make the team.

People who have close connections with the team, including retired SWAT officers, say they are baffled as to why the board of inquiry believed that SWAT is not as ethnically diverse as the city it serves.

"There is a larger percentage of black officers in LAPD SWAT than there are in the population of Los Angeles by percentage," says McCarthy. "If the people of Los Angeles had watched the media coverage of the funeral of Randall Simmons (an African-American SWAT officer killed in action earlier this year), they would have seen black SWAT officers, Hispanic SWAT officers, and white SWAT officers. More importantly, they would have seen how much they all love each other." McCarthy also notes that Officer James Veenstra, who was shot in the face during the same attack that killed Randall Simmons, is Asian.

Bratton and the board of inquiry also paint the SWAT team as a "good old boy" club with a strict no girls allowed policy. McCarthy bristles at this characterization and he reveals that several female LAPD officers have come close to qualifying for SWAT in the past. And if one had, the team was ready to accept her.

"People like Chief Bratton have constantly asserted that we were against females. I am sick and tired of hearing that," McCarthy says. He explains the unit's lack of female officers as a result of its grueling physical testing.

Bratton's solution for this "problem" was to change the selection process and cut much of SWAT's physical testing. McCarthy argues that eliminating the five-day physical testing of candidates—much of which takes place on an obstacle course at Camp Pendleton Marine base—is not a good idea.

"Some people would argue that, for example, chin-ups are not job related. But that's a lie," McCarthy says adamantly. "It's all about upper body strength. If you can do a lot of chin-ups, then you can fast rope out of a helicopter with 60 pounds of equipment on your back."

Upper body strength of new team members is also a concern for some wives of current SWAT team members who have protested the department's new SWAT testing standard. Following the murder of Randall Simmons, SWAT wife Tracy Melchior raised the question of whether a woman who is admitted to the team under the new testing regimen will be able to pull a wounded teammate out of the line of fire.

Earning Respect

Lt. Mike Albanese, commander of LAPD SWAT, was contacted for this article via the department's public information office. He did not respond.

So far Albanese's only on-record comment about the board's recommendations has been an editorial in the Los Angeles Times that was co-written with Metro Capt. Jeffrey Greer. "The process it [the department] had been using was 20 years old….Tasks were redundant, had little to do with actual police work, and were needlessly hazardous," they wrote. In that same editorial they also noted that seven of 38 candidates were injured during the testing, two seriously enough to be off duty for nearly a year.

One of the officers injured in the 2006 tryouts, Jeniffer Grasso, 36, is now a candidate to become the team's first female operator. Grasso's performance during the earlier tryout earned her the respect of the current SWAT officers, despite the fact that she may be qualifying for the team via a lower standard than previous members.

"Physically, she's a dynamo and tactically she's very solid," one veteran SWAT officer told the Los Angeles Times.

Grasso is not being viewed by her teammates as a politically correct token who was held to a lesser standard. But future officers accepted into the training, male or female, may not be held in high regard by the veterans.

SWAT veterans from Los Angeles and other agencies say that bringing officers onto the team under different qualification standards than the existing team members may damage unit morale.

"In SWAT you have to earn respect," says O'Brien. "[If you come into the team under a different standard], then it will be a long time, if ever, before you earn the respect of the guys. There is a potential wedge brewing within that unit right now."

Squelching Dissent

Of course, the architects of the new LAPD SWAT standards knew that they would meet some resistance from the unit's veterans. Their solution to the problem was brilliant if not Machiavellian in its effect on dissent. They plan to get rid of the veterans.

The SWAT board of inquiry recommended that the unit rotate veteran team members out of SWAT and into other assignments. Under the new policy, team members can only serve 10 years on the team before moving on. There is one exception: Officers can appeal to the chief for a one-time extension of five years.

McCarthy says a rotation policy is unnecessary if the team's commanders are taking care of business. "People do stay too long on teams," he says. "But the reason they do that is that supervisors don't let them know that it's time to move on. It's a mistake to limit people. You have to take care of this problem with good supervision."

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Terry @ 11/20/2012 1:14 AM

Great, so now we are going to have a bunch of pansys on the SWAT team. Do you NOT want LAPD SWAT team to be the BEST of the BEST? Its true, females will NOT be able to have the upper body strength needed to move a wounded officer. How very sad Bratton caved in to this mess. Leave the SWAT teams to the men who are stronger and better able to defend us. I am a female and belive this job needs STRONG men...not some females who are pissed off because they can't play with the men. And for letting them stay on for 10 years..Those are the ones with the experience. Leave them alone. Let them stay as they want on SWAT. What a hot mess.

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