One area where innovation is finding inroads in SWAT deployment is robotics—both in their acquisition and deployment.
"The L.A. style of barricade handling has historically been one of slowing things down and clearing things room by room," notes Sgt. Scott Gillis with the Boston SWAT Unit. "But robots have greatly enhanced our officer safety. Not only can they identify where a suspect is located inside a location, but they can transmit audio from the room. We can hear when he coughs. If his speech is slurred, we can tell the degree of his intoxication."
Perhaps no other tool in the contemporary SWAT arsenal has more potential to prevent police and suspect casualties than robots. Gillis explains that robots give SWAT both valuable real-time intelligence and the ability to engage the suspect without endangering officers.
"If there's a lone gunman in a house, there's no reason for us to go in there," Gillis says. "We're not cowboys—we're risk mitigators. The suspect has the ability to lie in wait and have the advantage. In terms of cutting edge stuff, I think robots are something that SWAT can and should increasingly rely on."
Not only can robots relay information regarding barricaded suspects, they can provide incident commanders with a lay of the land.
"The robots utilized have both audio and visual capabilities," observes Gillis. "Based upon what the robot can bring up on a screen, you can develop a plan of entry. It can tell you once that front door opens what you'll see next: There's a long hallway with rooms both left and right and it ends up at a kitchen. We can develop a room-clearing plan based on that. Or if the door opens into a living room and there's a stairwell that leads to a basement when you thought the only access to the basement was from outside. You can make sure that you have sufficient manpower for all of the escape routes."
Sgt. Chito Walker is a supervisor with Charleston, S.C., SWAT. He, too, notes the robots have been a huge asset in tactical law enforcement operations. "We work hand-in-hand with our explosive device team. We try to use our robots as much as possible before we commit to making entries ourselves," he says.
"A prime example is an incident we handled two months ago wherein a suspect fired several rounds at his girlfriend before barricading himself. After initially contacting the suspect and then losing contact with him, we breached the location and put the robot inside. The robot was able to find the suspect in the bedroom and give verbal commands for the suspect to prone himself out. The suspect complied and we were able to go in and detain him without any further incident," Walker says.
In the past such an incident would have ended very differently, according to Walker. "When I first came in, we were doing everything almost barbaric style.... It was all dynamic entries, all the time."
Robots have gone beyond the front door and out the back, and proven their value in enclosed yards, as well.
When 45-year-old man twice fired off his shotgun before barricading himself in his backyard, the Lodi, Calif., SWAT team deployed its own robot.
Remotely controlling the 400-pound robot, officers knocked down a portion of a fence to gain entry into the backyard. Once inside the perimeter, the robot's infrared sensors located the gunman lying down in the yard. Shortly thereafter, a K-9 was able to take the man into custody, ending a four-hour standoff.
Lodi SWAT commander Chris Piombo reported on Recordnet.com that the robot ensured the safety of everyone involved.
"I didn't want to put anybody in that backyard," Piombo said. "He said he wasn't going to be taken alive, and it was pitch black. The robot could see like it was daytime."
Incident to the gunman's arrest, Lodi police found two handguns concealed in the backyard and three high-powered rifles with sighting scopes in the house along with approximately 500 rounds of ammunition.
Creativity has likewise figured prominently in the acquisition of robotics. Some SWAT teams have even approached local high schools to help develop robotic technology. Students such as those at West Covina High School in California and East Lake High School in Florida readily accepted challenges by law enforcement agencies to help fund and design functional robots with SWAT abilities.