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Risk Management

New high-tech and low-tech tools are making SWAT operations less dangerous for officers and even suspects.

August 20, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

Into The Breach

Of course, not all tactical entries can be made via a robot or armored vehicle. Elevated landings, interior hallways, and other architectural barriers will continue to obligate live entries. Many SWAT officers felled in the line of duty were shot while making such entries.

A tragic 1999 incident in Cobb County, Ga., is an example of what can go wrong during a dynamic entry and how much SWAT depends on quality intel. While one entry team was able to breach a basement door without a hitch, another had difficulty getting through a kitchen door. The first blow from their ram had very little effect, and the second only knocked out a panel. After a flash-bang was tossed through the open panel to stun the suspect, the team hit the door again with the ram, this time with success. Three members of the five-man team poured into the doorway and into a cramped and darkened kitchen where they were immediately fired upon by a man inside. Two officers from the Cobb County Police Department's SWAT team were killed.

Getting through these portals of death without using armored vehicles often comes down to one of four types of entry tools: mechanical, thermal, ballistic, and explosive.

BlackHawk's ThunderBolt entry ram is ideal for pulverizing a dead bolt right out of the jam of most residential or even commercial doors. But when faced with multiple locks and bars, SWAT teams will often opt for some non-mechanical means.

When it comes to breaching locations, some agencies face tougher structural obstacles than others.

"Charleston is a very unique and very historical town," observes Sgt. Walker. "We have a lot of colonial style houses so we don't encounter a lot of windows with burglar bars or doors that are stacked up behind one another. Because of that we tend to rely on the ram. On those locations where we do encounter steel on steel situations, we rely on the hydraulic ram."

Cpl. Todd Stratman of the Dallas SWAT unit notes that his team deals with tougher architecture. "We're continually coming up against houses that have burglar bars on the windows and doors. We do a lot of ballistic breaching."

Stratman believes there is room for improvement when it comes to explosive breaches. "It'd be nice if someone would come up with something that accomplishes the same kind of breach explosives do, but with less of a charge," he says.

Explosive breaching can be dangerous to both the breachers and the room occupants. So some agencies are hesitant to allow tactical officers to use such techniques. Charleston's Walker is cautiously optimistic: "Our chief is looking seriously at using more ballistic and explosive breaches, but that hasn't happened yet."

In the meantime, non-federal law enforcement will most likely continue to favor the less damaging ballistic breach. Used to destroy latches and locks or door hinges, the ideal choice launcher is the shotgun, as it is simultaneously more effective than handguns or rifles at close distances and carries less risk of ricochets. Frangible rounds turn to dust after knocking out the hinges, and disperse completely.

Picture Perfect

SWAT teams have been recording their deployments to justify their actions in criminal and civil proceedings for years now. But today's technology lets the camera lens protect them in the field, as well.

Sgt. Brian Winter of Visalia, Calif., SWAT notes that a variety of cameras are increasingly finding a role in tactical law enforcement operations.

"Agencies are increasingly using pole cameras to help with surveillance," Winter says. "Whereas in the past we had to use an officer to look inside crawlspaces and attics, we can get visuals on them through the use of pole cameras, which makes the job much safer. We even have thermal imaging on our Bearcat, which helps as well."

SWAT operations will always involve an element of danger. But as the tactics and the tools of the profession change so will the numbers of injuries and deaths to both officers and civilians.

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