We took the elevator to the twelfth floor and walked up two flights of steps to a landing that opened onto an open rooftop overlooking downtown Los Angeles. It was the middle of the night and the smiling LAPD SWAT officer barely kept control of his giggle as he hooked my eight-ring to the rappelling line and said, "Be sure to step quickly as you back over the edge." With only the hookers and cabbies of downtown Los Angeles to bear witness, I stepped backward into space 14 stories above the street.
That was 1982 and I still remember the sensations I felt as I stepped back while looking into the face of Sgt. Ron McCarthy of the LAPD SWAT Team. I was thrilled, scared, excited, and wondering how many times in Arizona we would really ever get to make a rooftop assault from the top of a 14-story building?
In fact, just a few days before, I had arrived at the LAPD SWAT School as a member of the Arizona DPS SWAT and had never even rappelled before. Yet now I was a veteran of helicopter rappels, building rappels, rappels where I tied off and shot targets, and now I was in the midst of a training scenario requiring a Spiderman-like trip from the top of a very tall building to a window on the sixth floor.
The week I spent back then in sunny California was a truly eye-opening example for me of how excellent training can produce remarkable results. I was amazed at how well our instructors used positive modeling and aggressive practice. We officers, deputies, and troopers from all over the country left there not only better in our skills and tactics, but also having a great deal more faith in ourselves.
With Sgt. McCarthy constantly walking around cajoling, teasing, and laughing, the week was a whirlwind of exercises and tactics and camaraderie. I had never, nor have ever since, experienced such a remarkable learning experience. LAPD was putting the school on to make money to buy equipment for the upcoming Olympic Games being held there, but the team members acted like we were joining their team and might be their backup someday. It was great...and scary.
The final training scenarios were designed to use all of the skills we had learned over the past week, and making us go almost an entire day straight was part of the stress applied to make sure we had them down even while fatigued. This exercise that required me to rappel from such heights centered around freeing hostages on the sixth floor of a building in downtown L.A. The problem was you had to come from the roof to a window on the sixth floor.
Well, needless to say when the exercise was done and we sat around to debrief my heart was still pounding. Part of my brain was screaming, "Again! Again!" and another part was saying, "Are you outta your mind?"
Back then I had the "Skoal" habit and I was holding about two tins worth of dip in my lip as we went through the debrief. I was thinking how the LAPD SWAT trainers had made such a great difference in so many folks in a week and I thought the keys were simple: They all led from the front, they expected a great deal from us and so they got it, and finally, whenever anyone had any problem whatsoever, the problem was the technique, not the person.
I took back all these lessons to Arizona and told my team about them. We never did a rooftop assault or even ever went to the top of a 14-story building just for fun, but the training changed the way I taught and what I believed about me. Thanks, Ron and the Team.
Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press' "Street Survival" seminar.