Forgive me for starting off with a football reference. I promise I’ll make it pertinent.

The Cleveland Browns starting quarterback was replaced during the second quarter of the first game of the season. He watched the rest of the Browns’ lopsided loss from the bench, and three days later found himself traded to Seattle for next year’s sixth-round draft pick. It was the ultimate “no confidence” vote.

Which begs the question, if the coach and general manager had so little confidence in their starting QB, why did they make him a starter in the first place. The answer goes far deeper than the QB and into the decision makers who call the shots.

A look into the “new” Browns since their 1999 return to the NFL is very revealing. In nine years, the Browns have had two owners (same family), three general managers, four head coaches, seven offensive coordinators, and six opening day QBs. Is it any wonder then that with this amount of instability at the top that the new Browns have only one winning season in their history?

OK. What does this have to do with police in general and SWAT in particular?

A similar “revolving door” pattern can be found in many law enforcement agencies today. Most chiefs serve at the whim of politicians, who also tend to come and go through a revolving door. Consistency in these agencies is unknown, as policy and personnel changes happen faster than the department can digest them.

Take my own department. In my 31-year active career, I worked for no fewer than 14 chiefs of police and so many acting chiefs that I lost count. Do the math, and that works out to less than two years per chief. The shortest chief “tenure” was just nine days (he was found to have organized crime ties). My department even resorted to “fill in the blank” when it came to the chief’s name on reports.

Things in my department are no different today. While the current Chief has been there two-and-a-half years, he’s the fourth or fifth Chief in nine years. That’s nearly 20 Chiefs in 40 years.

I have no doubt that many of you are in the same boat, and your department’s top brass revolving door is in continuous spin cycle. Although there are still many agencies whose administrators are stable and consistent. (Of course, that can be good or bad, depending on the chief/sheriff).

Street officers are a resilient bunch and learn the necessity of going with the flow of constant changing of the guard. If anything, the rank-and-file officers in these agencies are far more stable than the brass. And as all good street cops know, the job on the street remains the same, no matter the name of the boss.

However, there’s a caveat to this: Change at the top almost always means the rules change as well. And this is where things get dicey for SWAT, especially during high-profile situations.
For example, one chief might allow the SWAT Commander authority to make tactical decisions, while the next chief will only allow him/herself to make the call. This translates into changes in policy regarding if/when/how/why/where use of force (including less lethal, chemical, etc.) is allowed.

For example, a growing trend today is for command to not allow SWAT to do anything offensive, unless specifically approved by the chief. In many cases, the result is a return to “green light, red light” and “Sit Wait And Talk.”

Is there any wonder why there is so much disconnect between the top and bottom in so many agencies/departments? Consider yourselves very fortunate if you work for a “good” chief/sheriff, one that understands and supports you, who earns the respect of his/her officers and the public. It’s called leadership, with a capital “L.”

However, to those of you who are less fortunate (you have a lot of company), while you have my sympathy/empathy, there is little time to feel sorry for yourselves, because the reality of today’s street dangers won’t let you. You have to improvise, adapt, and overcome. You have to do the job the best you can, act in good faith, and do it every time. It’s called being a professional, which is exactly what you are.

Easier said than done, you say. And you’d be correct. But no one ever said ours is an easy profession. The exact opposite is the reality of policing in today’s constantly changing society. Yes, we’re (too) often caught in the middle of political power struggles, but we still have to do the job as professionals and strive to do the right thing all the time because it’s the right thing to do.

If you’re lucky, you’ll outlast most of your chiefs/sheriffs, and someday you might even become the next chief. Stranger things have happened. The current chief of my department and I worked together as SWAT sergeants for 12 years.

If you do make it to the top, don’t forget where you came from or those who fight in the trenches because they will be counting on you for their very survival.


Robert O'Brien
Robert O'Brien

SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)

A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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