Law enforcement agencies throughout America are feeling the effects of the ongoing economic recession. Cutbacks and layoffs are no longer shocking, but almost expected. Few LE agencies are hiring new recruits. Services considered non-essential are being eliminated. And some LE agencies are actually being disbanded entirely.

This is drastic stuff, and SWAT is not immune from the adverse effects of the recession. A growing number of tactical units are being merged into regional teams, losing personnel through attrition, and even being suspended and disbanded entirely.

Challenging times for all of law enforcement, including SWAT. Which begs the question of how, and where, does SWAT fit into the bigger law enforcement picture, in the longest, worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s?

What's very different about today's recession is that unlike the Great Depression, police are often the first to be laid off during budget cuts. This is in stark contrast to the Great Depression, where police layoffs were virtually unheard of.

Times have most definitely changed. LE was once considered a stable, secure profession; that's no longer true today. Just ask the many police officers who have lost their jobs in recent years.

Something's got to give—sooner, rather than later. While LE may be experiencing economic difficulty, crime, criminals and gangs continue to pose an even greater threat to society now and into the foreseeable future. Terrorism continues to loom large as a threat to America. Yet, LE is often the first to be cut in order to save money. Those cuts often reach SWAT.

Since its inception more than 40 years ago, the SWAT concept has faced non-stop challenges to its existance and function. Challenges from both outside and inside law enforcement. Those include political, conceptual, being considered "too militaristic," and so on.

SWAT has repeatedly proven to be a valuable, life-saving resource. For every negative story, there are countless others with positive outcomes. SWAT has saved countless more lives than it has taken. Clearly, SWAT has continually proven to be an irreplaceable asset to law enforcement.

To put today's challenges into better perspective, we need to look at both the past and future of both LE and SWAT. The No. 1 question is, "What can SWAT do for LE?"

From the inception of SWAT in the mid 1960s, special response teams have been continually challenged. While born in the 1960s, there was tremendous resistance to SWAT for many years.

It wasn't until the 1970s that SWAT started spreading across America, but not without tremendous resistance from inside and outside many LE agencies. The biggest challenge for SWAT in the 1970s was being allowed to come into existence at all.

My department, the Cleveland Police Department, went through a staggering seven "tactical" concepts in only 10 years, before our SWAT unit was finally formed. It still exists today, 31 years later.

A common question about SWAT in the 1970s and early 1980s was, "How do we convince our department to allow us to form a SWAT team?" It wasn't until well into the 1980s that SWAT became established in American law enforcement.

By the 1980s, SWAT had established its proven, effective, life-saving track record. The 1980s ushered in the wave of drug violence, resulting in numerous LE agencies recognizing SWAT as a valuable, effective tool against drug violence.

By the 1990s, SWAT had become firmly entrenched as LE's tactical response. Then came Columbine, which caused the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) to dramatically change response tactics for active shooters. The NTOA recognized the necessity for trained-first responders to rapidly deploy, rather than waiting for SWAT. And SWAT officers, in many departments, were the active-shooter-response instructors.

The horrific terrorist tragedy of 9/11 sent shockwaves throughout the country. Now, SWAT found itself on the leading edge of America's counter-terror response. Federal counter-terror funding flowed to LE agencies (SWAT included), allowing them to obtain much-needed specialty equipment and vehicles.

LE was finally getting some much-needed funding to do its job of fighting crime and terrorism. Then the recession hit. For SWAT, the recession has meant cutbacks in virtually every area—personnel, equipment, and ammunition needed for required training.

As bleak as things look today, the reality is that LE and SWAT have always faced daunting challenges throughout their existence. For SWAT, fierce resistance has come from some quarters to the concept, utilization, and "militarization," among the objections.

Despite these detractors, both inside and outside LE, SWAT has proven so successful that today there is overwhelming support for SWAT. That's due in large part to the dedicated professionalism of the men and women in SWAT. And ultimately, it's that professionalism and dedication to excellence that has consistently made SWAT an effective life-saving concept.

There's a question many in SWAT are asking today, "Is there anything we can do to ensure our SWAT team's existence?"

While I don't pretend to know the answer, what I would say to every SWAT team and officer everywhere is to stay the course and continue doing your job to the best of your ability.


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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