One of the most common criticisms of contemporary law enforcement operations is that it is too militarized. Many libertarians, progressives, and activists oppose outfitting officers in tactical apparel, armor, and helmets and equipping them with rifles. So it's no surprise that they especially don't like the concept of SWAT.
SWAT was developed to be the special forces units of law enforcement. Like the Green Berets or the SEALs, SWAT officers receive special training, are provided special tools, and they are deployed on special missions. And that rubs some people the wrong way, making SWAT a target for citizen activism and litigation. These critics can be very vocal so it's likely that more than one law enforcement commander has been asked by a city or county executive if having a SWAT team isn't an expensive luxury that is no longer needed.
The question of "Do you still need SWAT?" may be especially on that executive's mind after he or she has been presented with a police or sheriff's budget that includes rifles, helmets, hard armor, and other special threat protection for the patrol units.
The answer from some of the nation's leading tactical law enforcement experts is that SWAT is still an essential element of police response to extraordinary incidents. "There are always going to be times when regularly trained officers can't handle the situation," says Robert McLaughlin, president of the North Carolina Tactical Officers Association.
The training is the special aspect of the SWAT concept that the critics who fixate on equipment, weapons, and gear don't see, says Sid Heal, retired commander of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Special Enforcement Bureau and current executive director of the California Tactical Officers Association.
And the training, according to Heal, is the most important aspect of SWAT. "The original SWAT teams used conventional police weapons, especially shotguns and rifles," Heal says. "It has always been the advanced training that made SWAT an effective and efficient unit for handling the most complex, dangerous, and confusing situations."
Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, agrees. "SWAT teams have the training that the first responder has tenfold," he says. "I think it's good to equip and prepare first responders for the increasing violence and extremism that we see. But we still need to be able to bring in a SWAT team to resolve many critical incidents."
Despite the pressure from civil libertarians and police critics to reduce "militarized policing," none of the tactical officer association executives contacted for this article said they have heard of SWAT teams being disbanded because agencies have supplied tactical equipment to patrol officers. McLaughlin, who retired from the Durham (NC) Police Department as a lieutenant, sums up the reason why: "Shutting down a team is politically risky. I don't think any chief or sheriff wants to be the one who shut down a team and then have an incident happen where the team is needed," he says.
Teams may not be shutting down, but they are being stripped of vital tools following citizen complaints. And that can cost lives, according to Heal.
"The intense scrutiny and public condemnation by agitators and militants who have little or no understanding of the dangers and complexities involved has resulted in naïve police executives removing equipment, especially armored vehicles," Heal says. He points to the recent killing of Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Tara O'Sullivan as the kind of tragedy that can occur when tactical units do not have ready access to armored rescue vehicles. In that incident, Deputy O'Sullivan was ambushed at a domestic by a rifle-wielding suspect. The suspect reportedly prevented first responders from reaching the critically wounded deputy for as much as 45 minutes until an armored rescue vehicle arrived on the scene.
SWAT critics also argue that many agencies would be better off spending their money on patrol officers rather than training and equipping specialty teams.
That argument is really easy to answer because only about 10% of law enforcement tactical teams nationwide are full-time units. Most SWAT officers are working other duties. Even on some agencies that have full-time teams, some officers are being assigned to patrol.
What usually gets cut when officers work other duties as well as SWAT is training time. "Training is immensely expensive in law enforcement because we pay the student to take the training, we pay the instructor that teaches them, and we pay their replacements while they are training," says Heal.
Administrators facing budget pressure are more likely to pull SWAT training money if they do not understand how it is being spent, says McLaughlin. "We have to do a better job of educating them. I recommend taking them through some training," he says.
Defining the Mission
While most county or city officials and even some police critics believe SWAT has a role in contemporary police operations, they disagree on what that role should be. And often it is that disagreement that leads to calls to cut funding for the teams or restrict their use to only the most critical incidents.
The SWAT concept was developed in the 1960s in response to sniper attacks such as the University of Texas Tower Shooting and the rise of political violence where heavily armed militants shot it out with police. From the beginning, SWAT's missions have included hostage incidents, barricaded suspects that pose a danger to the public, high-risk warrant service, and counter-sniper operations.
Heal says these are still the primary missions for SWAT but there have been additional duties added over the years. He adds that SWAT missions should always be something that patrol officers are not best suited to handle. "I used this definition in our strategic plan while commanding the LASD's SEB: 'The mission of the Special Enforcement Bureau is implied in our name, that is resolving those situations that are so extraordinarily hazardous, complex, or unusual that conventional methods are inadequate.'"
Such a definition is flexible enough to account for new threats such as international terrorism after 9/11. But it can leave a lot to interpretation and that's why critics say SWAT has become a hammer that law enforcement is swinging at too many nails. Cries of overuse are a common concern from civil libertarians and anti-police activists.
Heal says it's not a bad idea to restrict SWAT to certain operations and he argues against mission creep. "SWAT teams have a role and when they are deployed in situations that would make their legitimacy questioned, they can be seen as overkill. The controversy this creates far exceeds the specific (benefits of that one) instance and taints the entire concept," he explains.
McLaughlin believes SWAT is being underused in some situations. "A lot of administrators are in the wake of anti-law enforcement sentiment fearful of deploying the SWAT team because of how it looks to do so. I believe that's one reason why we are having more officer injuries and fatalities. We are letting patrol officers who lack the experience and know-how deal with situations that maybe should have involved the tactical team."
One example of a patrol operation that McLaughlin says should involve SWAT is the involuntary commitment of people who have a history of violence as well as mental illness. These situations can be very dangerous for officers and can lead to controversial shootings of the subject being committed. McLaughlin believes involving the SWAT team, along with patrol officers, and officers with crisis intervention training, and—if possible—mental health professionals would make these incidents less hazardous for all involved. "The tactical team should be deployed with both lethal and less-lethal force," he says, adding that many agencies do not provide less-lethal options that can "take someone down at a distance" such as 40mm launchers to patrol officers.
Overuse or underuse is not Eells' major concern about how SWAT is being deployed. He says SWAT is being inappropriately used by some agencies.
Specifically, he worries that some SWAT teams are being called upon to do something they were never designed to do and haven't been trained to do properly, crowd control. "More often than not, that is not a SWAT mission," he says. "And law enforcement leadership needs to realize that deploying SWAT teams for public order situations in this environment today does not serve the team well, nor the agency well, nor the community."
Eells says that sometimes the very sight of SWAT during protests and demonstrations can be inciting. "There are incidents where the presence of SWAT has contributed to the emotion of the event, and I think we can do better than that," he explains.
Instead of sending SWAT into crowd control situations, Eells argues that agencies should create and train public order teams. He advocates for the European model of crowd control, which has proved effective in some U.S. jurisdictions. "They use teams of officers that have been specifically trained and very carefully equipped with the right protective equipment for the public disorder mission."
Eells adds that even though he believes SWAT should not be front and center during public disorder operations it should be available for citizen and officer rescues and in case shots are fired.
Warrant Service and Controversy
The presence of police tactical teams at protests can be a flashpoint, but not even using SWAT for crowd control is as controversial or as universally decried by police critics as using it for warrant service. Civil libertarians and activists argue that SWAT is being used far too often to serve warrants for what they view as non-violent drug offenses.
Experienced SWAT officers say that sometimes tactical units are called out on warrants that could just as safely have been accomplished by patrol or detectives. "I don't think SWAT is being overused," says Heal, but he adds that he is concerned that "…the concept works so well that it is easy to use it when other options would be just as effective."
But in answer to the critics who say SWAT should not be used to serve warrants for non-violent drug suspects, all of the tactical police experts contacted for this story pointed out that the press and public are not always aware of what information was used to determine why SWAT should serve a drug warrant. The risk involved in a particular warrant service is not always apparent from the nature of the offense, they say.
"I am a firm believer that SWAT should be used for high-risk warrants, violent crime search warrants, and drug warrants because drugs and guns go together," says McLaughlin.
NTOA's Eells, who served with Colorado Springs SWAT and retired as commander of the Special Enforcement Division, believes not all drug warrants should require SWAT, but some should. "What we have been advocating through NTOA is that a very careful risk analysis be conducted before a SWAT team be committed to a specific warrant service," Eells says.
Unfortunately, intelligence on a suspect or location is not always available, not always taken into consideration, and can be wrong. McLaughlin points to the deadly Florence, SC, incident of 2018 as an example of a warrant service that in hindsight should have been conducted by SWAT. In that incident, two Florence-area law enforcement officers were killed and three others wounded in a gun battle, not with the 28-year-old subject of the warrant, but his 74-year-old father. The warrant stemmed from an investigation into sexual assaults on minors, and the deputies serving the warrant that day had no forewarning of how the father would respond.
Eells says another factor that leads to critics arguing that SWAT is overused for warrant service is that they tend to throw all law enforcement special units into the "SWAT" category. "A lot of their reports are not well researched," he says. "They fail to differentiate between narcotics units, fugitive apprehension teams, and SWAT teams." The confusion is caused because many SWAT critics see any law enforcement team dressed in tactical gear as a SWAT team, according to Eells.
David Griffith is the editor of POLICE/PoliceMag.com.