How individual SWAT teams prepare for searches and raids is a product of training, experience, team and/or departmental policy, and geography.
Preparation for searches and raids starts long before SWAT is ever requested. It begins with deciding which warrants service SWAT will do. Some teams handle all of their agency’s raids, while others only handle the highest risk. My guess is that the majority of SWAT teams fall somewhere in between.
The result is that some teams conduct hundreds of raids and searches every year, while others conduct few. Busy teams risk raids becoming “routine”, while seldom used teams risk becoming “rusty.”
Agencies are best served by SWAT conducting most of the raids deemed “high risk” or “unknown risk,” depending upon policy, availability, and circumstances. The “go/no go” decision is made by the SWAT raid team leader, who is ultimately responsible for the outcome.
Search and raid tactics training is an essential component of SWAT, so all team members are expected to be up to search speed at all times. Beyond basic training, SWAT search skills require subsequent, regular training to maintain proficiency. The same is true with vehicles, weaponry, and equipment–much of it designed for raids and searches.
Upon being requested for a search and raid, the SWAT raid team leader schedules it and then fills out a written pre-raid checklist that includes: (thoroughly reading) the warrant, (checking the) intel (including previous raids at the location), scouting, tactics, any rehearsals, “rules”, personnel assignments, vehicles and/or convoy, equipment, briefing, staging, and other concerns.
Let’s examine some of these in detail.
Scouting: Many SWAT teams do their own target location scouting and recon, either alone or with detectives familiar with the target. Other teams rely on detectives for scouting. Either way, most recon includes video and photos of the target of fortifications, obstacles, dogs, children, anything “unusual,” etc. Regardless of who does it, accurate scouting and recon is vital to raid and search success.
Briefing: Briefings are vital to the success of raids and searches. They ensure that all raid personnel are on the same page. Generally, there are two ways that SWAT handles briefings. One is that SWAT briefs first, followed by a general briefing of all participants. The other is the general briefing first, followed by the SWAT briefing. Both are effective and should be determined by SWAT’s preference.
General briefing: I highly recommended that all raid participants, especially any undercover officers, attend the briefing. This is a safety issue that prevents potential disaster of mistaking good guys for bad guys. Another safety precaution is that all briefings (general and SWAT) should end with the SWAT raid team leader asking and addressing any and all questions. This ensures that all participants thoroughly understand the raid plan, especially their individual roles. General briefings are conducted in 2 parts. First, the originating detective provides the overview (location, suspects, intel, objective, etc.). Next, the SWAT raid TL provides the tactical plan and assignments (entry, containment, convoy order, staging, etc.).
SWAT Briefing: This is for SWAT only. The SWAT raid team leader does the in-depth tactical plan, specific assignments, vehicles, equipment, what ifs, etc. Depending on team protocol, attendance is either in partial or sometimes full SWAT uniform and gear. I recommend partial uniform, and then fully gearing up after the briefing. Ask yourself: Do you really want your troops wearing 50-plus pounds of equipment for a long period of time before a raid.
It is also advisable to conduct briefings one at a time (single and multi-hits). The troops already have enough on their plate, so the next raid briefing can wait until you’re done with the first.
Experienced teams are well versed in what each raid position entails, including equipment and weapons. For example, our doormen (breachers) were experienced enough to choose the proper entry tools. So it was rare that I needed to offer them advice. Experienced teams also rotate raid assignments – to keep things fresh, providing personnel experience in all assignments, and spreading the “danger” equitably. If you’re on point today, you drive the van tomorrow.
However, seldom-used teams may need additional guidance in equipment and weaponry. A dilemma for seldom-used teams is relying on the same personnel in key assignments (on point, breacher, etc.). Usually a matter of confidence and trust, the problem is the rest of the team never gets real-world experience. The remedy is thorough training and rotation.
Depending on protocols and the nature of the raid and/or search, many SWAT teams rehearse prior to the hit. It’s advisable for seldom-used teams to rehearse for every search, while teams that do frequent raids can be more selective. Bottom line is that rehearsing is a valuable tool that should be considered by all teams.
Once the briefings (both general and SWAT) are concluded, it’s advisable to make a “ritual pit stop” first, because you never know when you’ll have the next opportunity. A small but valuable “ritual.”
The next step is gearing up (equipment, weaponry, uniforms) and taking assigned vehicle positions.
The raid team leader determines if all personnel are ready and gives the order to head to the staging location.
A final thought on the value of rituals in SWAT. Rituals are actually routines repeated over and over until they become habits that some would call “muscle memory.” Combined with other tools such as visualization and tactical breathing, rituals produce strikingly positive results. Same as athletes who perform rituals bordering on superstition. The point is you play the same way as you train – and rituals are highly effective “mental training.”
In Part Three: Staging Areas and Target Location Approaches