How Long is Too Long to Remain in SWAT?

Arbitrary rotation has nothing to do with the job of SWAT itself. Instead, it’s about the—in my opinion, wrong—belief that staying too long in SWAT results in becoming “insular.”

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Earlier this year, a controversial report was leaked involving vaunted LAPD SWAT. While complimentary in parts, other portions of the report were highly critical of certain aspects of LAPD SWAT. Especially what the report referred to as SWAT’s “insular” attitude, which it concluded was caused in part when personnel remain in SWAT too long.

The report cited the need for “changes,” including more diversification, oversight, and rotation of personnel. The report recommended mandatory rotation out of SWAT after 10 years, with a one-time five-year extension possible with the chief’s approval. The report cited the benefits of mandatory rotation for SWAT. However, to many observers, the real reason was to eliminate SWAT’s “insular” attitude.

As expected, the LAPD SWAT report touched off a storm of controversy over many of its recommendations, including mandatory rotation.

Allow me to weigh in on this controversy by saying two words: Jim Gnew. So, who exactly is Jim Gnew?

He’s a member of the Cleveland SWAT and may be the longest serving active, full-time SWAT operator anywhere. Jim has been assigned to CPD’s full-time SWAT and Tactical Units since 1973 when I first met him, more than 35 years ago.

As CPD SWAT’s senior operator, Jim’s wealth of experience contributed greatly to the unit’s remarkable record. His experience includes service on an estimated 10,000 SWAT missions, including the following high-profile “big ones”:

• January 4, 1985: Attempted jet hijacking/shooting/hostage situation at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. Jim was point man during SWAT’s hostage rescue assault. The suspect shot him in his vest (bullet then glanced off his knee). The #2 officer shot and neutralized the suspect, and all hostages were rescued unharmed. The CPD SWAT entry team was awarded the NTOA valor award.

• May 9, 2003: Active shooter incident at Case Western Reserve University. Again, Jim was up front throughout the seven-hour running gun battle between the heavily armed suspect and CPD SWAT. The incident ended with the suspect being wounded, captured and convicted. Cleveland SWAT received the NTOA 2003 Unit Citation for Valor.

Prior to joining Tactical and SWAT, Jim also received the Cleveland Police Dept’s Medal of Valor Award for rescuing persons inside a burning home.

Jim’s remarkable 39-year career is about far more than awards and commendations. It’s about the passion and dedication Jim continues to sustain as both police officer and SWAT member. Now that his long SWAT career has come to a close, Jim has been named CPD’s primary tactical trainer for the entire department. He was appointed to this position by the CPD chief, a former longtime SWAT Sergeant who supervised Jim for many years.

I’ve known Jim more than 35 years, many of those in SWAT and Tactical when he was assigned to my squad. From day one, Jim has always displayed the highest devotion and professionalism throughout his entire police and SWAT career.

I point to Jim Gnew as a prime example of why I am against arbitrary mandatory SWAT personnel rotation policies.

I’m also a strong believer in setting SWAT standards and requirements to the highest level possible. So only the “best of the best” can make it into and remain in SWAT. I can assure you that CPD SWAT’s standards and requirements are among the highest anywhere and that Jim Gnew received no “special treatment” whatsoever.

In fact, it was Jim’s accumulated years of injuries that finally caught up to him and prevented him from passing SWAT’s rigorous PFT test, removing him from the team. Injuries, including surgeries, from the constant pounding and physical challenges of being a SWAT officer, including carrying up to 70 pounds of gear. Injuries that most, if not all, SWAT officers sustain during their SWAT careers, especially if they stay in SWAT long enough.

Like all SWAT officers, Jim never once complained about injuries or physical demands of the job, accepting them as part of doing the job. That he was able to stay in “SWAT shape” so many years is both remarkable and amazing.
To those who would advocate arbitrary, mandatory SWAT personnel rotation, I offer a two-words reply: Jim Gnew.

Had such a policy been in place, Jim would have been forced out of SWAT in 1988, a full 20 years of his vast knowledge and experience lost. And for what reason? Certainly not because he soured on SWAT, or couldn’t keep up with the younger troops--who affectionately call him “Grandpa.”

No, arbitrary rotation has nothing to do with the job of SWAT itself. Instead, it’s about the—in my opinion, wrong—belief that staying too long in SWAT results in becoming “insular.”

My question to these advocates, and to SWAT officers everywhere is this. Does Jim Gnew sound “insular” to you? The answer is a resounding "no." Instead, the exact opposite is true. Jim now brings his wealth of tactical knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm to his new role as CPD’s primary tactical trainer.

“Insular,” not hardly, and I venture there are many more “Jim Gnews” out there throughout the SWAT community.

Arbitrary mandatory rotation out of SWAT? A good or bad idea? I say it’s bad. Standards and attitude are what SWAT is about, not an unproven arbitrary number of years in SWAT that might possibly lead to becoming “insular.”

Perhaps, the person who said it best was Ron McCarthy (legendary original LAPD SWAT Team Leader and highly respected SWAT/tactical trainer). Ron was lead instructor at a large SWAT conference I was attending. During his talk, Ron interrupted himself and said he was a fan of “old” SWAT guys because they had “survived” and lent their vast experience to their teams.

Then, Ron pointed directly at me, as an example of an “old SWAT guy.” Then age 49, I considered myself anything but “old”, but I got Ron’s point. And so did everyone else.

I hope your administrators get it, too.

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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