SWAT Teams Take Cues from LAPD

Whether you're a SWAT commander, supervisor, team leader, or operator. Whether you're at the front, middle, or back end of your career. Whether you're a current, former, or aspiring SWAT member. Every single one of you has a stake in what happens within SWAT.

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I want to thank all of the readers who took the time to respond to my recent SWAT column, "Sound Off on SWAT," with your views and ideas. We've only just scratched the surface of this vital topic, so keep the responses coming.

In the August 2008 issue of POLICE Magazine, David Griffith wrote one of the most definitive articles on the state of SWAT in "SWAT: Breaking the Mold." In his article, Griffith asks this thought-provoking question: "Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?"

This is a "must read" article for everyone interested in where SWAT is today and where it is headed. Reading this significant article is a definite learning experience, particularly for the wisdom of Ron McCarthy, the now retired legendary LAPD Senior SWAT sergeant.

There is a saying: "As LAPD SWAT goes, so goes SWAT everywhere." While this statement may oversimplify the problem, it accurately describes the world of SWAT. Because it's true that SWAT was created by LAPD, today the majority of SWAT teams emulate—at least to some degree—LAPD's SWAT concept.

Of course, there are exceptions, notably NYPD ESU, which was created in 1925 long before SWAT. ESU began as a reserve force and over the years has layered on missions, equipment, and manpower. Today ESU has grown to a substantial 400 personnel fully capable of handling virtually any emergency or tactical situation that can, and does, occur in NYC. ESU's influence is seen in its widespread use regionally throughout the New York and New Jersey region.

The Los Angeles SWAT and New York City ESU teams may appear to be as different as night and day from each other. That would be true, except that both employ similar basic tactical principles adding their own unique twists. As an example, NYPD ESU with 400 personnel can rotate personnel almost perpetually, giving added meaning to the adage, "Time is on our side." In contrast, LAPD SWAT with 66 personnel may not share the same philosophy about time.

As the two most populated cities in the U.S., it is expected that NYPD and LAPD would set the tactical tone for the rest of American law enforcement. However, the reality is that virtually every law enforcement agency in the U.S. and Canada puts its own unique spin on its SWAT and tactical teams.

When it comes to SWAT, no two teams are exactly the same. Given the thousands of LE agencies in the U.S. and Canada, there are thousands of teams that employ similar, yet slightly different, tactical methodology.

What makes SWAT teams so different are their unique situations. Full-time teams are fewer and located mostly in major cities and some states and counties. The vast majority of teams are part-time, ranging from urban and suburban, to rural, to federal law enforcement agencies. A growing trend is to have regional multi-agency SWAT teams, combining resources, equipment, and manpower that individual agencies would otherwise be unable to afford.

Check any state, province, county, city, or village in the U.S. and Canada, and you'll find a wide-ranging number of SWAT teams. You'll also find an equal number of different concepts for the simple reason that each jurisdiction has its own unique politics, geography, mentality, traditions, administrators, attitudes, and so on. All of which make one team very different from the team next to it.

And within this paradigm, seemingly minor changes can, and do, often produce major shockwaves in many teams. All it takes is a single "bad incident," a change in department or team leadership, or a national incident or societal trend to influence a team's concept and/or direction.

Back to LAPD, as the creator of SWAT, what happens to or within LAPD will very likely have a ripple effect that reaches far beyond LAPD. It's guaranteed that there are many law enforcement administrators who watch the events in Los Angeles very closely, with an eye on how they might impact their own teams.

For that reason, it's incumbent upon all of us involved in SWAT to pay very close attention not only to our own teams, but to other teams, as well—especially LAPD. Whether you're a SWAT commander, supervisor, team leader, or operator. Whether you're at the front, middle, or back end of your career. Whether you're a current, former, or aspiring SWAT member. Every single one of you has a stake in what happens within SWAT, starting with yourselves and your own team.

SWAT, by its very concept, exists for one purpose: to take on those high-risk events beyond the capability of the cop on the street. The whole idea is to win, and SWAT has proven itself a consistent winner over the past 40 years of its relatively short existence. Yet, is "winning" good enough? Especially in today's politically charged LE world. I very firmly believe that not only does SWAT play a vital role in today's law enforcement, but that role will expand in the future to meet tomorrow's threats.

In upcoming SWAT columns, we will address specific situations and how they influence all of SWAT. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read David Griffith's article on LAPD SWAT in POLICE Magazine's August 2008 issue.

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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