Basic search and raid principles remain essentially unchanged since Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War” more than 2,000 years ago. Sir Robert Peel’s London Bobbies conducted searches and raids for criminals in the 1800s about the same way we do them now. And today, basic “hammer and anvil” (entry and containment) principles are universal.
There have been some refinements, however. SWAT has created its own unique strategies and tactics, which vary among teams.
The following is a quick list of some of the factors that SWAT teams take into consideration and some of the techniques they use before, during, and after raids.
• Categories: high, medium, low, unknown risk. Some teams only handle high-risk raids and searches, while others handle all involving any degree of risk. Most teams are somewhere in between.
• Frequency: Depending on the locale, individual SWAT teams can handle as few as one to two searches and raids to hundreds a year.
• Personnel: While it is preferable to assign SWAT to all raid positions, manpower limitations restrict many teams to entry teams, delegating containment to patrol and detectives.
• Training: Training is key to SWAT raid and search success. Yet, some teams still struggle to meet minimum NTOA training standards. For seldom-used teams, training may be their only raid “experience”. Conversely, really active teams consider raids OJT and are “too busy” to train for searches.
• Equipment/Weaponry/Vehicles: This varies from team to team. While some teams have all of the best, most sophisticated items, other teams get by with only the bare essentials.
• Planning/Scouting/Rehearsing: While all SWAT teams plan for searches and raids, not all teams scout locations themselves. Busy teams often do so many searches and raids, so they have too little time or manpower to scout or rehearse, instead relying on detectives to scout and relying on experience to serve as their rehearsal.
• Legal Basis: All searches and raids must have a legal basis, usually in the form of search and/or arrest warrants. It is the responsibility of the SWAT raid TL to ensure all raids have a legal basis, as there is no margin for error. Mistakes such as wrong location, typos, and expired dates are unforgivable in the legal arena.
• Briefings: Usually conducted by SWAT TLs, briefings are where assignments and orders are given so that all participants are on the same page. It is imperative that all personnel know their assignments and that all questions be answered. It is recommended that all participants (including UC) attend briefings to reduce the risk of mistaken identity during the operation. Mistaken identity can often lead to tragedy.
• Pre-Raid Rituals: SWAT pre-raid rituals are similar to football pre-game rituals, where participants perform physical and mental preparations to ensure they’re “good to go” on the mission. Rituals include putting on raid uniforms, readying equipment and weapons, and even hitting the rest room for a final “pit stop.”
• Staging: Some teams stage close to the target location just prior to the raid, for final orders, checks, and updates. While other teams prefer to convoy directly from the briefing to the target. Either way, it is important to remember the streets have “eyes and ears” that are on the lookout for pending police activity.
• The “Hit”—Part 1: Some teams subscribe to speed, surprise, violence of action, dynamic/forced/multiple-entry points, bar pulls, break and rakes, flash-bangs, and verbal orders such as, “Get down! Down on the ground!” Especially in high-risk raids, the goal is to confuse, overwhelm and prevent resistance, through speed and controlled chaos.
• The “Hit”—Part 2: A similar, but different approach employs surprise, shock, and speed but a controlled, reduced amount. Forced single-point entry, no break and rakes, selected flash-bang use, and kinder, gentler verbal orders: “Hands up, hands up!” The goal is also to confuse, overwhelm and prevent resistance, but with less chaos and damage.
• The “Hit”—Part 3: A third very different view by at least one major sheriff’s SWAT team is that the best search and rain tactic is surround and callout. The belief is that dynamic searches are too dangerous and cause avoidable legal problems. For at least one SWAT team, dynamic entries are a thing of the past, except for hostage rescues.
• The “Hit”—Part 4: SWAT’s job is to secure the premises for threats and make it safe for detectives to conduct their investigations and evidence searches. For most teams, once the target is secure, it is turned over to detectives and uniform patrol guarding the prisoners. And then SWAT leaves for either its next assignment or to debrief.
• Debriefings: One of the most valuable SWAT tools of all, debriefings are recommended either immediately or very soon after the mission. Debriefings can be formal or informal, depending on each team’s procedures, frequency of assignments, and whether anything happened beyond the ordinary.
This has been a brief overview of some of the variations in tactics and techniques used by SWAT teams conducting searches and raids. Just as no two pro football teams are the same, neither are any two SWAT teams. Yet, all employ variations of time-honored search and raid principles that have been around for thousands of years.
In 40 short years, SWAT has succeeded in transforming searches and raids into an art form, emulated by a growing segment of the law enforcement community. Continued success depends on strict adherence to the highest professional standards expected by all SWAT teams, no matter how large or small. There is little margin for error when it comes to SWAT searches and raids. “Practice makes perfect” is still the rule of the day.