The Evolution of SWAT Operator Selection

The SWAT candidate assessment process at a South Carolina agency shows how tactical teams are looking for more than just extreme athletes and great shots.

(photo: W Thomas Smith Jr

America's law enforcement special weapons and tactics units are evolving into far more efficient, flexible, and multifaceted response teams. This is an evolution that began decades ago, and it has been largely influenced by an increase in mass casualty attacks, including active shooter incidents. It's also been driven by lessons learned by military personnel and especially special operations teams who have served in the Global War on Terror.

The Richland County (SC) Sheriff’s Department's Special Response Team (SRT) is a prime example of a contemporary tactical law enforcement team that is adapting to meet new challenges and improve its performance. Nowhere is this adaptation more evident than in the current criteria used to select members of the team.

Richland County Sheriff's officials say the days when tactical law enforcement team candidates were chosen based primarily on their athleticism, endurance, and marksmanship are now gone. Those skills and attributes are still vital and the standards for making the team are still exacting, as they should be for any modern special tactics operator. But for Richland County's SRT team, physical fitness and firearms skills are fundamentals that in some ways take a backseat during the assessment phase.

The assessors believe the fundamentals can be enhanced through training, so they are most concerned about the applicant's other attributes. Specifically, they want to know if a candidate has the ability to reason through problems and find solutions during conditions of extreme stress.

Critical Thinking

“If the candidate is trainable—and that’s what we’re looking for—physical conditioning is the easy part,” says Deputy Chief Chris Cowan, who commands the Richland County SD's Special Teams Division, which includes SRT. “Critical thinking skills are what we are looking for.”

According to Cowan, during the interview, assessment, and selection phases candidates are asked, “Why do you want to be a full-time SRT operator?” Their answers often include things like: “I have a military background” or “I want to be the best.” The better answer is: 'I work hard. I don’t know everything. But I want to learn.’ That speaks to his or her capacity,” Cowan says.

Cowan says capabilities are important, to be sure, but “far more important is capacity.”

The assessment phase must determine the candidate’s “capacity” to handle and process information, problems, and challenges in front of them. “And we want to be able to increase that capacity going forward,” Cowan says.

(Photo: W. Thomas Smith Jr.)(Photo: W. Thomas Smith Jr.)

Questions and Questioners

A battery of questions is posed throughout SRT assessment and selection, and from all quarters. The SRT candidate is not only questioned by SRT leaders but questions are also posed by leaders from the various divisions and units within the department such as the Criminal Investigations Division or the Crisis Management Team, which includes hostage negotiators and suicide prevention experts. Moreover, local community leaders play a role with their own questions in the evaluation of potential SRT operators.

“We have a long-established Citizens Advisory Council with members not employed by RCSD, including pastors, military veterans, attorneys, business leaders, and others who are actively involved in the SRT assessment and selection process,” says Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. “This is deliberate on our part, and another way by which we build trust within the communities we serve.”

What kinds of questions are asked? Cowan says that because “the physical evaluation is conducted prior to the oral board, the questions asked are often based on the physical evaluation itself.”

These include questions like: “What were your [the candidate’s] challenges, during the physical evaluation?”

Questioning can also force the candidate to sell the assessors on what he or she can bring to the team. Questions along this line can include: “Why should you be selected over other candidates that you went through the evaluation process with?”

Assessors are also looking for team players. So a candidate might be asked: “How would you help other team members both during the physical evaluation and as an SRT team member who have different challenges than you do?”

The latter two questions speak to the candidate’s sense of either selflessness or self-centeredness; with selflessness being “a vital character trait for an SRT member,” according to Cowan.

Capt. Maria Yturria, a leader with RCSD’s Crisis Management Team and director of RCSD’s Office of Public Information, says that’s it is important to get inside of what makes an SRT candidate “tick” before qualifying him or her for SRT.

“So for me, I might ask, not simply how you would do something in a given situation, but how would you feel about what you are doing?” Yturria says.

A community leader, perhaps a local church pastor who also serves as a member of RCSD’s Citizens Advisory Council, might ask the SRT candidate, “How and what would you do to protect my congregation if we had an active shooter in the building?”

Cowan says the questioning is not intended to yield cut-and-dried responses. “There really is no right or wrong answer, just ways in which we cumulatively pull everything together to determine the cognitive mental processes of the candidate as well as his or her cognitive capacity and suitability for the work we do.”

Members of the Richland County (SC) Sheriff's SRT are chosen for a variety of attributes, but teamwork is paramount. (Photo: W. Thomas Smith Jr.)Members of the Richland County (SC) Sheriff's SRT are chosen for a variety of attributes, but teamwork is paramount. (Photo: W. Thomas Smith Jr.)

SRT Operations

Richland County SRT works hard. In the first six months of this year, the team conducted more than 80 operations, including meth-lab raids, counter-gang operations, and warrants service on potentially dangerous felons. “Anything high risk,” says Capt. Michael Prichett, SRT commander.

The Richland County SD fields 25 SRT operators drawn from its 709 deputies and other sworn officers. And those 25 SRT operators include “entry” personnel, snipers, and supporting operators. The supporting team members are fully qualified SRT operators, but with less experience than the entry personnel. That said, supporting members are involved in all SRT operations performing such functions as driving vehicles and setting up security perimeters.

All SRT operators—whether entry personnel, snipers, or support—must first be experienced deputies. They are required to be extremely physically fit and are required to shoot well and to have demonstrated a high level of proficiency with various types of weapons, breaching tools, flash-bangs, medical gear, and other pieces of SRT equipment. And they have to have completed the 40-hour assessment phase, which is also designed to determine if a potential operator has a fear of water, fire, tight spaces, or heights; all of which are interconnected in gauging someone’s physical courage.

Additionally, the department's SRT operators must have a demonstrable level of close-quarters combat skills and tactical acumen. SRT operators must possess a high level of practical tactical skills. Perhaps that's why more than half of the department's SRT operators are veteran Army infantrymen or Marine riflemen. They also have to be able to work together as RCSD officers performing law enforcement missions and building both individual capabilities and capacities and the capabilities and capacities of the team.

“They have to know each another and spend a lot of time with one another,” says Prichett. “And they do, even in their off time.”

High-Level Training

Creative training scenarios developed for SRT operators are based heavily on after-action reports, reviews, and evaluations of best practices and mistakes made in  ongoing special tactics operations and counterterrorist unit missions worldwide.

Sheriff Lott, who years ago served as a sniper on one of the department's earliest SWAT teams, also has his SRT operators train with and learn from those outside of the department. Training has been conducted with other police SWAT teams, the FBI’s regional teams, Army Special Forces operators, and Navy SEALs.

“This SRT is truly one of the best in the nation,” says Lott. “It is so for several reasons, not the least of which is we have uniquely experienced and very capable leaders. We have developed a culture of operational creativity. And no one man or woman serving on the SRT believes themselves to be better or superior to another: They see themselves as just differently skilled and always with a ‘capacity’ for growth.”

W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a special deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Dept.

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