SWAT is under a lot of pressure these days. Budgets for training and equipment have been cut. When SWAT is called out, activists decry its equipment and tactics as too militaristic. And activists, politicians, journalists, and Internet trolls all second guess everything a team achieves or fails to achieve in its missions. If it's hard to be a police officer in the 21st century, it's even harder to be a law enforcement tactical operator.
Despite the criticism, SWAT has a long history of positive outcomes. Unfortunately, there have been some disastrous outcomes as well. So the goal of many in the tactical community is to improve SWAT and that begins with operator selection.
The Right People
SWAT has long been a plum assignment in law enforcement. But it takes a special kind of law enforcement officer to want to be a SWAT team member.
The first thing most people focus on when an officer aspires to join a SWAT team is the level of physical fitness and endurance required. They think about things like timed runs, obstacle courses, and demonstrations of the practical strength necessary to perform SWAT missions.
But many agencies are not just looking for the best athletes or even the best shots on the force. Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), says SWAT leaders are constantly looking for ways to make standards fit the missions of the team. He says that means team members must be physically fit but also mentally and emotionally capable of doing the job. "They need to be of the highest integrity and they have to be able to make good decisions," he says.
Bob Gallegos, a retired LAPD SWAT officer who serves on the POLICE Advisory Board, agrees. "You want somebody who can think fast on their feet," he says, adding that the process needs to be both "taxing and fair."
One big problem facing many agencies is that some candidates for tactical teams change their minds after selection and training. That means teams have to be sure they select people who are willing to do the hard work of training and callouts before they invest in training.
Most teams are not full time and their SWAT duties are secondary to their everyday police work, Eells explains. "Officers on the SWAT team have to work shifts in their normal assignments and then train and put themselves on call. It requires you to sacrifice a lot of your personal time," he says.
Another factor that makes it difficult for agencies to find the right people for SWAT duty is the nature of the work. All law enforcement duty is hazardous and all officers have to accept that risk. But signing on with a SWAT team requires an officer to face some of the darkest of human behavior, even more so than standard police duty. "It takes a very resilient person to engage in this kind of work for a long time," says Eells.
Finding enough officers to form a SWAT team can be a challenge even for mid-size agencies. For smaller agencies, it's nearly impossible.
Still, some 10-officer departments try to field tactical teams with as few as five officers. Which is not optimal.
In April the NTOA issued its latest standards for SWAT operations. The 48-page "Tactical Response and Operations Standard for Law Enforcement Agencies" explains what constitutes a SWAT team, what missions it can undertake, and how it should be organized.
Specifically, the NTOA standard says there are essentially two levels of SWAT teams. A Tier 1 team consists of 26 members—a team commander, 3 team leaders, 4 snipers, and 18 operators. A Tier 2 team consists of 19 members—a team commander, 2 team leaders, 4 snipers, and 12 operators. Below what NTOA considers a true SWAT team is a "Tactical Response Team." According to NTOA a Tactical Response Team consists of 15 members—a team commander, 2 team leaders, and 12 operators.
Given these standards, the vast majority of law enforcement agencies in the United States could not field a Tactical Response Team much less a SWAT team. And the NTOA knows it. "We strongly encourage agencies lacking enough qualified officers to form a SWAT unit on their own to team up with other agencies," Eells says. "Agencies need to form multi-jurisdictional teams instead of trying to go it alone. Not many agencies can do it alone and do it well."
Training the Team
One of the primary areas of SWAT operations that needs improvement is training. A lot of people, even inside law enforcement, believe that SWAT is given all the training time it wants. Eells, who served on the Colorado Springs SWAT team, says that's just not so.
As they are in all areas of law enforcement, training time and training resources are precious for SWAT teams, especially so-called part-time teams. Eells says it's important that teams dedicate their training time to maintenance of the critical and specific skills to execute the missions they most commonly get assigned. "If most of your incidents are hostage rescues, then your training should be hostage rescue oriented. If 90% of the missions you execute are warrant service, then that's how you should be training."
Gallegos, who trains teams through his company Tactical Mission Consulting, also cautions teams against trying to do too much in one training session. "If you only have a few hours for training, you are better off dedicating that time to an aspect of your operations," he says. "Think quality, not quantity."
Eells is particularly outspoken about training time that's squandered on flashy and specialized activities that the team will likely never perform in the field. "If you're in a team that doesn't have an aerial support unit, then practicing rappelling out of a helicopter might not be the best use of your time," he says.
It's quite common for the actual commander of a SWAT team to be a lieutenant or captain with no SWAT experience. This is a result of the way officers with ambitions of becoming chiefs or high-ranking brass tend to climb the ladder from assignment to assignment. SWAT command is commonly one of the rungs on that ladder.
The problem with this aspect of law enforcement culture is that it's not unusual for the SWAT commander to be unaware of the actual capabilities of the team. Sometimes this can lead to disaster, as a commander can come up with a plan that is unworkable or, worse, dangerous for the team members and perhaps the people they are trying to rescue or protect.
Law enforcement culture and the way lieutenants and captains make their bones by commanding SWAT units when they are not SWAT trained is unlikely to change. So the most practical solution to this issue is to provide SWAT commanders with special training.
That is the purpose of a new NTOA program. NTOA Academy's Command College offers three levels of certification in SWAT leadership. The program consists of both self-paced online modules and some class work. Students gain a huge breadth of tactical law enforcement knowledge, according to Eells. Courses cover the dynamics and capabilities of SWAT teams, the different types of tactics teams can use, and decision-making models. "The program teaches commanders how to "sift through the noise and make informed and timely decisions," Eells says.
One of the topics discussed in detail in the Command College program is the concept of time during SWAT missions. "They learn how to use time and about good time vs. bad time and how to distinguish good time vs. bad time," Eells explains.
To learn more about the NTOA Academy's Command College program, including courses offered and pricing, go to www.NTOA.org.
Equipment and Technology
The very concept of SWAT was developed around the idea of giving select officers special equipment and training so that they can accomplish particularly dangerous missions. That "W" in the acronym stands for weapons, and the special weapons available to SWAT have long been a focus of the popular imagination regarding law enforcement tactical teams. But today, many of the weapons carried by SWAT, including rifles, are commonly available to patrol officers. So the weapons are no longer that unique to SWAT.
Today, the equipment available to SWAT that's uncommon to patrol officers is primarily defensive. SWAT officers (and some patrol officers) now have very sophisticated gear to protect themselves from gunfire, including ballistic helmets; tactical vests with rifle plates; and ballistic shields, bunkers, and blankets. Eells says the increased access to rifle-rated armor is one of the most important improvements in SWAT operations. Gallegos agrees and he lauds the manufacturers for making it more comfortable and easier to use. "It just keeps getting better and better," he says.
Access to mobile rifle-rated armor in the form of armored rescue vehicles is another area of SWAT operations that is improving. Through grants and through the Department of Defense's 1033 program that makes surplus military gear available to law enforcement agencies, more teams have access to armored cars. In many areas of the country, multiagency SWAT teams share armored vehicles through memoranda of understanding.
High-technology tools are also improving SWAT operations, helping teams gain critical intelligence and helping officers stay safer at the scene. Limiting the peril faced by officers during a standoff, barricade, or other tactical operation is the primary purpose of integrating such devices as robots, drones, and other technologies into the SWAT toolbox.
Three primary high-tech systems have been integrated into SWAT operations to help produce better outcomes for officers, innocents, and even suspects.
Enhanced night vision devices such as image intensification systems and thermal cameras help SWAT officers detect potential ambushes and make it safer for them to make entry into darkened buildings and execute room clearing operations. They can also be used by snipers to provide overwatch for the team during low-light operations and, if necessary, target and eliminate threats to the team and the public.
Robots can be used to perform duties that used to fall to human operators and potentially exposed officers to attack from the suspect or suspects. Robots can enter a building to take phones to suspects or perform reconnaissance, locating hostages or suspects and providing officers with critical intelligence. In a very controversial use, the Dallas Police Department's SWAT team—with approval from the chief—actually used a robot to deliver a lethal explosive payload to an extremely dangerous man who refused to surrender. The decision to use a robot as a bomb likely saved officer lives that night in July 2016, considering that the sniper had just killed five officers and would have been happy to kill even more.
Drones are being used in SWAT operations to provide operators and commanders with real-time aerial reconnaissance. The potential for these unmanned aircraft in making SWAT operations more effective is just being tapped.
All this technology has been extremely beneficial in tactical police operations. But Gallegos cautions all tactical operators that regardless of what high-tech tools they plan to use at an incident, they need to have a backup plan. "You have to ask yourself: 'What if this fails? What am I going to do?'"