By Shayne P. Leitch, graduate of American Military University
School shootings, random acts of mass violence, and the drug trade have created a necessity for even small police agencies to develop, organize, train, and deploy specialized teams of officers. What are the requirements, training, and development of SWAT members and what do administrators need to consider before developing such a specialized unit?
A Little Background
The concept of a police unit specially trained in the use of military-style tactics, weaponry, and equipment developed because agencies did not have the capability to confront sniper and guerilla-style tactics. On August 11, 1965 a man named Marquette Frye was pulled over by a Los Angeles police officer under suspicion of intoxication. Frye, an African-American, failed field sobriety tests and was being taken into custody when crowds began to gather at the scene. The situation escalated when the crowd, now numbering in the hundreds, began to throw bottles and rocks at responding officers and a full-scale riot ensued. During the rioting, police were unable to address snipers, random guerilla-style attacks, assaults on firefighters, and could not prevent attacks on uninvolved citizens. When order was restored there were 34 killed, 1,000 injured, 3,000 arrested, and $40 million in destroyed property (Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Collection, 2011).
Approximately one year later, a student of the University of Texas, and former Marine, Charles Whitman gained access to the observation area of the campus clock tower. Heavily armed, he opened fire. Police were unable to resolve the crisis for 90 minutes while Whitman fired at-will on the campus below. Finally, Whitman was killed when a civilian and three officers gained access to the observation deck. From this event, 15 people died and 46 were wounded because police of the era simply lacked the ability to mitigate that type of situation (Balko, 2006).
The Evolution of SWAT
Following these two significant and unprecedented events in American law enforcement history, the new Los Angeles Chief of Police, Daryl F. Gates, conceptualized and implemented a plan to field a team of specially trained police officers to address such emerging threats (Balko, 2006). At the time, Gates recognized that America was in a state of drastic change and new threats would be beyond the scope of training for uniformed patrol officers. He proceeded to select and hire a team of former Marines for his “Special Weapons Attack Team.” However, due to the objections of city officials, it was revised to Special Weapons And Tactics, what we know today as SWAT (Balko, 2006).
SWAT teams are organized as a quasi-paramilitary force and equipped with firearms that are generally unavailable to patrol officers as well as Level IV body armor that has the capability of stopping rifle rounds. In addition, they possess specialized armored personnel carriers that carry team members and equipment.
The Los Angeles SWAT program has been the primary model for similar teams throughout the United States. As a result, most large jurisdictions either have an organic SWAT asset or a mutual-aid agreement with a neighboring jurisdiction or the state police to provide a tactical police response (Gaines & Kappeler, 2008). Each jurisdiction must determine if the expenditure of time, personnel, and dollars for SWAT is a necessary.
Does Your Agency Need SWAT or Just Want It?
When police administrators are exploring the idea of developing an autonomous SWAT program, they must first determine if there is a legitimate need. In many agencies, these units have become integral parts of what could be considered routine operations. Many times, in order to justify having SWAT or producing enough activity to qualify for funding, these teams are used in situations that do not require tactical applications. The most common use of SWAT teams is for the service of warrants. In many jurisdictions it is standard operating procedure for SWAT to serve all search warrants that require an initial forcible entry (i.e. no one is at the property). In other policies, all drug warrants are served by SWAT without consideration of the actual situation.
It is estimated that 40,000 warrant services and raids of this type are performed by SWAT teams across the United States annually. Equipping each “utility-man” (a general purpose SWAT operator) can run over $5,000. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the jurisdiction to make a clear and well-researched determination as to whether or not their organization actually needs—as opposed to wants—a tactical asset.
Selection and Organization of Officers
Once administrators have determined that a SWAT asset would be beneficial to the agency and community, they must decide how team members will qualify and be selected. When selection is to be made, turn to volunteers first as the commitment in time to train and attend school requires dedication.
Second, look to individuals with military backgrounds. Regardless of branch of service, all military personnel attend a military school, therefore, they are familiar with the concepts of small teams, team-leaders, and likely firearm training. As a final note, military training—and especially combat experience—will aid in the development of critical decision-making skills that go beyond regular patrol duties.
How a SWAT Team is Organized
At the basic level, SWAT team organization will be a minimum of four positions with seven personnel. The heart and soul of a SWAT team is the “utility-man.” This is the basic entry-level position for a SWAT operator. Prior to attending any additional training, the utility man should attend and successfully graduate from SWAT school. Finding SWAT training programs for this purpose is easily accomplished through coordination with neighboring jurisdictions, state police, or by contacting the National Tactical Officer’s Association (www.ntoa.org).
The next position to be filled is snipers. In the trade, the term “sniper” has fallen out of favor because of the military connotations as well as the well-known “D.C. Sniper” case in 2002. Today an appropriate term is “marksman/observer” or “police marksman.” Generally, these officers should be mature, experienced officers who have demonstrated strong decision-making abilities. They must be intelligent and creative because they will be required to select routes to their observation positions independent of leadership, construct hides, and make split-second decisions in lethal engagements.
Extensive training is required for the police marksman because the lives of their team and the public are relying on his/her ability to remain calm. Additional psychological traits desired include humor, dedication, confidence, and a positive attitude (Meyers, 1996). These characteristics will aid in the operator’s ability to cope with stressful situations and adverse environmental conditions.
The final and most vital member of the tactical police unit is the team commander. The commander influences the decisions of policy-makers, makes critical tactical decisions on-scene, determines what training should be accomplished, argues for budgetary requirements, and takes full responsibility for an incident, whether it goes right or wrong.
The SWAT commander has full tactical control in a critical incident. Once SWAT is activated and granted the authority to conduct an operation by the chief or other designated official, he/she makes all operational decisions. This high-stress position requires someone with experience, a sound tactical background, the ability to listen to subordinates and take recommendations willingly. Finally, the commander needs to be able to resist influence from higher authority once he/she is granted tactical control of a scene. That is, when others of higher rank or influence want an immediate action taken, if the tactical situation indicates that such action is ill-advised, the commander needs to be able to assert due authority and maintain control.
Consider the Public Image of SWAT
One final consideration for the administrator considering the establishment of a SWAT unit is public perception. SWAT has been dramatized and publicized since the 1970’s on television and in movies. While movies and television shows may make for good entertainment, they have caused backlash and caused the public to ask why SWAT is needed in policing (Balko, 2006).
Incidents also tarnish the public image of SWAT. Consider the recent backlash in Ferguson, Missouri when police responded to protests with SWAT equipment. The media and public outcry after such a response—valid or not—is something that administrators must be prepared for. Such incidents only fuel the idea, supported by movies and television, of SWAT operators as thugs used by police to intimidate the public.
In the United States, SWAT teams are active in 25 percent of all local police departments (Gaines & Kappeler, 2008). Although the number of active units may exceed the necessity, the issue of terrorism is very real and the “it won’t happen here” argument is not acceptable (Gaines & Kappeler, 2008).
Police administrators must demonstrate that a legitimate need exists for an organic tactical asset and that assembling, training, and equipping such a unit will save lives. There also needs to be clear-cut parameters on the deployment of SWAT. These guidelines should state in what situations and under what conditions SWAT will be activated.
Regardless of frequency of activation, SWAT team personnel and administrators must have clear statements of agreement that guarantee a minimum level of training per month as well as mandatory schools to be attended by personnel. All of these elements, combined with public support, serves justice, the public good, and has the potential to save lives.
About the Author: Shayne P. Leitch holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Criminal Justice (Terrorism/Counterterrorism concentration) from American Military University. Currently, he is a patrol sergeant and hostage/crisis negotiator (SRT) with the Fort Detrick (Maryland) Police Department. His 15-year career has included assignments as a police sniper and entry-team member with the Special Response Team. His military career includes eight years of service in the United States Marine Corps and 16 years in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Balko, R. (2006). Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America. Cato Institute. Washington, DC: CATO Institute.
Gaines, L. K., & Kappeler, V. e. (2008). Policing in America (6th Edition ed.). Newark, New Jersey, USA: Mattthew Bender & Company.
Productions, S.-G. (Producer), Hamner, R., & Stanley, L. (Writers). (1975-1976). SWAT [Motion Picture].
Meyers, S. A. (1996). A Guide To Police Sniping (2nd Edition, 2001 ed.). Gaithersburg, MD, USA: Operational Tactics International.
Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Collection. (2011, July 11). Civil Rights Library. (D. L. Georgia, Producer) Retrieved July 29, 2011, from Digital Library of Georgia, University of Georgia Libraries: http://crdl.usg.edu/events/watts_riots/?Welcome&Welcome