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Changes in the Team

Written by Mark Cotton

While members of a tactical team are usually very adept when dealing with dynamic situations, they can be daunted by seemingly more ominous changes thrown their way, like when the organizational composition of their team is in flux.

A long-standing tenet among law enforcement instructors is that police officers just do not like change. In order to introduce a change to a class, it must be done slowly. When it comes to the changing of key personnel on a tactical team, the luxury of slowness is not always afforded. However, the transition to new leadership and/or with new team leaders can definitely be made more fluid if the current commander and team leaders have some foresight.

Simply, if a spirit of transition is not imbedded within the current leadership of the team, the loss of key figures from a tactical team could be critical. Put another way, it is the duty of the current leaders of the team to train it to function seamlessly when new leaders assume their positions.

Transition due to turnover, for whatever reason, can be made easier if current leaders are not the sole holders of information. It is always easier if there is someone else who can do their jobs. Detailed operations manuals, as well as cross-training, can assist in this endeavor. But remember that although an operator may read a chapter in an ops manual and may have cross-trained once or twice, this will never take the place of the experience and personality required to do the job efficiently.

Turnover on a tactical team is not unusual. It is common to lose a tactical team member due to a promotion, transfer or even to another agency. It is also common to lose some veteran team members to retirement. And it is also common to lose a commander, be it to promotions, retirement or agency politics.

Though they are obviously key figures, the loss of commanders may not be as critical as losing some other team members who may be even more influential to the successful operation of the team. Those team members could be the assistant commander (second in charge), who runs the day-to-day operations of the team to include trainings and missions; training officers (if other than the assistant commander); or veteran team members who are respected by their peers and whose knowledge, skill set and experience are invaluable and hard to come by.

The loss of key members can lead to a period of confusion, especially if safeguards have not been put into place before their departure. The loss of key members can leave a tactical team without a clear direction, cause confusion about individual responsibilities and can even create a power struggle between remaining team members who feel, based on seniority or experience or ego, that they should be in charge. Power struggles of this nature could result in conflicting orders being given to the subordinate team members, which could be disastrous.

When training officers or assistant commanders leave the team, training can be placed in jeopardy if a backup training plan has not been put into effect. Without a contingency training plan, the transition can turn into a period of time when training becomes unorganized, goalless and, therefore, meaningless.

Remaining members can turn frustrated, wondering (maybe even aloud) who will or should step up and turn things around. Since training is indicative of how a team will perform in realistic situations, this frustration and confusion would be expected to emerge during a mission, which makes the problem more critical.

All of these situations can be avoided if the team is currently prepared to deal with internal transition. This means that key personnel on the team should be training another member to do his duties. If the key member leaves and no one but that person knows how to do a specific task, the team will be at a disadvantage, and the period of transition will be slow and unproductive. Transition should be a time to make changes for the better. It could be a time to update policies, SOPs, tactics and personnel assignments. It can be a time to establish new goals of the team and determine new direction.

It is important that current team members have some input in these changes. Their ideas should be considered, and if their ideas were not used, they should be offered an explanation for the omission, i.e., it did not fit the goal that the team was trying to reach at this time. Once the new standards have been set, it must be made clear that all team members must abide by them. Be sure to give a grace period for the team members to reach any new standards.

Transition may also be a good time to assess dedication to the team and to allow team members who are not 100% committed to the team to graciously step away. You may lose team members with whom you have worked for several years who are just not willing to accept the changes or work hard enough to reach new standards. While this may be a tough situation on a personal level, a good leader will realize that for the team to grow, some changes will have to be made.

It may also be a time to select new team leaders from within the team. While the decision to replace a commander is usually made by the agency head, team leaders are selected from within the team, i.e., sniper team, entry team, etc. They could be chosen from a combination of several factors, which could include rank, seniority, commitment to the team, skill level, availability and decision-making ability. This decision should be made by the commander and assistant commander, perhaps with input from key members.

A change in team leadership is also a good time to identify and recruit new applicants for the next round of tryouts to fill vacancies. It should be the responsibility of every team member on a tactical team to help identify potential candidates to fill vacancies on the team by notifying the commanders.

Once this period of transition has passed and the team has actually reinvented itself, it is good practice for the tactical team leaders to do a team self-analysis at least once a year. This annual review of the previous year’s trainings and missions, identification of training and equipment needs, will assist in making any adjustments that are needed.

When key team members leave, the survival of the team as an efficient and cohesive one may be in jeopardy. But with foresight and pre-planning, the loss of a single team member should not hamper the efforts of a tactical team to reach a successful resolution to tactical situations. And, more important, the adage that no one team member is bigger than the team comes to fruition.

Mark Cotton is a 20-year SWAT officer and the assistant commander of the Macon, GA Police SWAT Team. He can be reached at sgtmarkcotton@yahoo.com.

Published in Tactical Response, Jul/Aug 2008

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