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What’s Wrong with SWAT?

Written by Ed Caneva

You and your team members have just finished serving a narcotics search warrant. While en route to the original staging location, a discussion emerges regarding concerns about the warrant. The team leader concludes his debrief and says, “Does anyone have anything they would like to add?” No one speaks! Not a single word. Not at least in the presence of the team leader or the SWAT commander. Sound familiar?

How about these? Your new partner in SWAT is a disaster waiting to happen. The new SWAT commander or team leader is unfit for the job. The unqualified SWAT rookie was selected based on race or gender or because of whom they know. The logistical officer purchased equipment the team does not need. The majority of your training is irrelevant to the mission.

How about these? The team rarely trains. The snipers do not have scopes on their rifles. The team has no physical fitness or shooting standards. Every training scenario is a no-win situation. Decisions are made without thinking of the consequences. The team’s reputation lacks confidence throughout the department.

The SWAT community has come a long way in the past three decades, especially throughout the 1990s. In fact, the technology used by SWAT today makes those of the mid-1990s seem archaic. By the time Generation X is having grandchildren, I predict SWAT will be armed robots manipulated by some computer wiz with a remote control.

However, the one thing that hasn’t changed is how SWAT members are constantly blowing steam over the topics listed above. They echo at seminars, training courses, and every so often make national headlines. Here’s the kicker, some of these have resulted in million-dollar lawsuits, ended police careers, and worst of all, led to wrongful death.

So why is law enforcement’s most highly liable assignment taking such risks? Some of you know why it happens. The question is, what are you doing to stop it, or at a minimum, how are you preparing for the consequences? Where does the problem stem from? Take a look at some characteristics often debated among SWAT teams.

Standards

There should be no question that a SWAT mission requires a unique person. For obvious reasons, a SWAT member needs to be physically and mentally fit, intelligent, level-headed, patient, adaptable, disciplined, brave, and most important, competent with the tools of the trade. Standards are the tools used to identify such a person. They acknowledge measure of comparison for qualitative or quantitative value.

Questions emerge when you measure standards from one agency to the next. Should standards differ? Mental fitness, discipline, intelligence, adaptability, patience, maturity, and courage, are no-brainers. These should be universal. What is often debated are shooting standards, physical fitness, along with requirements that do not pertain to a particular team.

For example, recruits are mandated by a rigorous 100% shooting qualification standard if they wish to join the team. I am a huge proponent of strict shooting standards. But is 100% reality? Yes, we train for and demand perfection. But are you implying that your team never misses?

So what happens next month when a current SWAT officer misses one or two rounds during qualification? Or what about an experienced seasoned veteran who fires and misses a threat during a call-out? Is he off the team? Are your shooting standards based on real-life experiences or are they based on paper targets that don’t move or shoot back? Are the standards valid, or are they destined to lose credibility?

Physical fitness standards were challenged significantly in court throughout the 1990s. Take for instance the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Special Response Team (SRT), known to have a grueling selection program. Some would question the logic behind 300 push-ups, 500 jumping jacks, or 3-to 5-mile runs throughout the three-week basic SRT School. “When was the last time you ran 3 miles during a call-out?” some might ask.

Miami-Dade SRT’s selection process is demanding because its assignment is physically and mentally demanding. With only 35 operators, it is without a doubt one of the busiest teams in the country. The physical fitness portion of its selection process was designed by doctors hired specifically to identify the needs of the Miami-Dade SRT. Several factors come into play to include operational tempo, mission, equipment, weather conditions, and geography, to name a few.

The psychological stress from the exercises coupled with other factors, are methods of replicating stressful conditions during an operation. This method also identifies the level of physical endurance and discipline of each SRT candidate. For more than three decades, the Miami-Dade SRT selection process has produced sound operators, and its command staff is proud of the system currently in place.

Not every SWAT team has the same responsibilities or workload. Therefore, physical standards should replicate the conditions of the environment the team functions in. When in doubt, seek or hire professionals that can make those decisions for you.

Training

When something goes wrong, expect lawyers, expert witnesses and command staff personnel to question training methods. Is the officer certified to use that weapon? Was the weapon/tactic employed correctly? Has the officer attended training? How often? Who instructed the course? Is this documented? Where are the documents? What led to the development or purchase of the tool, tactic, weapon, etc.? What kind of studies were conducted and by whom? The answers should be tucked away in your training and evaluation files. If your team doesn’t have them, start them immediately.

Communication skills are valuable tools often neglected. A competent officer can lose credibility if he can’t logically articulate his actions. Try individually polling your team members. What you may or may not hear could surprise you.

The team leader has a responsibility to ensure the team members comprehend the use-of-force policy, weapons function, ammunition capability, tactics, equipment, departmental policies, and state and federal laws. Debate is healthy and should be encouraged, especially with these topics. One way to know your team members is to identify how they think and how that thinking gets verbalized. In this type of job, you can’t afford not to.

Training is obviously important as it measures and prepares the team for an operational environment. The question is how often is the team training? Part-time teams average one to two days a month. Is that really enough time to prepare the team for its potential challenges? That depends on the geographical responsibilities of the agency along with the commitment, dedication, and motivation of its members.

With so many variables at stake, there needs to be more emphasis on training. Although most agencies cannot justify a full-time team, at a minimum, one officer should focus on the team’s needs on a full-time basis.

Is your training irrelevant to the mission? For instance, is there a huge emphasis on aircraft takedowns yet no airport within the team’s jurisdiction, or tactical diving training yet no ocean, river, lake, or canal? Don’t misunderstand…any training is great. But with so little time devoted to training, do you truly feel confident that you have mastered the basics?

And finally, do training conditions replicate reality? If the majority of your search warrants are in the evening hours, are you using the range at night during low-light conditions? If it constantly rains or snows in your area, are you training under those conditions?

When you buy equipment, do your homework first! Make sure what the logistical officer purchased is not archaic by the time it gets delivered. Research other companies. Take your time evaluating equipment. Determine maintenance costs. Don’t fix what’s not broken. More important, don’t buy equipment you do not need because it looks good.

Tactics

As for tactics, we can ask, “What if?” forever. History, however, tells us to keep it simple. Alexander, Leonidas, Napoleon, Clausewitz, Stonewall Jackson, or Sun Tzu. No these weren’t SWAT guys, but their concepts set forth hundreds of years ago are being used today.

The speed, surprise, aggressive action, and instant domination used at your last search warrant were also used at Thermopylae, Issus, and Chancellorsville. What changed is the equipment, technology, deliverance and overall strategy. If you’re not comfortable with your tactics, then networking may be the key to your solution.

Reach out to other teams with experience and learn from their failures and successes. Inquire about how and why the tactics have changed or developed over the years. Change may be the answer. The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.

Make sure you’re not fixing what’s not broken. For example, somebody attended outside training and is ready to throw out his teams’ tactics used for years, when in reality, the tactics do not appear sound because the team has not had the opportunity to master them. The problem may relate to training issues.

Test your tactics and those learned from others. Make sure they’re adaptable to your method of operating. Simunition and paintball are great tools for challenging tactics. Consider using a video camera…it usually humbles those who are in denial of their very own constant mistakes.

Leadership

When analyzing the characteristics of competent and effective leaders I have known and worked with in the past, I think of what they know, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and what they can do. And just like E.F. Hutton, when that person spoke, everyone listened. With that said, there is no question that the ideal commander is someone who has come up the ranks within a SWAT team with substantial knowledge, skills, and experience, and who exercises excellent communication skills and leadership qualities. But how often is this the case?

Placing a supervisor into specialized positions without experience may be a common career-building move by some law enforcement agencies. Some are given the position because of their current rank. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find teams with commanders who lack SWAT experience.

But is experience truly the problem at the commander level? Have there been deficient SWAT commanders with tactical experience? There are countless stories in history of people who have accomplished many great things while lacking experience, and yet others who failed miserably despite experience in their trade. In my opinion, it boils down to the individual person and his ability to lead.

So what do the grunts expect from their commanders? It all starts with learning the job. Ask questions. Attend SWAT leadership/management courses. Surround yourself with competent SWAT members. Listen! Observe and even participate in training sessions. Look after your people. Give them support to do the job. Do what’s right for the benefit of the team and its mission. There’s always a better way. Respect them, and they’ll respect you.

With the millennium came new challenges for SWAT teams across the nation. The reality of international terrorist cells in America coupled with their capabilities of harming our nation has sent many teams back to the drawing board. So how do we prepare for weapons of mass destruction and suicide bombers? Take a look at standards, training, equipment, tactics, and leadership. Let’s master the basics, and maybe then we can move forward.

Sergeant Ed Caneva is a former team leader for the Miami-Dade Police Department’s full-time Special Response Team (SRT). He can be reached at ecaneva@mdpd.com.


Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2007

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