A narcotics detective once uttered the statement, “Sometimes you just have to go now.” The implication was that sometimes you can’t go through a methodical (what he considered laborious and unnecessary) planning process to perform a narcotics search warrant. In other words, sometimes he felt you had to possibly risk officers’ safety in pursuit of the dope.
I couldn’t disagree more. Having been a narcotics detective for six years, I understand the thrill of going after the dope case. I’ve arrested or been involved in the arrest of hundreds of dopers. From the street dealer with $20 worth of rock cocaine in his pocket to the Columbian with multiple kilos and hundreds of thousands of dollars, none were ever worth one officer’s life. Not one. Nobody’s drugs are worth dying for.
And yet this reckless, cowboy attitude has in the past existed on some tactical teams. Unfortunately, more than one tactical officer has been killed or wounded when a team tried to fly by the seat of its proverbial pants during an operation or failed to take the time to properly plan. The result has been more than one team being trashed due to an officer’s death, serious injury or civil lawsuit because it failed to practice a methodical planning and briefing process.
This rule holds true for all tactical operations, not just narcotic search warrants. No operation, regardless of how great or how small, should be performed without properly planning and rehearsing before execution. Even the rapid deployment for in-progress shootings has been “pre-planned” and practiced to improve response.
Old Raid Teams
In the late-1980s and early-1990s during the height of the “crack war,” it was routine for narcotics search warrant teams to be thrown together. Various police personnel would get together, don body armor, raid jackets, put badges around their necks on chains, turn their baseball caps backwards, grab a sledgehammer, and head out to “hit a house.”
Frequently the “plan” and “briefing” would only be a brief description of the target, who was designated to hammer the door in and the idea that the team would “bum rush” the target. Pandemonium would ensue, and it is only through the grace of God that most of these operations succeeded. However, if any serious resistance was met, catastrophe sometimes resulted.
Anyone who doesn’t believe in the need for a detailed plan has never had one of these “wing it” plans go south. At times, supervisors or team leaders attempt to handle all the planning and preparation for an operation themselves. The result is that they may 1) increase the chance of failure due to time constraints, 2) be overloaded with information or 3) limit their planning ability by not involving the experience of their team. Even a quickly made and incomplete plan diagramed in the dust on the trunk of a car is better than no plan at all!
Professionalism in SWAT
Over the years, professional trainers, teams and organizations such as the National Tactical Officers Association have taken a serious look at the planning process and started using military planning models for police tactical team operations. A number of acronyms or models can be used:
• BAMCIS means (B) begin the planning; (A) arrange for the reconnaissance; (M) make the recon; (C) continue the planning; (I) issue the operations order; (S) supervise.
• SMEAC means (S) situation; (M) mission; (E) execution; (A) administration and logistics; (C) command and signals.
• IIMAC, the British model, means (I) information; (I) intent; (M) method; (A) administration; (C) communications.
Proper planning can increase team safety, allow the team leader to make tactical decisions in a more efficient manner, ensure the mission is within the team capabilities and limitations, and lessen vicarious liability. All team leaders should understand that tactical planning is the most tedious but the most important aspect of the operation. Tactical planning is not just a leadership task, it requires subordinate participation to be done to the best of the teams’ ability.
In William McRaven’s excellent book, “Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare Theory and Practice” (Presidio Press, 1996), the author defines the six principles of special operations. They are: simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed and purpose. To achieve “relative superiority” (defined by McRaven as when the attacking force gains a decisive edge), the six principles must be applied in the planning, preparation, and execution of an operation.
Simplicity can be achieved by limiting the number of objectives, gaining good intelligence, and using innovation. Security in terms of op sec (operational security) must be maintained throughout the planning process. Repetition refers to rehearsals prior to the mission. Rehearsals improve performance and outline flaws in the plan, which can then be modified.
Surprise can be achieved, according to the author, by deception, timing, and taking advantage of the enemy’s vulnerabilities. Although speed is a relative term, it implies to get to the target as fast as possible. Many times teams confuse speed with fast movement and run through an operation. The problem here is you could enter an area too quickly to respond to any threat therein. Smoothness is the operative term we want to relate.
Purpose as defined by McRaven is, “understanding and then executing the prime objective of the mission regardless of emerging obstacles or opportunities.” The mission statement must define the purpose. It is entirely possible that, based on the threat assessment made during the planning process, the operation is deemed too risky and the mission scrubbed.
Plan and Prepare
Using a methodical planning process; getting eyes on target to understand what you’re up against; involving the entire team in the planning process; and rehearsing the plan; all create a positive “can-do” attitude in your team. The team believes it can succeed because of this attitude and the confidence that come from proper preparation. It may be true that seldom does a plan survive first contact, but by “cowboying” an operation, team commanders and team leaders increase the odds of failure and the possibility of a tragic outcome. So avoid trashing your team with a cowboy attitude; professionally prepare, plan and practice your operations.
Kevin R. Davis is a full-time officer with 24 year’s experience. Assigned to the Akron, OH Police Training Bureau, he is a former team leader and lead instructor for his agency’s SWAT team. Visit his Web site at www.advancedtacticalconcepts.com. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Officer Mitch Hamidi (ret.) for his help with this article.