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Ten Ways To Trash a SWAT Team, Part III

SWAT teams succeed when the right people are selected, trained by and led by high but attainable standards. There should be set entrance standards to get on SWAT and competency tested performance standards to stay on. This should not be a “job for life” assignment that is guaranteed regardless of low levels of performance. Team leaders and commanders must be held to the same standards or higher.

The “Special” in Special Weapons And Tactics refers more to personnel than to equipment. Not everyone can make the grade and maintain that set performance standards. By setting, documenting and enforcing standards, you maintain team quality and espirit de corps.

Furthermore, we must guard against letting the team turn into someone’s private club where assignment is based more on who you know and staying on is based on who you please. We find that more and more in law enforcement, the SWAT mission is a serious and needed one that must be capable of standing up to a post-event legal examination.

Selection for new operators and ongoing tested performance standards should be clearly delineated to eliminate allegations of improper assignment and to help lessen liability. Imagine in court what the result would be if we found that an operator was assigned not because of his abilities but rather because he was a friend of the commanders or—even worse—golfed or drank with him. The notion that these things won’t be found out by other members of the team or come out in court are naïve in the extreme.

Darrell Ross, Ph.D., outlined department and supervisory liability in his excellent book, “Civil Liability in Criminal Justice” (Anderson Publishing; 2003). The applicable areas of potential liability include, 1) deliberate indifference, 2) negligent assignment, 3) negligent entrustment, 4) failure to direct, 5) failure to supervise, 6) negligent failure to discipline or negligent retention and 7) failure to train.

According to research conducted by Ross, almost all civil actions against agencies allege failure to train and supervise. Ross stated, “Deliberate indifference may be demonstrated by either actual intent or reckless disregard. An administrator acts recklessly by ‘disregarding’ a substantial risk of danger that is either known to the administrator or that would be apparent to a reasonable person in the administrator’s position.”

In the advent of a shooting, for instance, even if the team did everything right, if plaintiff’s counsel can find “chinks in the armor” vis-à-vis negligent assignment, failure to train or supervise, this can expose the agency to legal risk. More important is the question, “What is the chance of an improperly selected, poorly trained, unsupervised SWAT officer doing things well or correctly?”

Although it is true that there is no protection against frivolous lawsuits, we can lessen our liability by conducting a risk analysis of the SWAT function and ensuring that we select, train and supervise properly.

Selection is critical to the SWAT function and is usually composed of physical testing, shooting, work history examination and oral board. Obviously, the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, so applicants’ work history must be closely examined. Do applicants show a serious work ethic? Do they go above and beyond simply responding to their radio calls? Can they get along with others? Do they abuse sick leave?

The traits that we are looking for are those people who have proved to be hard-working team players who self-initiate and yet have the ability to follow orders. Most selection processes start out with a physical fitness test. This test will eliminate officers who lack the “intestinal fortitude” to train for the process and serves as a “gut check.” These PT tests are followed by firearms tests to check on basic skills and composure under pressure.

A background investigation, as in speaking with the applicant’s co-workers and supervisors, gathers the aforementioned work history. Finally an oral board serves to gauge professionalism, composure, articulateness and gives board members (team leaders) the opportunity to assess the applicants if they don’t know them.

Once team members are selected for SWAT, annual testing of skills and abilities ensures continuing high team standards. As time on the team increases, standards of performance and attendance must be maintained across the board.

Team leaders are not immune to this examination and must be selected not for their supervisory status but rather for their competency. Making supervisors team leaders merely based on their rank does not promote excellence or protect from liability. An improperly selected, incompetent or inept team leader exposes an agency to just as much liability as an operator, if not more, because of the potential to make disastrous tactical decisions that could expose an entire team to danger.

We hope that gone are the days when personnel were placed on the team and kept on the team because of nepotism or political favoritism. Lack of standards has trashed many a team and has exposed agencies to civil risk. Perfection is a goal that may never be reached, but excellence can and must be sought with diligence.

By setting high but legitimate standards for your tactical team, you set the bar high enough that people will have to struggle to reach and maintain it but will feel a true sense of accomplishment and pride in the process. In this way you, get and keep the right kind of people who proudly wear their SWAT status not as a sign of elitism but rather as a continual sign of excellence and high performance.

Kevin R. Davis is a full-time officer assigned to his agency’s training bureau. A former SWAT team leader and lead instructor for his agency’s tactical team, he has 23 years of experience in law enforcement. Visit his Web site at He can be contacted at

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2006

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