Developing a Small-Town SWAT Team

The need for SWAT exists in all jurisdictions.

Developing a Small-Town SWAT Team
By: William Harry Challans

Nestled under the Red Rocks Amphitheater in the foothills outside Denver is the little town of Morrison. With only about 450 residents, ‘back in the day’ the town used to operate with only a town marshal and a part-time mayor. However, crowds of thousands attending Red Rocks concerts and racing events have compounded traffic congestion, fueled by several major highways such as C470, Highway 285, and three other state roads. 

This significant growth in the metro area forced the need for an upgrade within the Police Department. After taking over the reigns in the summer of 2010, Chief Rudy Sandoval began an ongoing hiring program, which increased the force to 30 full-time, part-time, and reserve officers, allowing for a 24/7 coverage throughout the year.

Among the more controversial upgrades was the recent creation and implementation of a SWAT Team. Chief Sandoval’s response was simple. “We want to be prepared, just in case. Recent history has shown us that much of the mass violence occurs suddenly in small towns or isolated communities, and I want our officers to be able to handle any crisis that might conceivably occur.”   

Built From Scratch

The idea came to the now Patrol Commander, Jon Manna after being part of organized panic when an arrest team needed to be put together, or a crisis needed to be handled.  “We either saw who was around, or started calling officers in to assist.” This method of assembling a team of officers to handle problems was not only time consuming, it was unsafe due to the lack of experience and training together as a team. 

Priorities were set, including leadership, personnel selection, equipment, and training.  Leadership was already set during the Chief’s approval on team initiation, placing Commander Manna in charge of the SWAT team as team leader. 

From a management and administrator perspective, the personnel selection seems to be the most sensitive of the priorities. After all, it’s about who gets to play, and who doesn’t get to play. Oddly enough, on this small department, general interest from the rank and file is not there, until you look a little closer. For most officers, SWAT duty would essentially be a second job. 

Many officers already either work off-duty or already have second jobs elsewhere around the Denver area. Therefore, many officers have more work than they can handle, and the thought of adding SWAT duties, training, and being on-call 24/7 can cause heads to shake back and forth. 

Team Member Selection

Officers who have tactical experience which they can bring to the rest of the team are the most attractive candidates, but are not always the best fit. Instructors can train tactics to officers who do not have experience, but have great difficulty retraining poor attitudes and/or personality differences. If officers are interested in committing their time (and money) to be a team member, they are invited to training sessions. 

They are constantly evaluated on their retention and application of tactics, firearms proficiency, and teamwork. Team leaders look at their commitment to the department, attitude, and their performance in a non-SWAT capacity. Team leaders also observe how officers are accepted (or not accepted) by the team. 

An important goal is for officers to be at the top of their game in their patrol duties. Their position on the team provides no excuse for lax patrol performance. Other goals for the team include cross-training in job functions within the team, proficiency in the use of the tools available to them, and to be a resource of information available to all officers. 

Morrison Police SWAT has a seven-man team with two auxiliary officers serving as assistant trainers. The team offers occasional department-wide training open to all officers, and further selection is based on attendance, desire, interest, skill sets, learning abilities, and a good team fit.      

SWAT Equipment

Equipment is always an issue, no matter what agency or amount of available funds.  Either lack of capital or type, quality, and make of gear seem to be the usual stumbling blocks. With individual donations, government surplus and an increased operating budget, the team has slowly collected a growing inventory. All members now have Threat Level IV outer tactical body armor, an emergency medical kit, and Kevlar® military helmets. 

Some team members have been issued the HK MP5 9mm subgun, the remaining have their own personal Colt AR-15 or variants, depending on the qualified long-gun course completed. A 37mm less-lethal launcher and a Remington Model 870 shotgun with an orange stock for bean bag projectiles were obtained. A lightweight ballistic shield was bought.

Duty side arms are personally owned, department-approved semi-autos in 9mm, 40 S&W or 45 ACP.  Department members must qualify with their duty handgun per POST standards once per year. In addition, MPD SWAT practices at least once every three months, both handgun and long gun.

After some processing with the U.S. government’s Defense Logistics Agency, they acquired 5.56 NATO M16s and 7.62 NATO M14s. Numerous other items were procured including Army flight suits, cold weather gear, riot gear and eye protection. 

This program from DLA, previously known as DRMA (Defense Reutilization and Marketing service) provides law enforcement with used or overstock military equipment at little or no cost. This program is still in service, but renamed the DLA Disposition Services.

SWAT Vehicles

The pride and joy now of the unit is a pair of new vehicles. First is a military Humvee, a surplus war veteran with few miles and in great condition, and at no cost from the DLA Disposition Services program. In order to lower costs, some team members took it upon themselves to upgrade the vehicle, remodeling the doors, painting it a flat black, applying decals, then welding steel running boards and rooftop hand rails, allowing the team to mount and deploy from the outside of the Humvee. It is outfitted with an MDT computer, first aid kit, weapons rack, and full emergency equipment. 

The other vehicle is a Ford Expedition SUV, one of three used vehicles recently purchased from the Sheriff’s Department. It is repainted to a gloss black with subdued decals, full emergency equipment, an MDT computer, first aid kit, full investigations kit, long gun racks, and an ATF Class 3 storage locker for flash/bangs and less lethal munitions. The SUV is reserved exclusively for SWAT members on-duty patrol usage, and the Humvee is for SWAT training and deployment only.   

Train Hard, Fight Hard

Training is intense. As in any activity, one can only improve by learning and practicing skills to attain a special ability. In order to be proficient, one must practice often, especially when learning new or seldom used techniques. Add to this mixture the dynamics of a new group unfamiliar with each other in tense and heated situations, and you have a recipe for disaster. Therefore, and rightly so, this new team trains once a week, usually in four-hour blocks.

Training the team is a multi-stage process. Instructors, equipment, venues, and scheduling times have to be sought out and coordinated. As word spread during the year, several SWAT officers from around the metro area volunteered their services. Their combined tactical training and experience over the years provide the team the unique and challenging “feel” they were seeking. Both indoor and outdoor training has taken place at area schools, churches, bus depots, public utilities facilities, local business and mall annexes, and three private gun ranges.  

Denver Police SWAT occasionally hosts a Basic SWAT School, and the majority of the MPD team members attended this course. It is an intense one-week trial by fire, literally, with emphasis placed on shooting skills and weapons drills. Tactical schools considered for this year were not scarce, and those courses attended by several MPD SWAT officers included the Rocky Mountain hostage negotiator’s course, a CNT school, and the Tactical Deployment Symposium in Denver.

First Mission

In their first operational assignment, MPD SWAT officers participated in a joint task-force operation assisting the US Marshals Service in a round-up of fugitives in the metro area region. The team has volunteered and again will assist the US Marshals in upcoming joint task-force operations.   

In their first callout, their training prevented a potential tragedy by taking the extra precautions. A search warrant had been obtained for a resort in town, which was an alleged hub for drug dealing among the concert crowds. Intel from informants was that the subject had a previous criminal history for drugs, and was possibly armed with a .50 caliber handgun. No one knew the suspect had an arsenal of high-powered assault weapons.

Officers had blueprints and diagrams of this particular venue, which was a multi-building resort complex and open for business, with innocent guests, tourists and others who would be present on scene. The main guest house and office were suspected to have the “marijuana grows” and became the primary target, assigned to MPD SWAT team to secure. Once the main house was safe, MPD SWAT would clear each of the surrounding cottages.

While clearing the bedrooms on the first level, the operators found a room containing an arsenal of a dozen high-powered rifles and shotguns mounted on three walls, three handguns in holsters, body armor, edged weapons, and a 50 BMG caliber sniper rifle.

The raid was safely completed. No shots fired and no injuries to any officers, suspects or civilians. A small amount of meth, cocaine and drug paraphernalia was seized and the suspect arrested. The entire arsenal of weapons and ammo were seized and a hold placed on them for any possible ATF violations. One week later, MPD officers seized a large shipment of packaged marijuana being delivered to this location.

Multi-Jurisdictional Exercises

The SWAT team continues to participate in numerous multi-jurisdictional exercises. In fact, about a third of the training involves other jurisdictions. That allows the team members to learn from others and to build partnerships along the way.

There are many benefits and advantages realized by forming and participating in multi-jurisdictional teams. Budgetary constraints make it difficult, if not impossible to equip and maintain specialized units. In the multi-jurisdictional model, individual departments can spread costs, thus reducing some of the financial burden. The model also allows for the higher number of officers needed for larger scale responses.

Difficulties with multi-jurisdiction operation can include differences in policies among participating departments, disparate training, and equipment budgets. There is the potential for control issues among participants. If not addressed in a mutually acceptable manner, this can result in resentment and animosity among the participating agencies and/or personnel.

In the end, the ability to accomplish the mission simply comes down to resources.  Resources determine the limitations of our team. Multi-jurisdictional cooperation is often an answer to resource challenges.

Finally, a lesson that new teams learn, and established teams learn again, is to remain flexible. A plan is good, but the ability to adapt to unforeseen situations, conditions and obstacles is vital.

William Harry Challans is a 30-year retired veteran of the Denver Police Department. He has attended over 50 police and tactical schools with experience in Patrol, SWAT, Bomb Squad, Investigations and Airport Ops. He can be reached at

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2013

Rating : 3.3



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