It is in the use of such teams that the most daunting problems become obvious. SWAT teams are now routinely used to serve arrest and search warrants that would otherwise be executed by a few detectives and patrol officers. Many LEOs see such situations as training opportunities, and justify the use of SWAT teams under the “we have them, so we might as well use them’’ rationale. In fact, if lives are at risk, it is certainly not training.
SWAT teams are properly employed in hostage situations, and to serve high-risk, no-knock warrants, as are sometimes necessary in high-level drug cases. Even then, careful planning and smart surveillance and execution can minimize risk. SWAT teams are also properly employed in such situations as terrorist attacks (whether by Islamists or disaffected Americans shooting up “soft targets” like schools). However, they are of far less utility in such situations than one might imagine. Many of the functions for which SWAT teams are commonly used can be done by other officers with upgraded training and equipment.
What’s the solution? Teams should be established only where there is a real and demonstrable need based on the criteria I’ve suggested. And when they are established, positions on the teams must be assigned on the basis of experience and ability, irrespective of day-to-day rank. One of the most common problems in the formation of SWAT teams is that officers with rank tend to be assigned leadership positions on the team while lower ranking officers are used only for lower-ranking SWAT duties. It is not uncommon, for instance, to find a former Army Special Forces troop, an expert in small unit tactics, manning the most remote post on a SWAT perimeter or making coffee and sandwich runs for an incident command post, while higher-ranking officers with no experience whatever run the show.
Another problem is that such higher-ranking officers often don’t know what they don’t know. Instead of assigning the smartest, most fit, self-motivated, detail-oriented, and capable officers to the team, they assign instead the most overtly aggressive, those they want to reward through enhanced prestige, or those who will not in any way challenge their authority or make them look bad by comparison. Few higher-ranking officers are secure enough, personally or professionally, to voluntarily place themselves under the command of a lower ranking, perhaps younger, officer on a SWAT team, which is, tragically, all too often just what they should do.
Most LEOs simply don’t have the volume of kinds of situations necessary to truly justify a SWAT team. The best alternative is enhanced equipment and training for regular officers. This will have the effect of significantly increasing the overall ability and effectiveness of the entire force, and will also tend to enhance the recruitment and retention of experienced and capable officers. By issuing each officer his own vehicle, a carbine (usually an AR-15 variant, which may simply be authorized for individual purchase), and his own portable radio and tactical headset, and by authorizing the individual purchase of related tactical gear, equipment issues can be addressed at greatly reduced cost. By integrating more advanced training into the usual training cycle, a LEO can produce greater officer interest and buy-in, and greatly enhanced ability at much less cost than trying to outfit and maintain a separate team. Buying and making available expensive body armor, helmets, gas guns, and stun grenades will also reduce costs. Local agencies will be able to handle all but the most severe and unusual situations — and when help is required, outside federal and state agencies can be called in.
The point of having a SWAT team, or of upgrading training and equipment for a regular patrol force, is not to give them more and more dangerous toys to use indiscriminately, but to give them necessary and enhanced capabilities which, because of their enhanced training and ability, they will be far less likely to improperly use when they are forced to use them at all.
But what about school shootings and similar situations? The reality is that unless a school or mall shooting turns into a Beslan-like assault that stretches over several days, by the time a SWAT team can be called out, assemble, plan, and assault, the situation will almost always have been long over. In virtually every school shooting incident in American history, the police have had little or no direct effect in lessening the damage or in stopping the shooter(s). Such shooters routinely take their own lives after shooting innocents, or are stopped by armed citizens on the scene. The latter is, of course, routinely downplayed or ignored by the Legacy Media.
This is where an upgraded patrol force can be particularly effective. Armed with more effective, longer-range weapons, and communications gear with which they are intimately familiar — and, of course, having been trained to deal with exactly this kind of situation — they can arrive on the scene, often within minutes, and immediately seek and stop a shooter. (In fact, many LEOs are now changing their response models to do just that, instead of standing around outside a school waiting for commanders and SWAT while a shooter is free to kill at will inside.)
In sum, SWAT teams do have their uses. They should not be established — or decommissioned — without good and sufficient cause. But they must not be used for routine law enforcement missions, missions where their presence, particularly if they are not properly trained and equipped, will increase rather than decrease the likelihood of injury or death. A poorly trained, led, and equipped team is more dangerous than no team at all. Upgrading training and equipment for an entire police force will have a great many benefits for the public. However, there is no substitute for experience, common sense, cool thinking under pressure, and effective supervision and leadership in any facet of police work. If he could, Jose Guerena would certainly agree.