Is a SWAT Team the Place to Get PC?

There are days when a cop looks around at the state of affairs in the Los Angeles Police Department and asks himself, “Does anyone have the decency to be embarrassed by this?” Those who toil in the lower ranks of the LAPD, those who go out on the streets and do the work the public expects cops to do, those who must bear the consequences of whatever misguided policies are thrust upon them by others far removed from the grit and tumult of real police work, very often have cause to look at some new edict handed down and wonder what on Earth their superiors might have been thinking when they dreamed it up.

The latest cause for befuddlement among the troops is the controversy surrounding the LAPD’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team (discussed previously here, on National Review Online). More precisely, the controversy concerns the manner in which candidates are selected for placement on the SWAT roster. Until very recently, those applying for such a position were run through a five-day series of drills that tested their physical fitness, weapons-handling abilities, judgment, adaptability, and leadership. This selection process had been in place for twenty years and had produced what arguably has been the finest such police unit in America.

If at this point the reader is asking himself why any changes to this process were required, he is unfamiliar with the political climate here in Los Angeles, where good intentions carry greater weight than the actual consequences of any given policy. Until now, you see, no female police officer has succeeded in making the SWAT team, a fact that LAPD Chief William Bratton cannot abide.

“I would like to see women in every part of the Los Angeles Police Department and fully expect that we will see women on the SWAT unit,” Bratton told reporters last week. “We have women fighting in our armed forces in Iraq, we have women in every other walk of life, and women will in fact have the opportunity in this department to serve in any capacity. I am committed to that.”

Fine. Having women on the SWAT team is surely an issue worthy of public debate, and in 2008 there are many who would consider an all-male police unit an anachronism. But debate of any kind on the subject is what Bratton has sought to avoid, and he has promised – in very colorful and cinematic terms – to punish anyone on the LAPD who expresses dissent from his approved way of thinking.

Back in August 2005, Bratton commissioned a panel of so-called experts to examine an incident in which a 19-month-old girl was killed by police gunfire. The girl was being used as a shield by her drug-crazed father, who fired at the police officers trying to rescue her. Though the commission, known as a Board of Inquiry, was established to some public fanfare, the report they completed was kept secret for more than a year until Robert C.J. Parry, a former Army National Guard infantry officer who served in Iraq, obtained a copy and wrote about it in the Los Angeles Times. The report was later obtained by Los Angeles radio station KFI, who posted it on their website.

It is now clear that the report was merely a pretext to justify the modified selection process that will presumably allow at least one of the two women now applying for the SWAT team to succeed. Bratton obviously hoped that none of this would come to light until a woman had been named to the team, at which time he would bask in the fawning attention of his friends in the media, none of whom would have delved too deeply into how this result came to pass. The unfortunate irony is that one of those women, a much-respected officer in the elite Metropolitan Division (of which SWAT is a part), would very likely have succeeded under the former selection process. She was injured while trying out two years ago but has since recovered. If she is appointed to the SWAT team under the present circumstances, she will bear the stigma of having done so under conditions that were less challenging than those her more tenured peers were subjected to.

If indeed the Board of Inquiry had been interested in a true comparison of LAPD’s SWAT team to those in other cities, they might have consulted with Dr. David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and author of the book Into the Kill Zone, a Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force. In 2000, Klinger published what remains the only National Institute of Justice-funded study of American SWAT teams. “By any objective measure,” Klinger told me, “the LAPD’s SWAT team is one of the most effective in the country.” Members of the Board were made aware of Klinger’s research, yet they made no effort to contact him or include his findings in their report.

Since Bratton’s plan was exposed, he has busied himself in denouncing anyone who dares to question the changes to the SWAT selection process, going so far as to threaten current team members with transfers if they are caught speaking out against them. Incredibly, he drew a comparison to the film “The Godfather” when discussing his plan for retribution against his critics. “You're all familiar with 'The Godfather' movie” he told reporters, “and throughout most of the movie the Corleones are getting banged around pretty good and then Michael makes a statement that all debts will be settled. And at the end of the movie, all debts are settled in a very bloody way . . . I'm more than willing to take the slings and arrows for a couple more weeks, but like Michael Corleone, I'll get my time.”

Well now.

A very interesting choice of words. LAPD officers are now expected, evidently, to subscribe to Bratton’s very own code of omerta or risk some very unpleasant consequences. Chief Bratton may wish otherwise, but unlike members of the Mafia, police officers enjoy all the rights accorded by the First Amendment, most especially when addressing matters of public policy. Speaking on behalf of my colleagues, I can promise that any attempt to abridge those rights will be most vigorously opposed.

But in the meantime, if I see Chief Bratton carrying a violin case, I’m going to run.

“Jack Dunphy” is the pseudonym of an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.