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The Case for SWAT Teams

Few LEOs have in their ranks officers with the experience and knowledge necessary to properly train a SWAT team, which includes not only the function of the entire team, but the specialized individual skills necessary for each operator. This means that outside instructors must either be brought in, often, to instruct the team, or that the entire team must be sent to facilities where instruction can be obtained. In either case, this is a very expensive proposition -- again, not only for the high dollar costs involved, but the time that officers will be away from their duties. There are some federal agencies who offer such training on-site at low or no cost, but even without a large cash outlay, substantial other costs are involved, and such trainers cannot return over and over again as often as necessary to ensure proper continuing proficiency.

One of the largest expenses is ammunition. A thousand rounds of .223 rifle ammunition commonly costs, even with police discount pricing, $300 or more, and handgun ammunition is only slightly less expensive. Match quality rifle ammunition for marksmen is amazingly expensive. The problem is that a properly trained and maintained SWAT team can -- and should -- go through far more ammunition than the rest of the LEO combined. A 100 man LEO might shoot 5,000 rounds a year in qualifying its officers. A 20 man SWAT team can easily shoot that much in a single day of training if for no other reason than that their minimum qualification standards must be much higher and more exacting than those required of a regular police force.

Why is all of this necessary? Because SWAT teams, if properly chosen and trained, are expected to be smarter, faster, stronger, and much more capable of exercising rapid and correct judgment under pressure than the average officer. They don’t exist to routinely produce overwhelming volumes of fire. They do not expect -- or hope -- to shoot someone whenever they are called out. In fact, real professionals consider having to shoot a failure. They know that sometimes they will have no choice. When they do have to use deadly force, they are expected to use it only when absolutely necessary, and with cool precision, absolute accuracy, and immediate effect. In a situation where an average officer might have no option but to shoot, a SWAT operator is expected to be able to take the extra fractions of a second necessary to consider other options before shooting. They are expected, through experience, planning, and superior execution, to turn every situation to their tactical advantage to absolutely minimize the danger to the public in any situation. Again, this is not always possible, but a properly trained SWAT team will experience far fewer such situations than an under-trained team, or a patrol force. The best and most dangerous -- to the bad guys -- SWAT weapon is always the flexible brains of the operators.

And therein is another significant problem. SWAT teams are prestige builders for a LEO, not only for the administrators, but for officers. In police work, the only way to significantly increase one’s income and prestige is to gain rank, to more and more move away from actual police work into supervision and administration.

There are several alternate routes to prestige and somewhat greater pay, such as becoming a detective, but SWAT assignment is an enormous and shiny prestige badge -- even if there is no additional stipend, which is the case in many agencies. Well-meaning administrators, looking for ways to build and maintain morale, might consider establishing a SWAT team, often without truly considering the real costs. And once a team is established, properly trained or not, there is enormous institutional and political pressure to keep it and use it. Politicians who are funding a team may demand to know why it’s not being used more often without really understanding why such a team exists and under what circumstances it should be used.

One way to better manage costs is to establish multi-LEO teams, taking officers from each LEO. In the Guerena shooting, the team was apparently comprised of officers from four separate LEOs. This can reduce the overall costs to each agency, but usually causes many other problems. Who will command the team? Who will have the most prestigious assignments? Who will get the best equipment? How will the schedules of multiple LEOs be reconciled for training? Whose use of force policies and procedures will prevail? How will costs be split when lawsuits are filed? How will officers be chosen for the team? Who is responsible for discipline? These and many more issues can prevent a team from functioning properly and can even tear it apart.