(Reprinted from 2018 Frontline Debriefs – SWAT Magazine)
(Note: The majority of our instructors are full time SWAT officers- most from LAPD SWAT. This past weekend, one of our students asked me what functions SWAT performs and how it differs from patrol. Here is an article I wrote last year for SWAT magazine.)
Many years ago a great friend of mine, Ray Coffman of Albuquerque New Mexico, made the prescient comment that our reliance on SWAT would be omnipresent. In other words, that past evolutions, which normal field grade officers might have addressed in the past, would automatically be placed into the purview of SWAT. Ray was an instructor for the Department of Energy and a group of us from LAPD SWAT would instruct the 10 day hostage rescue course on the Sandia Military Base grounds in Albuquerque under his direction. The program was centered around the security of special nuclear materials.
Fast forward to 2018 and his prediction has come to fruition. Having worked on shooting cases as an expert deadly force witness in both Federal and Superior Courts, the case is being made more frequently that SWAT should have been employed on, “such and such” an incident. In some situations this is a cogent argument while in others – not so much.
There are not many fully dedicated SWAT teams in the nation. Most SWAT teams are a conglomerate of various jurisdictions teamed together to comprise a team for any given area. LAPD SWAT as an example, is a full time team comprised of 60 operators, 6 Sergeant II’s and 2 Lieutenant’s. Many of the teams I have instructed throughout the years average between 15 – 20 operators. This goes directly to available manpower at any given moment. There is also the issue of training. Many teams can only afford to train perhaps 2 days in any specific month as a cohesive unit. Full time teams, as an example, are virtually in a constant training mode if not outright deployment.
Back in the day if there was, for example, a domestic dispute and we were refused entry and felt it was imperative that we gain entry we did just that…we entered. In today’s present atmosphere this might result in a SWAT call out. Bundle two of these together at the same time and you’re up against it in terms of manpower and resources. While 20/20 hindsight is latitude not often afforded in police work, those who criticize the failure to deploy SWAT effectively employ it. As any situation can turn south in a New York minute not all of them do. In other words, field grade officers can often successfully resolve a problem absent the introduction of SWAT. Naturally if things turn very south, the criticism of the failure to deploy SWAT becomes a fairly cogent argument. There is the conundrum. Do we deploy or not?
Virtually all teams I am aware of have similar criteria for deployment and such criteria must be met and subsequently relayed up the chain of command (which takes time) and physical response to an incident also requires time as well. In Los Angeles average response times might well range between 40 – 60 minutes if things are running smoothly.
So here’s the hypothetical. A domestic dispute erupts – calls are made and patrol officers respond. They are refused entry to a structure yet can clearly hear screams, yells and moans emanating from within. The sex, age and status of the individual(s) responsible for the screams, is undeterminable. Do officer’s wait and call for SWAT and allow whatever is transpiring to transpire or do they force entry? If they force entry which then results in a shooting – did this forced entry precipitate the shooting itself? Anyone with real field experience is well aware that seconds can literally spell the difference as regards the outcome of critical incidents. So…do you force entry or deploy SWAT?
I have a case very similar to this very hypothetical. Our reliance on SWAT might be overused when field grade officers are more than capable of producing a successful resolution. This of course is entirely predicated on those field grade officers employing reasonable tactics and if necessary applications of force in a reasonable manner which can be defended. This then, is the “fly in the ointment” so to speak. Might SWAT have better resources and training than initial officers on scene? Might SWAT possess upgraded training and overall experience? Might the deployment of SWAT have prevented whatever force application occurred from occurring?
On the opposing side of the equation are equally compelling questions. Did the activation of SWAT and the time requisite for deployment allow the victim to expire? Might timely entry, although not altogether perfect, have saved the victim(s)? Preservation of life is one of law enforcements mainstays yet any defense of tactics/force application will necessitate a vigorous defense indeed!
The infamous LAPD, Gary Murakami shooting occurred 9/9/1968. Shot and killed by a mentally ill suspect, my understanding is that some officers went home, retrieved rifles and returned to the scene to resolve the situation. There was no firmly established SWAT team at the time. Fast forward to current times and the array of devices and techniques and tactics which “D” Platoon has at its disposal – is nothing short of eye watering.
Law enforcement cannot always rely on a SWAT team to resolve each and every potentially critical incident. Sometimes it will be the initial officers on scene who will have to make and subsequently implement whatever steps are necessary in order to preserve life. Field grade officers of today have capabilities far beyond those we possessed in 1976. That being said, it is experience and common sense which will dictate in what manner and in which method, any options are exercised.
When we solely rely on SWAT to resolve any and all conflicts, we stand to box ourselves into a corner. Critics might then require SWAT deployment on each and every call which is simply an untenable framework. Field grade officers and those supervising them, must be acutely aware of where the invisible boundary lies between a reliance on SWAT versus the reliance on solid, well-thought out implemented tactics of the patrol officer.