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Time and tempo considerations for tactical team leaders

Let the mission dictate the need for speed


Tactical emergencies can generate a lot of pressure to act, but a good tactical leader must be able to resist this pressure and slow things down to guarantee the best chance of mission success.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

There are many facets to tactical team leadership, but one of the most important ways a leader can influence a tactical operation is to control the timing and tempo of the deployment.

Dan Murphy and David Pearson are lieutenants with the Fort Collins (CO) Police Services, and both serve as instructors for the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA). At the 2018 NTOA Tactical Conference, these seasoned SWAT leaders addressed many important issues about operational timing and tempo, including the following:

Slow it down!

Tactical emergencies can generate a lot of pressure to act. The public, the media, civic leaders and even police leaders can contribute to an atmosphere where rushing is encouraged, even when the situation doesn’t warrant it. A good tactical leader must be able to resist this pressure and slow things down – when appropriate – to guarantee the best chance of mission success.

Have a plan

It’s important for tactical team leaders to develop and communicate a plan so that the team’s efforts are coordinated. The quality and detail of the plan will vary depending on the stability of the situation. A volatile, fast-moving callout may not allow enough time to brief anything more than a hasty plan before the team is committed, whereas a stable situation may allow time for a more deliberate plan to be devised and communicated. A good tactical commander can read the situation and take advantage of the time available to plan the team’s deployment, and plan responses to foreseeable contingencies. Sometimes there will be a lot of time to do this, other times very little, but a plan is always an important element of mission success.

Recognize opportunity

Sometimes a suspect will create a situation where his vulnerability is increased at the same time the risk to innocents decreases. These moments are brief windows of opportunity that may allow a tactical team to act decisively and end the situation quickly. For example, a hostage taker may lower his weapon and move away from the hostage, or a barricaded subject may leave cover and step onto the porch. These opportunities to end the emergency are usually fleeting, and it’s important for a tactical leader to quickly recognize them and direct the appropriate action before conditions change. This ability is dependent on awareness, preparation, good judgment, decisiveness and the team’s ability to quickly execute a plan with precision.

Murphy and Pearson both caution that the most difficult time to act on opportunity is when it occurs early in a callout, because tactical leaders may hesitate to take decisive action (such as using lethal or less-lethal force) until negotiations or other “soft” approaches have been tried and exhausted. However, early intervention from a tactical team during a moment of opportunity can be justified by the Safety Priorities, and a good tactical team leader must be prepared to recognize the opportunity, act on it, and justify the action in accordance with law, policy and ethics.

It’s important to recognize that a team’s ability to capitalize on opportunity is directly tied to training and preparation. If a team has discussed and practiced the best response to likely tactical situations in training, it will decrease the time necessary to orient to the problem, decide on the proper course of action and act to address it. Rigorous training enhances a team’s flexibility and responsiveness in the face of a fast-breaking scenario, and it’s a leader’s job to create these opportunities before the call.

Good and bad time

A good tactical leader must be able to recognize when he’s in “good time” and “bad time.” Good time occurs when a stable situation favors the police and allows them to improve their position without increasing the jeopardy to innocents. Bad time occurs when a delay favors the suspect, allowing him to improve his position (i.e., reinforce his barricade) while the risk to innocents increases. Good tactical leaders will recognize when they are in bad time, and take the necessary actions to either end the threat, or create the conditions to return to good time.

Speed doesn’t guarantee surprise

There was a time in SWAT when most teams assumed that speed would guarantee the element of surprise, but moving fast no longer guarantees you’ll catch the suspects off guard. The increased use of surveillance cameras, night vision, radio scanners, reinforced barriers, advance scouts, drones and rapid communications (via cell phone and social media) by suspects have made it increasingly difficult for law enforcement to hide their movements, and Murphy warns that teams can no longer rely on surprise to guarantee mission success. If a team achieves surprise, that’s a tactical advantage, but it cannot be assumed as part of an operational plan and the chosen tactics have to work without it.

Speed doesn’t guarantee safety

“Speed, surprise and violence of action” may have ruled the day in the early history of SWAT, but Murphy and Pearson point out that speed is more likely to increase risk than to decrease it in most situations. “You should never move faster than you can think and shoot accurately,” Murphy advised, because it leads to dangers like bypassing armed suspects, increasing exposure to enemy fire, diminished accuracy and mistaken identity shootings. Instead of pushing hard and fast as a default setting, Murphy and Pearson advocate enhanced techniques like threshold evaluation and limited penetration entries to allow officers the time necessary to collect and process information, make good decisions and manage risk appropriately.

The situation dictates the required speed

That’s not to say that speed is unimportant. Instead, Murphy and Pearson encourage tactical leaders to let the mission dictate the need for speed. Some tactical scenarios – such as an active shooter incident where gunfire is still being heard, or a hostage situation where there is an imminent threat to the safety of the hostages – require police to rapidly move to contact. However, other scenarios – such as a barricaded suspect, or an active shooter situation where the killing has stopped – dictate a more deliberate, measured approach. A good tactical leader can read the situation and determine whether the circumstances require police to move fast or slow down, and has to be flexible enough to change the tempo and control the team’s pace as required.

Additional training

Police are used to asserting control, but when it comes to tactical emergencies, the suspect is the one who exerts the most control over the clock. A good tactical leader must be able to read the situation quickly and respond appropriately with the time he has – both of which require training and preparation.

To take advantage of the advanced training offered by Murphy, Pearson and the rest of the NTOA cadre, including the week-long SWAT Team Leader Development Course, consult the NTOA website. While you’re there, check out the details for the 2019 NTOA Tactical Conference, which will be held in Orlando, Florida, August 18-23, 2019.

Train hard, and be safe out there!

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.

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