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2 strategies to prevent tactical errors in SWAT operations

Without a SOP for evaluating how a tactical team is used, the liability factor soars when a critical error occurs


Phoenix SWAT team members prepare to move in on a house during a police standoff with an armed man in Phoenix on Friday, July 7, 2006. The man was wanted on a probation violation warrant.

AP Photo/Steve Helber

There is no profession on earth that is capable of delivering perfection — absolutely zero mistakes — in what they do. The trouble is, for some professionals — heart surgeons, airline pilots, and SWAT officers — a single, small mistake can have very costly consequences. Consider the following scenarios in which a SWAT operation went wrong and then we will examine a simple, yet effective, idea to help reduce tactical errors.

Imagine you and your family are sitting in the comfort of your home watching television on a quiet night during the week of Christmas. An unexpected knock comes from your front door and before you can get up to answer the door, it comes crashing open and men dressed in blue jeans and tactical gear are now in your home.

You are in shock as you watch your wife and kids sit in fear on the couch as a police unit begins searching your home. You’re informed that the police searching the home are from a narcotics unit executing a search warrant.

This scenario sounds text book. However, this example is far from text book. Somehow the narcotics officers chose the wrong residence and executed the search warrant on the home of an innocent family.

The problem with this operation is that an officer provided the wrong address that day and the SWAT team just opened the city’s checkbook to this innocent family.

The father of this residence was a military veteran and could have forgiven the SWAT team’s critical error but not one person apologized for the mistake. As a matter of fact, the parting words from one of the tactical team members were “Merry Christmas.” That didn’t sit well and the rest is history. A tactical commander loses his job and the city has a huge pay-out.

In another incident, a tactical team is about to execute a search warrant on a known drug offender’s residence. The point man knocks on the front door and within seconds a single blow from the breacher’s ram and the front door of the target location swings open. The next officer tosses a NFDD (flash bang) into the living room and the device delivers a split second of diversion. The homeowner was just about to open the door but when he looked through the peep hole he didn’t see anybody on his porch so he grabs a baseball bat kept behind that door. At that moment the tactical team takes him down to the ground and secures him as the team clears the objective.

Another text book tactical entry, right? Not so fast — the NFDD landed on the living room floor where a five-year-old boy was playing with his toddler brother. Their mother sat in horror and shock as she witnessed her children sustain injuries from the NFDD. The SWAT team was serving a search warrant for two ounces of marijuana with no other mitigating factors such as an armed or dangerous suspect, etc. There are some obvious mistakes made on this search warrant, but a SWAT commander must question and justify the use of his tactical team for narcotic search warrants.

SOPs and the Threat Matrix
What both of the aforementioned tactical operations were missing was a standard operating procedure (SOP) from their respective agency. A standard operating procedure should be developed for all operating tactical teams. Without one, the liability factor soars when a critical error like picking the wrong address to serve a warrant occurs.

Mistakes happen — human error is unavoidable. However, a good SOP will mitigate the chances of a mistake occurring. When developing my agencies SOPs I already had a great deal of tactical experience and was aware of the resources available to me.

The National Tactical Officers Association is the best place to start. You can obtain sample SOPs from the organization and request samples from other NTOA member agencies. This provides you a valuable platform when you sit down with the city attorney to develop a solid SOP. Secondly, obtain at least all of your border police agency’s SOPs to further aid in the development of your policy.

A sound SOP on the use of the tactical team will include a threat matrix that is broken down into the type of incident such as hostage situation, barricaded gunman, suicidal subject and warrant service to name a few.

Then, the threat matrix — which can be six or more pages — goes into great detail about the crime, the suspect, the location, etc. These different topics then have subcategories with even more detail questions about the crime, suspect(s) information and location intelligence.

As the narcotics officer or supervisor completes the threat matrix there is a running numerical score with a base line number at the end. This number system provides an idea if a SWAT team should be utilized in the warrant service. Then the narcotics officer files the matrix as a part of the case and confers with the tactical commander on whether it meets the threshold for the use of the tactical team. This matrix then relieves the narcotics commander or the detective of making the decision on whether a SWAT team should be utilized. With a good matrix there will be automatic activations of the tactical team such as if the subject is known to be armed or the suspect has an extensive criminal history, etc.

Redundancies to Mitigate Mistakes
The SOPs I developed for our agency (and others) had some redundancies to further mitigate mistakes. One example is the SOP will have various locations of the address of the target location. Several questions about an in-house check of the address, a LEIN check of the address and a SOS check of the residence are in the SOP to provide greater detail of the target location, recognize potential threats that aren’t known and again repetitive address verification. The document also includes a pre-surveillance check of the residence naming the officers confirming the address and any new intelligence.

A sound SOP will also address and authorize — or not authorize — the use of NFDDs in a target location. For example, if there are kids known to reside in the house, NFDDs should never be used, excluding extreme situations such as a hostage rescue. The SOP will also provide guidance on how the NFDDs and how many are justified in the warrant service.

I recently reviewed a suicidal subject situation where the involved tactical team was using the NFDDs as a weapon throwing numerous flash bangs at a conscious subject how wasn’t following the team’s commands. These NFDDs did substantial damage to the subject’s body and of course it was caught on video by a bystander. The detailed SOP provides proper guidance to the tactical planner who can be overwhelmed with information. The SOP breaks down every little aspect that is easily missed by human error.

I suggest that all police agencies implement a general order in their department policies that a threat matrix be completed for all search warrants within the agency to include the detective bureaus and not just the narcotics officers. The officer in charge can complete the threat matrix and submit it with his search or arrest warrant request. Again, this process relieves the non-tactical supervisors such as a detective sergeant or a narcotics sergeant from guessing when SWAT should be utilized in any warrant service.

The detailed SOP then provides a blanket of coverage for the department and minimizes mistakes made at the scene. We all know that mistakes can be made regardless of what extent we go to but the goal is to minimize these simple mistakes that turn into costly lawsuits. When a mistake occurs I suggest the supervisor on scene handles the situation with professional humility while rectifying the error.

Lastly, I am a strong advocate that any police officer conducting a tactical entry such as an arrest warrant or search warrant be in some type of a recognizable uniform. No SWAT team should deploy to an operation without wearing his or her tactical uniform (excluding an active shooter situation)

Furthermore, any narcotics unit conducting their own tactical entry should also be in a uniform. There are many accounts of narcotics officers being shot, having been misidentified by the suspect due to the street clothes they wore at the time of the entry.

Glenn French, a retired Sergeant with the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, has 24 years police experience and served as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team, and supervisor of the Sterling Heights Police Department Training Bureau. He has 16 years SWAT experience and also served as a Sniper Team Leader, REACT Team Leader, and Explosive Breacher.

Contact Glenn French.