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How to remain a valued SWAT team member

By Dennis J. Justus
Milwaukee (WI) Police Department
Special Contributor to Police1

During the course of our law enforcement career we begin at some point to develop an interest in SWAT. For some this feeling is present the day we are sworn to our position. For others, the feeling begins to grow a bit slower but soon reaches that same level, that level that makes or steers our career toward the desire to some day be titled “the best of the best.”

With this desire soon comes the hard work and dedication needed to reach that goal. The work activity, the positive six or twelve month personnel evaluations and all the positive contributions made during the evaluation process raise our hopes that some day we will be selected for SWAT. Not because in some administrators view it was our turn like children taking turns playing on the swing at the playground. But because, and I think an old commercial puts it so clearly, “You did it the old fashioned way-you earned it!” Nation wide less than one percent (1%) of all law enforcement officers is selected for SWAT.

With the evaluation period finally over, the announcements are made and your name is called, you did it, you made it, you’re a “Tactical Officer” a “SWAT Cop”...or are you? Is the hard work over or has it just begun?

If one were to interview knowledgeable SWAT team leaders and administrators, many if not all would agree that it takes about five years to become a complete SWAT officer. Having this information in hand we once again dedicate our police career toward becoming that complete SWAT officer, a SWAT officer that other team members are happy to see arrive at a tactical operation or training day. Because they know that you have the desire to see to it that the team is successful and in the process placing their own interests to the rear.

The question then comes to the surface. How do we keep that edge, that same level of skill and dedication that got us to where we are? How do we remain a valued SWAT team member, an asset rather than a liability?

Over the years I have had the opportunity to talk to numerous tactical officers and SWAT team leaders from not only Wisconsin but also the Midwest. Many of the concerns discussed were not unique to any one department. The concern of keeping that desire or edge for their team that will keep them sharp and always able to do the job. As you may have already guessed that will to succeed and improve always begin with each one of us. I will try to break it down into four areas that make up that frequently used word or title T-E-A-M. In each category you may have items that may apply. These are just a few that came to mind.

T — TRAINING: The bread and butter of our work. How we train will result in how we perform. Training time is valuable and each year seems to be the big target item of administrators that always try to cut into that time with the theory “Do more with less”. How do you treat your training time? Do you look forward to training, or do you try to avoid it like your mother trying to give you some medicine. You know you need it, but only if there were some other way. Do you consider training as a way to improve not only your own skills, but also that of the team? Or are you simply going through the motions? Do we push ourselves to improve, or are we looking at our watches hoping it ends soon.

I have seen the way some officers carry themselves and also heard others make statements along the lines that they don’t need to train, because; “I’ve done it fine in the past and when the time comes I’ll do it fine in the future!” or “Training is for the new guy!” What is your attitude toward your units training program? Do you show up to train or are you there to be entertained for the day? Often times during the course of an ongoing training program veteran SWAT officers must take a step back in order for some newer team members to catch up to improve the team as a whole. Do we look at the big picture or just how it affects us? Finally, do we bad mouth training, complain and whine or do we offer ways to improve it. Everyone’s opinion and input should be heard. Because after all, we are all part of the team and all bring special talents and experiences to the table.

E — EFFORT: The effort we display not only at training but also at tactical operations is a window to how we view not only ourselves but also our position on the team. What kind of effort do we put into our work? Does a team member continually show up late for training? His or her tardiness waists everyone’s training time. Does someone you know repeatedly report for training missing some of their gear? Neglecting to check their call out bag the night before or to charge their flashlights. Do we put the same effort into a narcotics search warrant when we are positioned in the number one slot or the number eight slot? Is our position more important than the success of the team? Sure everyone wants to be number one through the door and we should always be striving to reach that spot. When we get to the point where outside containment is the best place for me, an internal check is in order to look at your commitment to SWAT.

Do we come to training with the attitude that; “I’m a Gamer!” It doesn’t matter how I perform in training, when it’s all on the line I know I’ll be able to do the job. Are they trying to convince themselves or us? Have you seen a team member pull from their call out bag their tactical jumpsuit or BDUs that still have salt stains on it from a past training session. Or does their tactical vest or load-bearing vest still have paintball or simunitions markings so proudly displayed on the front and or back. We must look and act professional if we want people to think of us professional. Remember we get out of training exactly what we put into it.

A — ATTITUDE: As a SWAT team member what kind of attitude do we bring to our position on the team. Do we have a chip on our shoulder or are we open to criticism. Of course none us likes or looks forward to that operation or training debriefing. When we “screw-up” it seems everyone seems to find out. But what is important is how we handle this unwanted time in the spotlight.

There are two types of people and maybe you have seen or heard of them. They are the “deflectors” or the “acceptors” and every team has them. As a “deflector” do we deflect what we perceive to be negative comments or criticism? Do we blame everyone and everything with the attitude” I’m right and the world is wrong!” Is your personal success and how you look more important than the success and safety of the team? Or are you an “Acceptor”? As an “Acceptor” we look at our performance and strive to improve. We welcome debrief comments so we can improve ourselves, which in turn improves the team.

Unfortunately, I have been on operations in which either a person or persons have tried to do everything. They take on every job from being the Team Leader, to leading the assault team, to being the negotiator and finally the arrest team, all at the same time. We must recognize our position on the team. Each has their own job and the combination of all those jobs is what makes the whole operation successful, after all it’s not “I win!” but that “We win!” We did it, we did what we were trained to do without any injuries to all the parties involved. At one time or another we have all been a “Deflector”. But as we mature as SWAT officers we can become an “Acceptor” and remain that valued SWAT team member.

M — MAINTENANCE: What do I mean by maintenance? What do we do to maintain our skills as a SWAT team member? Do we seek out training opportunities or dodge the issue and only present roadblocks? Do we practice or maintain our shooting skills or are we content with the status quo? Do we join professional tactical organizations such as the Association of SWAT Personnel—Wisconsin or the National Tactical Officers Association? Do we join these types of organizations with the purpose of remaining educated regarding training strategies being utilized by other departments throughout the country? Or are we content with the strategies used ten or more years ago. Remember, something used in another jurisdiction may not work for you. But, we owe it to not only our selves but also our team and community to be educated on what is out in the SWAT community in regards to equipment and training strategies.

How do we maintain our physical health? First of all let me say that I am in no position to lecture anyone regarding proper nutrition and or exercise. We all know what we need to do and have to work on it each and every day. It all starts today, what changes can I make today, right now that will not only improve ourselves but also our team. We don’t need to be power-lifters, marathon runners or Olympic athletes but a program that centers on flexibility, strength and aerobic endurance can help each one of us. Remember, we need to train not only our minds but also our bodies to be able to do the job.

During the course of our SWAT careers each one of us has perhaps met someone in one or more of these categories. Maybe at one time or another we have been there ourselves. Instead of dwelling on the negative we always need to focus on the positive. If we have been there isn’t really important. What is important is how we can improve ourselves right now. As valued SWAT team members we train and work not only to ensure that we remain safe but that each member of our team stays safe. We look out for each other because in the “real deal” I’m covering your back and I expect you to be covering mine. In return, I know you expect the same from me. When we let down mentally and physically and become undisciplined we let the team down.

During my SWAT career I have attended numerous training seminars as both an instructor and participant and in my opinion Wisconsin has some of the best SWAT cops in not only the Midwest but also the country. We are dedicated and committed to our profession because we recognize the possible loss but also realize the possible team success that keeps our communities safe. Remember, your value to your team is something that must be earned from the first day you join your team to the day you leave. All eyes are upon you …the best of the best.

In conclusion, I would like to share some thoughts with you that were presented in a recent training conference by Lieutenant Michael A. Albanese of the Los Angeles Police Department. Lieutenant Albanese reminded us that we should always remember what our mission is and our community expectations. We are held to a higher standard and expectation by both our department and community. We would have it no other way. We are always obligated to do the right thing. We are obligated to answer the phone on that next call up because after all we are the last phone call — if we don’t fix it who will?


International Tactical Officers Training Association (ITOTA)
International Tactical Officers Training Association (ITOTA)
The ITOTA is an international association designed to offer quality professional training and information sharing. The ITOTA recognizes the need to expand and share tactical knowledge by focusing on the wealth of experience that exists in the global tactical community.
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