How to stand up a regional SWAT team

Regional SWAT teams aren’t for every agency, but they can provide a great service to those who need it

This feature is part of our new PoliceOne Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing police chiefs and police officers everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Summer 2016 issue, click here.

By Glenn French, Police1 Columnist

The slow growth of the nation’s economy over the past decade has posed challenges for police agencies in maintaining their operational effectiveness. City leaders were obligated in 2008 to make cuts in areas of their police agencies that they felt would make the least impact on those agencies’ ability to respond to calls for service. Agencies started cutting salaries, staffing and budgets to meet the significant losses in tax revenues and the reduction of federal grants.

Various types of programs were eliminated from police agencies across the country. Programs such as DARE, bike patrol, motor units, aviation units and others sustained significant cuts or even elimination. SWAT teams were not immune to this phenomenon, and some police agencies downsized or even eliminated their tactical units. That sent tactical commanders searching for viable options to present to their chiefs and city leaders so that they could maintain their current readiness.

Whitman County Sheriff Deputy Chris Chapman climbs out of the Whitman County Washington Regional SWAT Team armored vehicle outside the Moscow Police Department in Moscow, Idaho, Sunday, May 20, 2007.
Whitman County Sheriff Deputy Chris Chapman climbs out of the Whitman County Washington Regional SWAT Team armored vehicle outside the Moscow Police Department in Moscow, Idaho, Sunday, May 20, 2007. (AP Image)

During my career on SWAT I served on regional swat teams, a city SWAT team and even a hybrid metro team comprising several large tactical SWAT teams. Each of these teams had its unique advantages and disadvantages. However, for the smaller agency struggling to meet its payroll, a regional SWAT team may be your answer in this economy of little growth and minimal federal funding.

It’s a numbers thing
A regional SWAT team often includes several police agencies within its organization. These departments will donate officers and equipment to the regional team, providing a large pool of people and resources that the smaller agency would not have available.

The biggest advantage from a team commander’s perspective is that the talent on a regional team in many cases can be significantly greater than a team from a smaller agency. More than half of the police agencies in this country have fewer than 50 full-time sworn officers in their ranks, and a police agency with 50 full-time cops would find it very difficult to field a properly outfitted SWAT team with the appropriate number of team members.

If seven police agencies have around 30-50 total cops in their departments and each selects three of its best officers to lend to a regional team, then the regional team now has 21 tactical operators. Conversely, if those same agencies had their own 21-man SWAT teams, they would likely struggle to find 21 capable and willing cops among their relatively small pools of officers who can operate at the high standards that every tactical team should be held to.

That’s not to say that small agencies don’t have great SWAT teams. I have worked with and trained some very high-speed tactical teams that come from small agencies. My experience has been that these teams don’t lower their standards to allow for the chief’s cousin to play SWAT. The team commanders will train and outfit their small teams with the same high standards that every team is expected to meet.

Developing your P&Ps
Developing a regional SWAT team starts with a host agency that can house and be the primary lead for the development and ongoing maintenance of the regional team. Then all of the participating agencies are identified and the command structure is selected and put in place. The command structure doesn’t necessarily come from the host agency. The team commander and the team leaders should be selected for their qualifications, experience and their ability to lead. These leaders will now have the painful task of developing the regional SWAT team’s policy and procedures.

The most important components of developing a regional SWAT team are its policy and procedures, along with its operating standards. I speak from experience, as I was tasked to develop my agency’s policy and procedures when we left a regional team to start our city team.

Later in life I was also a part of developing the metro SWAT team’s policy and procedures. What I found is that allowing input from as many qualified people as possible promotes great policy. Also, utilizing professional and government resources will help guide you to a solid policy.

The policy and procedures should outline operating rules, guidelines, team structure, call out procedures, training requirements, physical standards, selection criteria and sanctioned equipment, to name a few. There are a lot of team commanders out there (and some near you), so don’t be shy to ask these leaders for help, suggestions and a copy of their agency’s policy and procedures to use as a baseline.

I recommend reviewing at least three local SWAT teams’ policies and at least one SWAT team policy from a large agency. This is a sure way to get a solid foundation and a good start. The policy and procedures will now need to be reviewed by each police agency’s chief and city attorney to get their final approval before you move forward.

Selecting your team
Now that the SWAT team commander, team leaders and the policy and procedures are in place, it’s time to select the team members. It’s my opinion that the team commander and team leaders be allowed to select the candidates they feel suit their team’s needs. They should be allowed to conduct an oral board to interview the prospective candidates and review their resumes. Interview at least three times the number of officers you need.

For example, if a police agency will be contributing three officers to the regional SWAT team, the chief should send 10 potential candidates to the oral board so that the top three officers can be selected. The chief should send only officer candidates that he or she pre-approves and allow freedom of selection by the oral board. Some agencies may even conduct physical fitness tests as a part of their selection requirements.

Keep in mind that if your officers are represented by a union, get the union’s input and approval of the process in advance to avoid a potential grievance.

Beginning your training
Training is the priority once the team is in place. Equipment must be purchased for the officers who don’t come from an existing SWAT team.

Training the team is just as important as developing the policy and procedures, particularly because the team will most likely get experienced SWAT cops from various agencies trained from different perspectives. There is no one master document containing training goals and objectives for all SWAT instructors to utilize in their SWAT training.

There are as many different philosophies on the proper way to clear an objective as there are weapon choices. I prefer that the experienced leadership develop at least a 40-hour basic SWAT officer course followed by a 40-hour advanced SWAT officer course. I also suggest that this course be sanctioned by a professional entity. I always had the state agency that sanctions police training to approve and sanction the course. This is a small price to pay when you are sitting in a federal courtroom explaining the legitimacy of your SWAT cops’ training.

There are also plenty of professional outfits that you can hire to provide the training, and it’s a much easier process, but it can be expensive. I prefer to conduct the initial basic and advanced SWAT courses myself so that I can get a real feel for the officers and the team’s strengths and weaknesses. That allows me to make the necessary corrections on the spot. However, I always sent my SWAT cops to various tactical schools as continuing education. When they returned, they would provide the team a block of training on the good and bad points of that course so that we could all grow from the experience.

Standing up the team
At this point it’s time to report to the chiefs that the regional SWAT team is operational. I liked to put on a dog-and-pony show for the brass and city leaders. A well-planned and rehearsed demonstration/training scenario, complete with a sniper-initiated assault, an explosive breach and hostage rescue utilizing all of your equipment such as armored cars, smoke and flashbangs, tends to provide a little confidence in their investment and decision.

With the right planning and preparation, multiple agencies can come together to serve the wider community effectively.

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