Training day: Law enforcement tactical entry during a drug raid
SWAT officers face many challenges during a high-risk drug raid – here’s how trainers can set up a drug raid training drill to prepare for real-life situations
By Will Christensen, P1 Contributor
When considering the primary responsibilities for most SWAT teams throughout the nation, drug search warrants, or drug raids, hold significant value. Consequently the tactical community needs to ensure teams are thoroughly prepared to meet these challenges with a high degree of certainty and confidence.
In order to accomplish this goal, teams must be exposed to an abundance of training principles and disciplines to include obstacles and tactical problems during their training evolutions.
One of the most common training tools for practicing drug raids involves the use of a live fire shoot house, an environment that many teams dedicate the majority of their training time towards.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on tactical training outside of this principle, and concentrate more on training that is scenario-based and role-player driven. This is not meant to downplay the importance of live fire training, as it holds equal significance. There is no better method than live fire training to ensure your team members understand and respect the importance of fields of fire, target identification and accuracy.
That being said, it is imperative for drug raid training to incorporate both live fire shoot house training and scenario-based training, utilizing one of the available non-lethal marking ammunitions on the market.
No matter what area of the country you work in, most drug raids can be broken down into the following stages:
- Knock and announcement;
- Entry to secure the structure (room clearing);
- Back flush (double checking the structure to ensure no subjects have been missed).
The following is a general overview and breakdown of the above principles I believe should be addressed and reviewed during non-live fire training. This article will not specifically address tactics, as it is designed more to assist with the planning and preparation of scenario-based training in regard to drug raids.
Training location and role players
First and foremost the training location greatly impacts the quality of your entry training. It can be difficult to locate training structures, but having the ability to expose your team to different floorplans and issues, such as multiple stories and complex floorplans, is invaluable. It is especially beneficial if you are fortunate enough to locate a structure scheduled for demolition. Having a property owner willing to allow you to purposely damage the structure to conduct actual door breaching – including mechanical, ballistic and/or explosive techniques – is an added bonus. Additionally, if your team utilizes window breaching techniques, commonly referred to as “porting,” these types of real-life opportunities are far more advantageous than simulating or setting up fabricated windows on a gun range.
In regard to role players, these individuals can make or break your training scenarios. Depending on the situation, you may not want someone with extensive tactical training, such as your own team members, acting as your role player(s). If role players know how your team will move through a structure and what tactics they will utilize – specifically in regard to room clearing – they may prematurely react to that knowledge.
During live fire scenarios not much training is focused on the approach to a structure, a factor typically due to safety issues concerning live ammunition. Some frequently encountered issues during real-life operations include the following:
- How far away from the structure will your team be approaching?
- Will your team be dismounting or exiting from vehicles directly in front of the target location?
- Is there a possibility the entry team will encounter occupied vehicles and/or additional subjects on the curtilage?
- Will any occupied vehicles need to be blocked to avoid any of the team members being run over by subjects attempting to flee the curtilage?
- What if your team has gun fire directed at them during the approach?
- What if a team member is wounded on the approach?
One, if not all, of these issues could be encountered during a drug raid, along with other potential challenges. Consequently, it is critical to train for all of these possibilities while in a controlled environment. While most of these concerns should be addressed during an operational briefing, dedicating actual training time to them can prove to be instrumental in the success of future operations.
Knock and announcement
This is another stage of drug raid training that is commonly overlooked. Depending on the area of the country, the amount of time required to allow occupants to respond to your commands may vary. Some states allow for “no knock” entries, thus making this a nonissue. Conversely, other states forbid this tactic outside of exigent circumstances.
With regard to knock and announcement time, different situations should be presented to the entry team during each scenario. Some examples would be:
- Simulated time of day (early morning versus afternoon) service.
- Team is compromised by subjects on the curtilage or in the structure prior to the breach.
- Surveillance information indicating subjects are inside and moving around the residence or in close proximity to the entry door.
Depending on the provided circumstance(s), the time required prior to the breach could be significantly diminished. These different scenarios should be discussed in detail with your agency’s legal advisor, or a representative of the local State Attorney’s Office for further clarification and understanding.
In Florida, our statutes authorize law enforcement officers to make forcible entry only after due notice of said officers’ authority and purpose has been announced and ignored. Typically, this is addressed by your team’s verbal announcements – “Police with a search warrant” – in conjunction with physically knocking on the entry door.
An important factor to consider is the actual phrase “police with a search warrant” as opposed to “Sheriff’s Office” or another law enforcement entity. The word “police” is more universally known and therefore more identifiable to subjects, especially when there is a language barrier.
My team is comprised of multiple agencies, including both sheriff’s office personnel as well as municipal officers, all acting under the authority of the sheriff. Regardless of our backgrounds, we utilize the term “police” rather than “sheriff” for these reasons. Additionally, and if logistically possible, utilizing a marked patrol unit with emergency lighting and a redundant announcement over the public address system will also greatly assist with your announcement efforts (this can be simulated during training).
If your team fails to train on verbal announcements and you agree with using the word “police” instead of another term, your team members may revert back to the old announcement under stress, especially if modifying your identifying authority to be more recognizable.
Finally, if your state does not allow for no knock warrants and a breach and/or entry is made prior to the appropriate amount of time, the search warrant could be suppressed. This could also be applied to window breaches that are conducted prematurely, outside of any exigent circumstances, such as an occupant arming themselves or attempting to destroy any potential evidence.
Reviewing these issues during training scenarios greatly reduces the possibility of this occurring. Furthermore, it is imperative that communication between all the teams, including the entry team, port teams and/or containment teams, be reviewed and practiced. Generally the entry team leader, who should be at the rear of the element, is the best person on scene to relay all pertinent information to the other teams.
Information that is important to relay would include the commencement of the knock and announcement, the breach, and if an occupant or occupants answering the door provide any information while they are exiting, such as the presence of other individuals or animals.
This may sound a little silly, but why try to ram a door when it may already be unlocked? How many times have you heard of a breacher hitting, and usually breaking, a team member’s hand with a battering ram while the door is being checked to determine if it is unlocked? I would argue this happens due to a lack of training, to include communication, between these individuals.
Furthermore, as previously mentioned, what would your team’s response be if a team member was shot through the entry door prior to the actual breach? If you fail to train for this very real possibility, the odds suggest you will not properly and efficiently respond as a team during an actual operation if this crisis occurs.
Regarding an officer rescue, the best time to have your team respond to this situation is when they are not aware it is going to occur. You can only simulate the true stress associated with this incident so much in a training environment, and surprise is the best available tool. The tactics involved in officer rescue and immediate medical care should be previously reviewed during a different training day.
Another issue to address during an officer rescue is does your mission change? I suggest it does, specifically if you are only conducting a drug raid, not a hostage rescue. The team needs to be prepared to transition from warrant entry to a barricaded gunman situation. Obviously if the armed suspect is immediately observed, positively identified and is still a deadly threat, the team members should engage the subject, but if the rounds are fired blindly though the entry door, or from an unknown location within the structure, the initial mission has changed to a surround and callout (after the rescue has been completed).
Regardless of what room-clearing tactic your team uses you can only “push the envelope” so far during live fire training due to the associated risks and dangers. However, if using non-lethal marking rounds, with the appropriate safety gear, your team can now safely engage hostile threats at angles that may not have been considered safe in a live fire shoot house environment.
It is important to mention that I am not advocating unsafe training practices or fields of fire. However, how many hostile subjects are going to stand completely still and in the same place during an actual fire fight? Paper targets do not move, real people do, especially when being shot at.
Another question to ask is how often do teams engage subjects with deadly force during drug raids? While this situation does occur, most subjects during these types of operations either comply with verbal commands or respond to active counter measures. Having access to protective gear, such as RedMan training suits, is an extremely important aspect of entry training. This allows for team members to physically engage resistant subjects, with the appropriate level of force, in order to provide a more realistic training environment.
During your training scenarios make sure to enforce the proper follow-up tactics after compliance has been obtained from a resisting individual. Practice the use of cover (lethal cover) and contact (securing) drills until the subject is properly secured.
Another issue not commonly addressed during drug raid training is the response to a potentially hazardous chemical or explosive situation. If your team was to encounter an active lab posing a hazardous chemical or vapor exposure, what would their response be? If you want to take it to the next level, what about an IED? My suggestion is to develop a single verbal command that all team members are thoroughly familiar with and insert one of these hazards into your training day. Currently my team uses the phrase “hurricane.” Upon hearing the command, the team automatically knows that there is some type of dangerous environmental concern and to withdraw from the structure or area as quickly as possible.
This is also a tactic usually overlooked in a shoot house environment. Typically, the average shoot house has minimal furnishing, no closets full of clothing, and no attics or crawl spaces. If your training environment provides you with cabinets, closets, and/or attic spaces that could conceal a role player, consider utilizing this tactic. It should only take one incident where your team misses this person to engrain the importance of a thorough and complete secondary search prior to turning the structure over to investigators on scene.
Evaluating the training
One of the most important factors of a successful training day involves the proper and thorough evaluation of the scenarios. Obviously the instructors play an important role regard to the overall evaluation, however, your role players can provide much more accurate insight regarding the team’s performance and tactics. At what point should your review and critique these scenarios? I prefer to address any issues and/or concerns immediately and have the team re-run the same scenario. However, if the scenario was handled properly, quickly inform the team of their success and move on to the next.
As with all training conducted by your team it is imperative your lesson plans include a portion that documents your team’s performance. Furthermore, this evaluation should also identify any areas that may need improvement or modification in the future.
Drug raids are one of the most common operations for SWAT teams nationwide. It is imperative that teams expand their training outside of live fire environments and include scenario-based training on a regular basis. Scenario-based training, especially if utilizing non-lethal marking rounds, allows your team to be exposed to many more scenarios, with live role players, than can be safely addressed in a shoot house. It is important to continually challenge your team’s capabilities while reinforcing the basic principles of room clearing and marksmanship.
About the Author
Sgt. Will Christensen is a 23-year veteran of law enforcement. Sgt. Christensen has served 18 years with his agency's SWAT team and has held the positions of entry operator, breacher and team leader, currently serving as one of the team's executive officers. Sgt. Christensen has over 15 years of instructional experience in advanced tactics on the both the local and national level.