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4 qualities every SWAT team member needs

How do law enforcement supervisors shape and refine these necessary mental attributes for responding officers?

In the current culture of mass violence as experienced in the U.S. and throughout the world questions have arisen as to the thinking and reasoning capabilities, temperament, stress management and even physical courage of officers responding to inherently dangerous terrorist attacks or mass shootings.

How do law enforcement supervisors shape and refine these necessary mental attributes for responding officers? Moreover, how do supervisors and police trainers identify those attributes in candidates for SWAT teams?

Following are four innate qualities or potentially developable traits that the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s (RCSD) elite Special Response Team (SRT) looks for in its new team members.

1. A de-escalation mindset

“Response begins for us with a mindset of de-escalation – of diffusing the threat – in any situation as opposed to a forceful hammer default,” said Richland County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Chief Chris Cowan, who commands the department’s Special Teams Division, of which the elite Special Response Team (SRT) is one element. “We want our SRT operators to have the mindset of a guardian instead of a warrior. We want to preserve life, including that of the suspect, in every situation. This is what we look for in the hiring process, the training process and beyond. It’s truly a cultural thing.”

According to Cowan, saving lives as opposed to taking lives in any life-or-death situation requires a far deeper level of thought, selflessness and even physical conditioning.

“The old mentality of SWAT was the teams were manned by atypical people who were largely driven by the opportunity for direct action. That has changed. Today it is all about saving lives,” said Lieutenant Dominick Pagano, tactical commander of RCSD’s SRT.

2. The ability to reprogram the body

The SRT candidate or operator must demonstrate a total commitment to being a team player. Secondly, they must be able to think and physically function in a training environment that closely replicates what happens in the real world. Replicating that environment is the challenge for RCSD.

“We know that when your heart rate gets above 135 bpm, you move into a physiological zone where tunnel vision kicks in, fine and complex motor skills begin to degrade, and there is auditory exclusion,” said Pagano. “That’s why in a combat situation, combatants often report not hearing ‘yelled’ commands, or not knowing how many rounds have been fired because the combatant in that physiological zone literally cannot hear them.”

Pagano is referring to how the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responds when a person is under varying physical threats.

According to Pagano, SRT training focuses on the old military adage – attention-to-detail – but not attention-to-detail as experienced in the relaxed realm of the resting heart rate. Both Cowan and Pagano are looking for operators – and looking to develop operators – who can measurably advance their attention to detail while functioning in that SNS zone when the heart rate reaches and exceeds 135 bpm.

In other words, the RCSD operator needs to look for a sub-calmness within the SNS zone and to expand his or her situational awareness outside of the narrow “tunnel” view. How?

Unlike normal range training for police officers, SRT operators – like other SWAT team members from other law enforcement agencies – might be tasked with sprinting 100 yards to force the heart rate up to at least 135 bpm, and then shooting.

“We want to reprogram the body and the mind to better operate in conditions of extreme stress,” said Pagano. “We want our officers to learn to slow down their breathing, to breathe in through the mouth and out through the nose, and to keep their head always on a swivel.” Pagano says this is true for basic patrol officers, but even more so for SRT operators.

Constant training in an SNS performance zone helps to settle and manage the information overload and widen the tunneling view, not unlike the fledgling fighter pilot attempting to land his jet on an aircraft carrier. Continual practice conditions the body and the mind.

“Once our officers begin to get comfortable in that zone, they begin to take in the whole environment. And they learn and develop the ability to do it in a matter of seconds. It’s all about tactical awareness,” said Cowan.

Speed and attention to detail inside the zone are key.

“If, for instance, we enter a house and we have a bad guy who rushes out of the bedroom with a weapon aimed at our officers, do we have a justification for deadly force? Absolutely,” said Cowan. “But what are the other components of that environment that also have to be considered? Where is ‘she’ if there is a she? Where is the child or children? What is on the other side of that wall? What’s about to come through that side door? Is there a window?”

What else? It’s not all about shooting, physical training and being able to function in the SNS zone.

Too many officers start out in top condition but allow their physical fitness to diminish

3. Mental flexibility

“We evaluate people based on humble servanthood, guardianship, desire and communication skills,” said Cowan.

Both Cowan and Pagano say they are far more impressed by the slowest SRT candidate who refuses to quit as opposed to whether or not they passed an initial PT test.

“If he or she doesn’t quit in training and continues to push forward, that tells me that if an operator is down that officer will do everything in their power to get that operator out,” said Pagano.

Natural fears also factor into the RCSD’s SRT assessment and training: Everything from determining if a potential operator has a fear of water, fire, tight spaces, or heights; all of which are interconnected in gauging someone’s physical courage.

In all training scenarios, surprise sub-situations are thrown in. As in the real world, not all training scenarios have a possible solution or a positive outcome.

“We can teach a guy to shoot and we can enhance his physical fitness to be able to operate in SNS,” said Cowan. “But we want people who have the mental and emotional well-being to recognize their weaknesses; not as an obstacle or an impediment to improvement, but something that drives them to excel.”

4. A will to work hard

When candidates are asked during the interview, assessment and selection phase why they want to be a full-time SRT operator, answers might range from “I have a military background” to “I want to be the best.”

The better answer, said Cowan, is, “I work hard. I don’t know everything. But I want to learn. We want people who use eyes and ears first, brain second, mouth third. We want people who listen, think and process information, and act and speak last.”

When asked if every patrol deputy has it within him or her to be an SRT operator, Pagano said, “The potential may be there, but the heart has to be there. Being an SRT operator is a huge commitment in terms of hours and training and all the other variables associated with the mission.”

“It takes a unique person to be a school resource officer. It takes a unique person to be an investigator who works on child sex crimes. It takes a unique person to be an SRT operator. We have about 967 people in this department, and what the Sheriff has done so well is that he has put them where their desires are and what their goals are. More importantly, he has positioned them to best serve the mission and the needs of the department,” said Cowan.

Creative training scenarios for SRT operators are based on after-action reports, reviews and evaluations of best practices and mistakes made during ongoing SWAT operations and counterterrorist-unit missions worldwide.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott also has SRT operators train with and learn from those outside of the department. Training has been conducted with other police SWAT teams, as well as U.S. Army Special Forces operators and U.S. Navy SEALs.

Many SRT operators have overseas military experience like Pagano, who prior to the RCSD deployed as a parachute infantryman with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Cowan, who has worked as an exchange officer with various foreign police departments, is a former U.S. Naval officer and graduate of the FBI National Academy.

“All of these officers bring a spirit of innovation and drive to the culture of our SRT, which frankly positively impacts every other element within the department,” said Lott who, years ago, served as a sniper on one of the RCSD’s earliest SWAT teams.

“This SRT is truly one of the best in the nation,” said Lott. “It is so for several reasons, not the least of which is we have uniquely experienced and very capable leaders. We have developed a culture of operational creativity. We have replaced the old warrior mentality with the mind and heart of a guardian. And no one man or woman serving on the SRT believes themselves to be better or superior to another: They see themselves as just differently skilled.”

Prepare for SWAT

This article, originally published on April 17, 2018, has been updated.

W. Thomas Smith Jr., a special deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in Richland County, South Carolina, is a formerly deployed U.S. Marine infantry leader and former SWAT team officer in the nuclear industry.