Decision-making autonomy key for tactical operators

Richland County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Department Corporal Peter Hart describes what makes RCSD’s Special Response Team unique


In May 2020, protests against the killing of George Floyd morphed into rioting and burning of property across the nation. And Columbia, South Carolina, the state’s capitol, was not exempt from the lawlessness, but only briefly and limited only to several city blocks. The Columbia rioting that took place May 30-31 was quickly quashed thanks to some 16 law enforcement agencies like the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the Columbia Police Department (CPD) and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD).

A SLED agent in camouflage and RCSD’s Special Response Team operators in black are seen fanning out on the streets of Columbia, S.C. as a CPD vehicle burns behind them during the riots of May 30-31, 2020.
A SLED agent in camouflage and RCSD’s Special Response Team operators in black are seen fanning out on the streets of Columbia, S.C. as a CPD vehicle burns behind them during the riots of May 30-31, 2020. (Photo/RCSD)

Though destructive – businesses damaged, rocks and bottles thrown, some injuries, and police cars burned – the rioting was primarily fueled by out-of-state agitators, who Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott referred to as “criminal opportunists.”

A joint team of SRT operators (black uniforms) and SLED agents (camouflage uniforms) defend the entrance to Columbia Police Department headquarters during the rioting of May 30-31, 2020.
A joint team of SRT operators (black uniforms) and SLED agents (camouflage uniforms) defend the entrance to Columbia Police Department headquarters during the rioting of May 30-31, 2020. (Photo/RCSD)

Lott was prepared and quickly emerged as one of the key law enforcement leaders on the scene. He quickly mobilized and deployed a sizeable counter-riot force from his 800-deputy RCSD led by the department’s Special Response (tactical) Team, and he established a red line from which no one would cross. Once established, Lott’s deputies together with officers from other agencies like SLED and CPD fanned out and stopped the destruction in its tracks. No lethal force was used. Solid leadership was.

“Sheriff Lott literally saved our city,” said Bruce Brutschy, a past president of the West Columbia Police Foundation and director of the state’s Black Belt Hall of Fame. “There was and is no question about that in the minds of any of us who live and work in or near the city.”

Corporal Peter Hart receives an award from Sheriff Leon Lott during the Christmas awards banquet, Dec. 15, 2018.
Corporal Peter Hart receives an award from Sheriff Leon Lott during the Christmas awards banquet, Dec. 15, 2018. (Photo/RCSD)

Corporal Peter Hart, a tactical operator serving on RCSD’s Special Response Team (SRT), agrees. “The Sheriff gave us decision-making autonomy at every level,” Hart said, who recalls being positioned on the steps of CPD headquarters when the Sheriff walked up to him and said: ‘Nobody gets inside this building.’ “I looked out and I saw a sea of potentially unfriendly people, and I told the Sheriff we only had nine or ten men. He then repeated his command to me: ‘Nobody gets inside this building.’”

According to Hart: “Sheriff Lott gave our team in general the guidance and flexibility to do what needed to be done. He wasn’t telling us we needed to use deadly force to prevent our line from being breached, but we knew we had better be carried off on stretchers if the rioters were successful.”

The rioters were not successful. And it was Lott’s command to Hart and other members of the SRT that day that speak to the uniqueness and culture of RCSD’s much-vaunted tactical SWAT team.

Hart attributes his own tactical leadership capabilities to solid RCSD training for every imaginable scenario, the leadership culture within RCSD, what RCSD might do differently as regards the hindsight of other tactical operations around the country and the world, and his own experiences as a 20-year career U.S. Marine senior staff NCO.

Corporal Peter Hart during a break in tactical operations training at the Columbia Fire Department training facility, 2021.
Corporal Peter Hart during a break in tactical operations training at the Columbia Fire Department training facility, 2021. (Photo/RCSD)

As a Marine leader, Hart deployed around the globe multiple times, serving in every law enforcement paralleling post from embassy guard to engagement officer for the U.S. Special Operations Command for the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

When he retired from the Marines in 2012 following deployments to both Kosovo and Iraq, Hart began looking for work that would continue to sate his “sense of adventure” and his ability to contribute to his community. “But I didn’t want to travel halfway around the world to accomplish either,” he says.

In 2013, Hart joined RCSD. Two years later, he became a certified SRT operator, and in 2018 he became a member of RCSD’s Dive Team.

“The leadership side is what I got from the Marines broadly,” Hart said. “That’s what I brought with me to RCSD. Tactics change often. What never changes is leadership, the task of accomplishing the mission and troop or deputy welfare. Those things never change.”

Many of Hart’s fellow SRT operators are also former Marines or former Army infantry soldiers, as is the broader RCSD rank-and-file.

Though clearly different in terms of approaches to the community, there are many tactical operations parallels between the military and law enforcement.

“Seemingly simple things,” Hart said. “For instance, when I was serving in the USMC Diplomatic Security Program at a U.S. embassy, if an alarm was ever sounded, I would radio another Marine on another post and notify him that I was responding to that alarm and if he didn’t hear from me in a set period of time, he needed to initiate a ‘react’ [a tactical response]. The same thing applies to a deputy or a police officer at night, when he or she is alone and when time is of the essence.”

Then there is the element of close quarters battle or CQB, the literal raison d'être for a tactical team. “Fundamentally, CQB involves you as the operator being on the outside and having to somehow get on the inside, and all the variables associated with how you actually accomplish that,” Hart said. “There is the time element; also is it going to be a single officer response or a small team response. These are a few of the many things you have to consider under stress.”

One of the many mantras embraced by 21st-century SWAT teams like RCSD’s SRT is the old USMC adage: “The mission, the men, and me.” In other words, the mission first (achieving the objective is primary). Then taking care of the men (ensuring that both the men and women on your left and right have everything they need, physically, mentally, emotionally, tactically, even spiritually). Last but no less important is “me” (Am I fully prepared and conditioned to safely, seamlessly, and successfully complete my responsibilities – and perhaps those on my team – to achieve the given objective?).

“A Marine gunnery sergeant I once worked for always referred to this as horse, gun, man,” Hart said. “First he talked about the horse (meaning you can’t go anywhere without your serviceable vehicle), gun (you need your clean, fully functioning weapon), and man (do you have food, proper clothing, dry socks, whatever). This has always fed into my mindset.”

Mantras aside, what are police tactical teams lacking today, and what makes RCSD’s SRT unique from other SWAT teams?

“We are a full-time entity which is huge,” Hart said. “This allows us to plan, train, plan the equipment, and identify equipment deficiencies. As full-time operators, we have the ability to spend two, three, or four hours to do our site surveys, do our drive-bys [reconnaissance], do our due diligence in our operation plans, to think about the different contingencies and what the suspect or the bad guys might do, so that we can plan for those things and mitigate any unforeseen problems.” 

Hart says many law enforcement agencies don’t field full-time SWAT teams, and that may be their Achilles heels.

“All we concentrate on is the betterment of our tactical team and special operations within our department,” Hart said. “Our sidebar responsibilities which closely parallel traditional SRT work include narc stops, facilitating stops with DEA and working with the FBI, the ATF, and the U.S. Marshals office. We also assist and work closely with our own Midlands Gang and Fugitive Task Force.”

The multi-agency Midlands Gang and Fugitive Task Force was established by and is overseen by RCSD.

Corporal Peter Hart and other SRT operators practice room-clearing techniques during tactical operations training at RCSD’s weapons qualification range.
Corporal Peter Hart and other SRT operators practice room-clearing techniques during tactical operations training at RCSD’s weapons qualification range. (Photo/RCSD)

SRT operators also physically condition themselves, usually working out or running daily, sometimes twice daily. In fact, team members are often seen training together in groups of two or four in their own tactical headquarters gym, RCSD’s CrossFit gym, as well as area fitness facilities time permitting.

Sheriff Lott, himself a former SWAT team officer, instilled a culture of physical fitness within RCSD when he was first elected to office back in 1996. Physical fitness has always been demanded of his deputies and new hires, even more so of his SRT operators who in many ways set the bar for the entire department.

“Cardio and weight training are extremely important to a tactical operator,” Hart said, who points to a uniquely designed fitness regimen that speaks to the SRT’s and the Sheriff’s focus and commitment to fit operators. “Three or four years ago we got together with U.S. Army physical conditioning experts. We invited them to our office. We told them what we do on K-9 tracks and other SRT missions. And so based on our mission requirements, they developed for us an 11-event physical fitness test that evaluates cardio, upper body strength, lower body, core strength and your heart. When we built this test, we made sure it would outlast me or anybody on the team. It’s a true good assessment where you have to train for it and to it, in order to pass it. And it must be passed on a semi-annual basis.”

Hart adds: “This test was developed specifically for us. We based it in many ways on the FBI National Academy’s fitness test but expanded on that.”

How might RCSD improve its SRT capabilities? Hart says: “We do an after-action report on every single operation we conduct, and we always go back to communication. It’s always what we beat ourselves up over. It’s always where we could’ve done better.”

In the end, RCSD’s strength lies within the guidance, flexibility, and decision-making autonomy given to each operator by his or her leaders, and it all comes down from the Sheriff.

In the wake of “a report of shots fired” hoax at Blythewood High School located northeast of Columbia in early October, RCSD deputies including SRT operators responded in less than two minutes. Of the myriad thank you notes and letters that flooded RCSD’s inboxes in the aftermath of RCSD’s response was one that speaks to all: “My students and I were amazed and uplifted by your one-minute and 26-second response time. One student wrote in his journal that ‘God forbid something like this happens again, the shooter wouldn’t know what was coming, because our officers knew what to do!’”

NEXT: Situational de-escalation and escalation of force for tactical teams

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