Police militarization and the evolution of SWAT

Requiring a minimum police population of 100 officers to establish a SWAT team helps to keep standards high and overuse low

Those of us who go back more than a couple of decades in law enforcement understand the dramatic evolution of SWAT in the United States. The very first asset developed in the aftermath of incidents like the Texas Tower killing spree committed by Charles Whitman in 1966 was trained marksmen called Counter Snipers. 

When Counter Snipers proved unable to deal with heavily armed felons who barricaded themselves in a building, SWAT teams evolved and began the long, steep learning curve of making entry into a hostile indoor environment. 

In the beginning of SWAT, in the 1970s, only major cities invested the manpower and money needed to create such specialized teams. Now we see SWAT teams fielded by agencies that, in my opinion, have no business “playing” in so costly and dangerous a “game.”

Multi-Jurisdictional Teams
One raid frequently cited in the media as a gross overreach is the use of a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Justice SWAT team to raid the Gibson Guitar company in 2009. The raid itself still has political overtones, but the law violation in question involved the use of illegally imported rare woods. The raid involved the seizure of lumber and years of importation paperwork, not some immediate threat to life. Further, there was no reason to suspect Gibson would be anything but cooperative. 

They used a SWAT team to raid a guitar business for records of illegal wood importation? No one is a bigger proponent of law enforcement than I am, but… really? We need to take a step back, draw a deep breath, and reassess the role SWAT plays in some law enforcement settings.

Many years ago, I published an article in the old Police Marksman magazine that laid out manpower and training guidelines for multi-jurisdictional SWAT teams in rural areas. It was the result of some deep thinking by several of us who had worked in small communities where we lacked enough resources to create a legitimate SWAT team of our own and had no statewide team to call for assistance. Several multi-jurisdictional teams in rural areas were formed on that template and still operate successfully today. 

We decided a minimum police “population” of 100 officers was needed to establish a minimally effective team. So, if you couldn’t combine enough small agencies to get up to the 100-officer level, we recommended you develop a mutual-aid pact with a more capable team for the day when a barricade/hostage entry situation might develop in your jurisdiction. 

I know of a couple of 10- to 12-officer agencies who have a “SWAT” team. A 12-officer SWAT team is too small to be fully effective for more than a couple of hours. 

Further, most experts agree that not every cop on the street is made of SWAT “stuff.” In fact, probably less than 10 percent of the officers in most agencies have the physical and emotional skill set necessary for elite SWAT assignments.

Incredible Assetts
Creating a SWAT team in a small agency, or in an agency that rarely deals with emergency response to life-threatening incidents, only invites criticism that you are becoming too “militarized.” 

The huge influx of money and equipment after 9/11 saw many new teams formed and many existing teams outfitted with incredible (I mean that word literally: “beyond credibility”) assets. 

One of my proudest accomplishments was being a leader of the patrol rifle movement started in the early 1980s. But, gun guy than I am, I wonder how many SWAT teams really need a belt-fed .30 caliber machine gun or a .50 BMG sniper rifle for police use? Such gear is needed by the paramilitary security forces deployed at nuclear facilities, but they are generally private security contractors, not traditional law enforcement units.

I’ve also been a leader in the Rapid Deployment 2.0 movement, which led to programs like the NTOA’s MACTAC training. But combating a team of Mumbai-style terrorists loose in your community will be a patrol fight, not a SWAT fight. I fear the massive armored cars and 12-man assault boats will be of questionable use in a running gun battle with terrorists who are using small arms and IEDs.

My philosophy has been (and remains) that small agencies of fewer than 100 officers simply cannot field enough qualified SWAT-level officers for an adequate team. By joining agencies together to reach the 100-officer population goal, we can allow for adequate selection standards and training cycles. Holding to a minimum police population standard also helps to ensure the team gets enough work to avoid rolling on calls where a SWAT presence isn’t necessarily appropriate.

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