Roundtable: What are the biggest challenges for SWAT teams in 2021?

Our panel of experts discuss how SWAT teams should analyze training, operations and policies to remain ready to respond to complex challenges


By Police1 Staff

Today's SWAT teams face increasingly complex calls for service. At the same time, their response is under the scrutiny of a public that questions the need for armored vehicles while expecting a swift and effective tactical response to major incidents. 

As we look toward the new year, Police1 tasked its SWAT subject matter experts to peer into their crystal balls and answer these questions: 

Team leaders must review historical calls for service and events to understand current training and equipment needs.
Team leaders must review historical calls for service and events to understand current training and equipment needs. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
  • What will be the biggest challenges for SWAT teams in 2021?
  • How can team leaders address those challenges?

Here are their responses.

be guided by incident debriefs and after-action reviews

The present challenge for SWAT teams in America is going to be able to appropriately respond to the various incidents that SWAT teams are called upon to resolve. A present-day team has to be diverse, flexible and skilled. 

While the mission of SWAT stays the same – to save lives – the method or tactics in which we achieve our mission has to always remain current and subject to change.

Team leaders must review historical calls for service and events that have happened around America to understand current training and equipment needs.

When you review debriefs and after-action reports, be honest and challenge yourself and your team to improve your tactics so they are more effective and safer for the public and your team. If through your review it becomes apparent you haven’t updated your tactics for years or you’re not prepared to handle certain types of events, address this through listening and working with other teams, advanced training, and a change in philosophy and policy. 

The National Tactical Officer Association's Team Leaders course addresses administrative leadership, training leadership and tactical leadership, emphasizing a five-step decision-making process that takes into account the safety priorities, intelligence, the environment you are working in, the tools and tactics you have and your officer instincts (experience). Personally, as I work through this process I add one more question: Would I use these same tactics if my child was in the house, in the car, or just involved in the situation? Would you? 

Addressing how we perform our duties is important, and it falls on team leaders to remain vigilant, preparing for everything a SWAT team may respond to while understanding we have to demand the highest standards from our teams to protect our communities and not cause them to fear or doubt us.

Lt. Matt Hardesty is a 26-year veteran of law enforcement who served 22 years on the SWAT team as an operator, grenadier, rappel master and team leader and executive officer.

embrace The value of a solid decision-making process

The biggest challenge is the attack on law enforcement tactics and philosophy. Whether it be the use of force, responding to suicidal subjects, de-escalation, or how we handle crowd control, law enforcement is constantly trying to figure out how to address these community concerns.

While not often front and center, SWAT still must look at these issues. It is important for tactical leaders to be open to looking at different ways to do the job. We must actively listen to the concerns of our communities to be compassionate and professional in our response to critical incidents.

Often, we look for a new, shiny way to solve our problems, and certainly, the public does not like the “old” way. But that does not mean everything old is bad. Often, returning to the basics can help solve a new problem. And for that reason, we think one solution to these concerns is having a solid decision-making process that is fundamentally based in law, good policy and solid ethics.

Included in the process is an understanding of the mission of SWAT: saving lives through appropriate de-escalation based on a true understanding of the safety priorities. There is no qualifier on saving lives – we should not care about race, gender, religion, or other factors.

The decision-making process we use has five steps and is called P.I.E.T.O.

The first step (P) is applying the safety priorities. Truly understanding how to apply the safety priorities is a must for all members of a tactical team. In talking to team leaders, commanders and operators from around the country, we see this first step missing in many operations. We can set these priorities by looking at who is in danger or jeopardy then make plans or use tactics to help that person at that time. This helps us apply de-escalation, first for those in danger, then the officer, then the suspect or subject.

Next, we need a clear understanding of the intelligence (I), facts, and/or circumstances we know at the time and we need to be sure our officers know what is the crime that we have. The facts and intel help us make decisions about reasonable suspicion or probable cause of criminal activities. This understanding opens up resolution options (like the use of force) in keeping with Graham v Connor. This does not mean we immediately move to force; it just means the options are available.

We then look at the environment (E) and terrain. Our first three steps (P.I.E.) help inform us about what tools and tactics we should be using for a particular call.

The correct tools and tactics (T) can change as we see advancement in technology and equipment, or we refine our tactics.

Lastly, we apply the (O) for officer instincts. We recommend using your head, heart and gut to figure what needs to be tweaked or addressed in the situation.

David Pearson and Dan Murphy are lieutenants with Fort Collins Police Services in Fort Collins, Colorado, and instructors for the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA)

Become subject matter experts

I think the biggest challenge for SWAT teams in 2021 will be to make sound tactical decisions in the face of significant political pressure from civic leaders, law enforcement leaders, the media and a vocal minority of the public. 

Each of these groups will make demands on SWAT teams that will make it increasingly difficult for them to do their job properly, and the teams will be pressured to deviate from the right path in an effort to appease these groups.

The most effective defense against these pressures is for SWAT officers to educate themselves. They need to become subject matter experts in SWAT tactics, field leadership, decision-making, critical incident management, use of force law and department policy. It’s only through a mastery of these subjects that SWAT officers will be able to recognize when things are getting off track, articulate the reasons why, and propose a  more defensible and appropriate solution that will withstand scrutiny.

— Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California.

match tactics, techniques and procedures to threats

2020 presented law enforcement and SWAT teams with challenges — some new and some not so new. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide civil unrest created an unabating OPTEMPO for many teams. It will be the ability of SWAT teams in 2021 and beyond to face, adapt and overcome 21st-century threats while improving upon the 20th-century tactics that successfully got us to this point. 

The pandemic caused many teams to learn to operate and train in smaller elements. Primarily this was to assist in teams not falling ill. However, this concept is not new and has been promoted since Mumbai in order to be able to respond to MACTAC-type incidents. So in hindsight, this forced many to finally see that working in small elements is effective. 

Our role in large-scale field force type incidents is also causing us to reconsider our 20th-century tactics to 21st-century threats. The groups we face are not using the tactics that they used in the late 1990s and early- to mid-2000s. They have improved their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) and so should we. For example, an issue is and has always been hostile elements throwing back gas canisters. So, why do we continue to deploy gas canisters? Granted, they have a mission-specific place, but we need an honest re-evaluation of equipment. 

While many SWAT members may not man a field force skirmish line anymore, many are tasked with teaching mobile field force tactics to line officers. It is important that we re-evaluate our lesson plans to see if our TTPs will function in the new environment and if not, modify or seek new and improved field force training. 

It is also important that we network with the agencies that had the greatest OPTEMPO in order to identify what worked for them and what did not. That is, we need to COMMUNICATE lessons learned. For example, does a cross-bow center work when you are dealing with a field force skirmish line that is already in contact? 

Finally, we need solid and sound leadership that keeps teams focused on our oath to protect and serve and on our public service mission. Staying away from negative politics will help SWAT teams weather the proverbial storm and current and upcoming challenges.  

— Lawrence Lujan is an active field lieutenant with 30 years of service and a graduate of the FBI NA-274. 

A year to hold the line

SWAT teams around the country should concentrate on maintaining their numbers and budgets with a positive, persistent and credible message. In other words, 2021 is a year to hold the line. It will be a challenge to sell to the reasonable people in the public the need for tactical teams and the life-saving and protecting tactics, equipment, personnel and training required to counter the false narrative around policing that has been heard in the streets of some cities in 2020.

— Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II.”

NEXT: SWAT team training tips for 2021

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