SWAT: Not Sit, Wait, and Talk

For adrenaline junkies, it can be hard to take a pause, but doing so can ensure success for you and your team members

By Jeffrey J. Denning

“Hurry up and wait” is one sure thing that can be counted on in almost every tactical operation. Knowing when to wait and how to best utilize that time will help secure success and, most importantly, keep team members and the innocent safe. Aside from that, there are a few things every operator would like his administration to know… (Don’t worry; I’ll keep it clean.)

Fighting the Urge to Rush
Admit it: breaking down doors, “runnin’ and gunnin,’ ” and “flowing and going” is fun. Busting into a room after throwing in a few flash bangs (a.k.a. noise flash distraction devices, NFDDs) and hollering “POLICE! Don’t Move!” while pointing a subgun or tricked out long gun at some unsuspecting felon is a rush. Nothing compares to it. Some might even say it’s better than sex.

Most tac guys (and gals) are adrenaline junkies. At a younger age, I, too, exhibited some of those characteristics. I went free-fall skydiving in high school, messed up my knee on a much-too-high cliff jump at Lake Powell, free climbed (without ropes) up 90-foot rock faces, and jumped like a stunt man, head-first off a three-story building onto crudely made padding. I even trained for a short season with members of the U.S. ski jumping and aerial freestyle ski teams. It’s amazing I didn’t get hurt more than I did.

One of the things I really enjoyed was backcountry skiing. We’d find huge cliffs and try to avoid hitting the trees in the air and land in the soft powder. Years later, I remember reading about a man who tried to break the world’s record for the longest cliff jump on skis. He miscalculated his jump and hit another cliff, plummeting several hundred meters to his death. Had he taken more time to calculate his jump, he might have set the record—and lived.

I realize that doesn’t have anything to do with police work or tactical operations, but I learned a valuable lesson from reading about that experience. It taught me an important lesson: it’s better to be a calculated risk taker than just a risk taker.

Now I run away from trouble. I avoid risk. My body doesn’t recover as quickly as it used to. I don’t want to get hurt.

One of the things I like about SWAT is there’s nearly always a way to improve the plan and increase the changes for officer safety. SWAT officers have the element of surprise. Time is on SWAT’s side. Rarely are tactical teams forced to walk into a trap. The danger comes from rushing in.

Larry Glick, the former executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association and the founder of the International Tactical Officers Training Association (ITOTA), taught me the value of patience in order to lower risk and ensure success. He suggested that we should consider every available tactical option before breaking down a door. If it’s a barricaded situation, for instance, there’s no rush to go in. Wait. Use gas, a ruse, or something else to flush the suspect out. Use a robot or your SWAT monkey—“tactical primate”—in the case of Mesa, Arizona PD. Rip down a wall and wait. Open up the door and stay outside. “Break and rake” the windows and wait! Resist your urge to rush in and lower your risk. Once inside a building, the level of risk raises exponentially. Hold off and be safe.

Although the physiological changes from an initial adrenaline dump may occur and we may be ready to “rock ‘n’ roll”, we should fight the urge to rush in until we are confident that we have the tactical advantage.

On Hold, Standing By
Talk about frustrating. You’re amped, psyched or stoked—depending on what part of the country you’re from—either way, you’re ready to charge in like a Mac truck and do some damage, if needed, and the situation or the boss says “hold on”. Now what?


Okay, that might not be the first thing you should do, but it’s something that should be more on the minds of operators.

In July 1999 I trained with representatives from nearly every SWAT team that responded to the Columbine High School shootings just three months before. I don’t recall if it was a Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputy or a police officer from Littleton, Colorado who said that before he went inside the school he saw an officer sitting on the sidewalk finishing off a hamburger and a drink. Even though Columbine changed the way officers would respond to active shooting situations forever, the actions of that SWAT officer that day were praised as brilliant. It was a long day. It would eventually take four and a half hours just to clear the inside of the school!

Don’t forget to fuel up. Although we won’t take time to eat in an active shooter situation, there are plenty of other operations that will demand lots of time and energy. Combat operations fatigue the body. Don’t get overly focused or too “tough” to give your body what it demands. Your performance will deteriorate in all aspects should you neglect this important necessity. And, as we’ve heard, “eat when you can, not when you have to.” If you wait, you might not get the chance.

During down time continuously improve upon the plan. This is a given, but many teams still need serious help in this area. Why? Because we’re all creatures of habit. We get comfortable over time. Our successes outweigh our failures. We think we’ve always done it that way and it’s worked so far.

Warning! Routine kills.

Welcome outside thinking. Challenge old systems and ways of doing things. Bad guys watch, study and learn. Potential threats and serious cop killers have access to tactical training. They pay attention to the way things are done. In one sense, they’re not as stupid as they act. As we live to stop them, they study on how to defeat us.

Because of this we must encourage creativity and explore unconventional tactics. What was once unconventional in SWAT operations is now well known and publicized. Our nemeses often know what we’ll do even before we do it.

Barriers to creativity include unapproachable leadership. This is a team operation. Individuals may be smart, but one person cannot possibly have all the answers. Leaders and individual team members must—not should—encouraging brainstorming and free thinking by allowing open discussion (at the appropriate time). Avoid put-downs and saying things like “that’s a dumb idea.” Instead, explore each option and give a reason why or why not. Quality leaders should be able to articulate and convince a whole team why the final tactical plan is the very best and safest option.

The other related hindrance that keeps our blinders on, generating dangerous myopic thinking, is “group think”. Do we all think alike? Most of the time that’s good, but sometimes it can thwart progression. Challenge the conventional, the routine. SWAT needs guys/gals who will challenge the norm and ask why or why not. Finally, take suggestions and ideas from new guys seriously. They often have fresh perspectives.

Focus. Concentrate. Never underestimate the suspect(s), the terrain or the situation. Dominate tactically. And remember: there’s a serious difference between using strong, powerful, overwhelming tactics and using excessive force. Don’t confuse this. Win.

Dear Boss:

If your SWAT team isn’t training at least two full days each month, plus a minimum of two or three weeks each year, you’re doing your community a grave disservice. If your team runs five miles together in full tactical gear on training days instead of making use of the limited but valuable training time you’re allotted, you’re wasting precious time. Don’t major in the minors! Seriously, how often is your team going to rappel in an operation? Focus training on what’s most important: tactics, shooting and scenario-based training. You can’t get in shape by working out two days each month.

Chances are you don’t have enough team members to safely, adequately handle SWAT operations, let alone those who may be on vacation, injured, or face it…intoxicated. Consider doubling the current number. Even then you might not have enough. On my first hostage call-out, our team leader had just gotten out of the hospital from receiving a vasectomy. If we could only schedule when criminals would start their rampage, then we might keep small numbers of SWAT officers available.

Seriously though, hopefully nothing terribly wrong will every happen, but changes are something will go extremely awry one day. At that point budget and personnel shortage problems that may now be attributed to the current lack of support and resources will seem futile. Multiple death notifications, workers compensation pay-outs, negative press coverage, not to mention the abundance of other distresses, is not a good note to end your career on.

On another note, you should know the capabilities of your SWAT team very well. Then you will use them with confidence. Don’t hesitate to use your tactical team. Too many police administrators mistake boldness for excessiveness. They incorrectly believe that the chances of an “incident” increases when SWAT is used. On the corollary, using SWAT on the relatively “small” incidents will create greater overall safety for all officers and, especially if the team doesn’t have a lot of experience, it will prepare them for the future colossal conundrums. SWAT officers who complain about doing the job should leave the team. The caveat, however, is to not abuse the recall system or the team. Don’t call SWAT in to direct traffic in a bad storm, literally or figuratively.

Finally boss, please stay out of our way and let us work. No chief should serve as the lead negotiator or the SWAT commander. And no supervisor should ever keep his/her SWAT team in a “red light” status if the situation legally and tactically warrants action. Nothing bothers me more.

In sum, be flexible, but in control. You keep the tactical advantage by making the suspect(s) bend to your timetable. You don’t bend to his/hers.

I’ve had a long held theory that guys in special operations have a greater libido than the average person. With the higher level of testosterone that propels guys to do high-risk work, my theory seems awfully reasonable. Now, I hope I’m not being too tactless, irreligious or flippant by writing this, but considering my audience, and given the topic, in high-risk operations as in intimacy, there is wisdom in slowing down and taking your time. Hurrying is for beginners. As in love, when it comes to bullets, pain and possibly death, the late King of Rock and Roll would wisely remind us: “only fools rush in.”

Jeffrey J. Denning, CPS, CAS can be reached at Jeffrey_Denning@yahoo.com.

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