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Use-of-force considerations for SWAT operators

Tactical Commanders and Team Leaders should spend time with their operators so they have a clear understanding of the legal constraints they face

Today more than ever, SWAT officers are frequently facing more dangerous situations as they perform their tactical operations. Terrorism (domestic and international), drug dealers (Cartels) and a more violent society/culture have replaced organized crime as the normal threat to SWAT teams.

One can argue the fact that today’s SWAT officer faces greater danger than those of the past. However, there is no need to argue that today’s SWAT operator has more legal constraints and considerations then those Warriors in previous years.

There are several considerations that we must concern ourselves with regularly — often in a fraction of a second — when considering the use of deadly force. These factors influence all officers that have to consider using deadly force.

Deadly Force and Tactical Planning
There are three factors that should be at the forefront of our decision making when planning a tactical operation where deadly force may be encountered.

1.) No matter what tactical objective we are planning to achieve, SWAT operators must always consider, “how serious is the offense” that you are dealing with.

This is a simple rule and if you’re not dealing with a potentially violent or suicidal subject, you (and/or your SWAT team) are subject to severe scrutiny if something fails or goes wrong.

2.) When dealing with the person who created the crisis, ask yourself: “Is the person to whom force may be applied (by or from your SWAT team) posing a threat to an officer or an innocent person”?

The answer in most tactical situations should be “yes.”

If the answer is “no,” then you might be better served allowing the uniform officers to handle the situation (if it’s practical and safe). Otherwise you might find yourself accused of using excessive force by allowing a SWAT team to handle the crisis.

3.) When dealing with dangerous suspects, ask yourself “is the suspect attempting to resist arrest, flee or evade an arrest?”

4.) And any other exigent circumstances present at the time.

Objectively Reasonable
As SWAT officers, the standard remains the same as a uniformed officer when considering the use of deadly force. Deadly force must be “objectively reasonable” under the circumstances faced by the officer.

A federal appeals court held that a police SWAT team sniper acted in an “objectively reasonable” manner in shooting when the police sniper killed an armed suspect. (Long v. City and County of Honolulu, No. 05-16567, 2007 U.S. App. Lexis 29530 (9th Cir. 2007)). Neither the officer nor the city was liable for the death.

The officer, according to the court, heard the suspect threaten to shoot officers, observed him carrying a rifle, and had knowledge that he had previously shot at a car full of people, wounding two of them. Additionally, fellow officers had radioed that the suspect was shooting at them and yelling threats.

Under these circumstances, the police sniper reasonably believed that the suspect posed an immediate danger, justifying the use of deadly force.

The court further ruled that a decision that was made to wait for a light armored vehicle for safety reasons before entering the property where the suspect was located did not constitute “deliberate indifference.”

Today’s SWAT operators are typically better trained and better equipped than their predecessors but the responsibility hasn’t eased up when responding to tactical situations. The many legal updates that are available to today’s officers are well worth subscribing to. Tactical Commanders and Team Leaders should spend time with their operators so they have a clear understanding of the legal constraints they face.

Glenn French, a retired Sergeant with the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, has 24 years police experience and served as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team, and supervisor of the Sterling Heights Police Department Training Bureau. He has 16 years SWAT experience and also served as a Sniper Team Leader, REACT Team Leader, and Explosive Breacher.

Contact Glenn French.

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