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Why the action is on the perimeter

Whether the call out is for a barricaded gunman, a robbery in progress, a high-risk arrest, or a search warrant, a perimeter is essential


An Anaheim, Calif., police armored car and FBI SWAT team members gather near the perimeter of a bank standoff.

AP Photo/Nick Ut

Any experienced team leader will tell you that the prevailing complaint from team members is, “Why do I always end up on the perimeter?” Somehow it’s become akin to being put into right field. However, the ball occasionally gets hit to right field.

Every member of your SWAT team wants to go through the door – it’s in their nature. But one of the basic goals of any SWAT action is to contain the problem. Tactical operators might think they’re being left out of the action when they are assigned to the perimeter, but this thinking underestimates the importance of the perimeter.

Whether the call out is for a standoff with a barricaded gunman, a robbery in progress, a high-risk arrest, or a search warrant, a perimeter is essential. The perimeter needs to be secured prior to entry being made and should be done in such a matter so as not to tip the hand of the police. Members securing the perimeter must make their approach and arrival unheard and unseen. They must be mentally and physically prepared to deal with the same threats the entry team might face.

What can go wrong on the perimeter?

A team can have incredible intelligence, gleaned from the best informants and gathered by the best investigators. The team can arrive at the perfect time when the suspect is present, unaware and holding the proverbial bag. The breacher can find the quickest entry point with an unlocked door and the entry can be made with the precision of a marine drill team.

Even if all these things fall into place, if the perimeter is not secure, then the bad guy, who has prepared an escape hole, is out and gone without even blowing a kiss goodbye. Incidentally, that is the best-case scenario on the list of things that can go wrong.

The importance of the perimeter cannot be understated. When SWAT arrives, criminals have a tendency to feel the vise has closed and escape is useless. With flight no longer an option, they have to choose whether to posture, fight or submit. The majority of the time criminals submit and that is due in part to the tight and instantaneously formed perimeters that are the trademark of SWAT teams.

What skills are needed to handle the perimeter?

When placing officers on the perimeter, a team leader should select someone who can run with directives on who to pursue and who not to pursue if necessary. Foot pursuits are common. You need to place someone who has excellent empty hand skills, because quite often someone who can run will actually catch the fleeing suspect and then they will have to win the inevitable struggle. Sometimes this struggle takes place well beyond the scene, with little back-up.

Officers assigned to the perimeter have to know how and when to use their firearms; many times SWAT is called because the suspect has said, “I’ll not go back to prison. They will not take me alive.” For some that is just macho talk, but for others, that is a prediction.

What people call “suicide by cop” could be “homicide of a cop” if the officers manning the perimeter are unable to respond, ill prepared to respond or just not paying attention. You cannot fully understand the mind of a person who is pointing a firearm at you and telling you he is going to kill you. You must be prepared to shoot to stop the imminent deadly threat. This happens frequently around the country on the perimeters of SWAT calls.

Officers assigned to the perimeter should have the ability and authority to begin negotiations, because frequently suspects initiate contact with the police by just walking outside with a gun to their heads, or to a hostage’s head. The first people with any opportunity to have a positive impact on what is transpiring will be personnel on the perimeter.

The perimeter should also provide security at the scene to prevent a drive-by shooting directed at police or possible witnesses and informants at the scene.

Depending on the location of the event, it may become necessary to perform crowd control on a perimeter. The SWAT response may delight the neighborhood in some cases and, in others, it may enrage a neighborhood. Crowd control creates unique challenges for perimeter personnel.

Nearly every tactical plan should include a marked squad with pursuit capability. This is an often-overlooked aspect of tactical plans. Frequently the target suspect is not at the residence, especially during entries to serve search warrants. While the residence is being searched, the suspect may return home only to flee when they see the police. You don’t want to be left on foot with no vehicles nearby, yelling in a frustrated voice over your radio, “Somebody, stop that car!”

With a marked unit standing by on the perimeter, this common problem can be easily remedied.

The action is on the perimeter

If you’re a team leader or team member and someone is complaining, “Why am I always on the perimeter?” you could use the right field analogy above. Better still, you can say that the perimeter is the shortstop in baseball, the goalie in hockey, or the defensive back in football. You probably won’t though, because sports analogies hardly fit such a serious situation. It’s not a game we’re playing.

Just say this: “We need someone we can count on there. The action is on the perimeter!”

This article, originally published on 6/4/2009, has been updated.

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. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.