By Sgt. Thomas Dresner
SWAT: Friend or Foe of Free America?
You would have to live in a cave to not notice the “militarization” of segments of the American police agencies in the form of special tactical teams. Known by many acronyms across the country, the most generically recognizable, “SWAT” is a growing trend for policing in the 90s. You can’t turn on the news without seeing police officers in blue or black fatigues with Kevlar helmets and load bearing vests on a tactical operation somewhere in the U.S.
Does this worry you?
If so, I will try to give you a different frame of reference, from the perspective of a working tactical officer, though I must admit that what I profess can only REALLY hold true within the geographic boundaries of the city I serve.
I have read and seen news reports that describe the “militarization” of American police agencies in the form of their SWAT teams with a sense of foreboding. As if to say, “If we allow this to happen, the average American should be concerned for their safety.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
If militarization means wearing military helmets and fatigues, and ultimately resembling soldiers, then we are guilty as charged. But this is where the similarity ends. Military tactics have little place in civilian policing. SWAT is and should be committed to being a life saving entity, with no acceptable casualty levels.
SWAT generally serves a dual purpose in an average city. First is the traditional role, which is handling hostage situations, barricaded subjects, etc. The second is the service of high risk search warrants, either for narcotics, wanted dangerous felons and other high risk operations. There is much more opportunity for operational experience in the latter than the former, though training should prepare a team for both.
Equipping a team with automatic firearms has caused heartburn among some, even those who would argue for the relaxation of existing federal law for civilian ownership. It shouldn’t. They are simply better tools for the tasks at hand. And if we are truly committed to the concept that there are not “good” guns and “bad” guns, this must hold true for the police as well. Unfortunately, the media has created the mindset in the average American that black guns for police are good, but bad for Joe Citizen. As only a few anecdotal incidents by criminals make all gun owners look bad, such is the case whenever a particular SWAT team blows it.
Prior to the increasing popularity of the submachine gun for tactical operations, there was only the 12 gauge shotgun as an option for a shoulder arm for the American tactical officer. Large, with low magazine capacity, an attendant muzzle blast and recoil made it less than optimum for the precision needed in the kinds of confrontations that SWAT is tasked with. The SMG filled that need, with the low recoil, accuracy, high magazine capacity, and the ability to enhance the stopping power of a pistol cartridge with simultaneous impacts. With the forearm mounted light, the weapon is perfect for close quarters, on a bus assault or stakeout, day or night.
Historically, the submachine gun was prevalent in Europe, and rare in America, due to the events of the earlier years of the 20th century in gangland America. Magazine emptying gunfights with the trigger taped back would scare any modern police administrator who didn’t know that full automatic firearms usage by police has changed quite dramatically. In Europe, shotguns, ubiquitous here, are considered somewhat barbaric for use against human targets. Even with the advent of the modern tactical submachine method, that is always shoulder mounted, sighted fire, with 2-3 round bursts being the rule. Many were just not ready to buck outdated conventional wisdom.
That misplaced fear of full automatic firearms was not lost on our past administrators either. Though we tried to convince them that modern automatic fire doctrine dictates only sighted fire from the shoulder in short bursts, they would hear nothing of it. Though our tactical team has existed since 1976, full automatics were out of the question until recently, with a change of administration. Gone but not forgotten are the days when our bosses would only allow our three AR-15s to be loaded with 20 round magazines, because they felt the 30s were too “menacing.” This is the result of the mindset of police management with no tactical experience or training making tactical decisions. It is endemic to certain departments. For SWAT to excel, it takes a police administrator who trusts his people enough to allow them to possess the tools and to seek the training to be the best they can be. That occurred for us, with our new police chief, a veteran from south Florida, who has an extensive tactical background.
The noise flash diversion device, the textbook description for what are almost universally called “Flash bangs”, are a staple of most tactical teams. The most common brand is the Def-Tec #25, named for a heavy steel body that is re-loadable 25 times. With a 1.5 second delay fuze and a burn brightness and duration of 1.5 to 2.5 million candela for .054 seconds, and an average decibel level of 175, the flash bang is the refinement of years of testing and evaluation, and the sometimes operational use of artillery simulators of years past. Blown out windows and damaged hearing marked the early years of this tactic. Conceived as a method of diverting attention of hostile violent criminals so that a gunfight might be avoided, it is consistent with the primary mission of SWAT teams to be a life saving entity. For someone not expecting it, it can be quite terrifying. For someone who fully prepares for it and is ready, it might be less than effective. It is certainly not a panacea.
Though many teams use flash bangs, not all have guidelines and practice restraint in their use. For a team to deploy them blindly or indiscriminately without regard to children or the elderly being present is asking for liability in the worst way. We use a blast gauge in the event we deploy one in close proximity to anyone we refer to as unshielded, that is, not shielded by furniture or walls. We deploy a second device at the same point of ignition as the first, to counteract claims later of damaged or lost hearing.
In the hands of a well trained team, guided by restraint, and used only when there is a true high risk element to the warrant or entry, these are mission enhancing tools. If they are blindly lobbed in to scare drug dealers, then all SWAT suffers from the sins of the few, especially if they get the wrong house.
Dynamic entry, a term used to describe the sudden, rapid and surprise entry of several officers into a location for the purpose of confronting suspects and preventing the destruction of perishable evidence. Most likely used for narcotic search warrants, dynamic entry has its place, but can be overused. It also can violate what I describe as a departmental philosophy of de-escalation, or the avoidance of confrontation absent a compelling reason to do so. This only makes sense. If a wanted armed felon is hiding at his girlfriend’s house, and the warrant is for him, or even for him and any weapons, it makes no sense to execute a dynamic entry on the dwelling. He can’t flush his gun, and that additional charge is not worth risking an unnecessary gunfight. These decisions made routinely enhance credibility for a team in the mind of the reasonable man. It tells him that we are using our heads. And more simply, it is the right thing to do.
Any tactical team in America that is committed to doing the right thing, communes with its counterparts across America. Regional tactical officer associations abound, and the National Tactical Officers Association is the national clearinghouse for the sharing of tactical information. We are proud to be members.
Is there reason for fear?
All in all, I think not. If there is anything to fear, I think it would be the jurisdiction that allows carte blanche for its tactical team without the philosophy of de-escalation being paramount. Having your officers equipped with all of the toys and none of the training is asking for trouble in a big way. Combining this with a less than total commitment to search warrant pre-raid planning so that only the right address is raided is a recipe for disaster. In the realm of deadly force, what is done cannot be undone. That is the blade of the double edged sword that we must balance so delicately on. It is my belief that these teams are the exception rather than the rule.
We must as tactical officers in the modern age, be ready for the worst that can be visited on our cities, regardless of size. Violent crime can occur anywhere, but SWAT must be measured in its response and know and accede to the wishes of its city. Its operations must not be secret, and the team should willingly answer the questions of its citizens. If what we are doing is reasonable, then why wouldn’t we?
Next time, I will share with you what I think is a first in American SWAT. A shooting competition geared to the operational use of the tactical SMG. Our team conceived of and hosted what we call the “Midwest Police SWAT/SMG Championships. On April 4, 1998, 52 tactical officers from the Midwest converged on the Chapman Academy of Practical Shooting for a one day event. Indicative of its dominance of the American police market, the MP5 was the only gun represented. Four individual events, one two man team event and one four man team event were staged. All officers competing had to wear full tactical gear, all stages were fired full auto, with hostages in close proximity to the shoot targets. No optical sights allowed, no double mag clamps for faster reloads allowed. It was a true test of operational skill and training in the tactical use of the submachine gun.. I hope you’ll join us for the recap.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N11 (August 1998)|