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Rethinking SWAT.

Scenarios requiring the deployment of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams have become fixtures of the contemporary American psyche. Indeed, in the public mind, a SWAT operation represents a rare occurrence in the administration of municipal services--a swift, highly efficient, and professional resolution to an identifiable problem. Yet, some administrators are beginning to question whether maintaining SWAT units makes the best use of increasingly limited resources.

I do not challenge the need for SWAT teams. They make up an integral part of law enforcement's response to today's crime problems. However, I do question the need for the number of SWAT units currently in existence around the Nation.

In an era when law enforcement agencies are caught in a wedge between rising crime rates and reduced funding, administrators should reexamine the allocation of resources to such a highly specialized unit. Managers may find that uniform patrol units could actually handle the vast majority of situations that now result in SWAT "callouts." Further, incidents that do warrant the unique abilities of a specialized unit may be handled by a regional or county SWAT team.


In virtually every field situation, patrol officers represent the first law enforcement presence. Generally, SWAT teams become involved only after patrol units stabilize the scene and uniformed supervisors assess whether their personnel or a SWAT unit should handle the situation.

In many organizations, patrol leaders may actually feel pressured to call for SWAT assistance on borderline cases, even though field supervisors believe that patrol personnel could resolve the incident. Unfortunately, this course of action often has less to do with officer or citizen safety issues than with justifying the costs of maintaining SWAT units.


When SWAT members arrive on a scene, they usually assume positions already held by patrol officers. There, they typically wait while negotiators encourage the suspect(s) to surrender. It has been my experience that due to these efforts, the majority of subjects--perhaps as many as 90 percent--surrender without shots being fired. In 9 out of 10 of the remaining incidents, subjects may fire several rounds, then realize the hopelessness of their situation and surrender--before any tactical engagement of the SWAT team. This equates to roughly 99 percent of barricade situations that could be handled effectively by patrol units and negotiators alone. The remaining incidents--about 1 percent of all barricade situations--may require the engagement of a SWAT unit.(1)

Analyzing SWAT Callouts

Even on those rare occasions in which the "waiting game" will not work--when the police cannot negotiate with the subject--SWAT assault may still be premature. In approximately one-half of these cases, provided there are no hostages, a canister of tear gas fired through a window will induce subjects to exit their barricade. At this point, either the subjects surrender, or if suicidal, they come out shooting. Uniformed patrol officers are more than capable of handling either scenario.

If exposure to tear gas does not cause subjects to exit--or if the subjects take hostages--then a tactical SWAT assault may represent the only viable option. Still, it could be argued that SWAT assault is truly necessary in very few incidents. With this in mind, today's agency administrators must ask themselves if maintaining a full-time SWAT unit makes the best use of limited funds and personnel resources.

Hostage Situations

Incidents involving hostages are intricately more complicated than barricade situations. In hostage incidents, uniform patrol units should relinquish control to appropriately trained SWAT teams. However, administrators should remember that for every such incident, there exist literally thousands of unnecessary SWAT callouts across the country for more routine events that patrol units could handle effectively.


Besides the considerable financial commitment associated with maintaining SWAT units, there exists another more subtle, but potentially negative, cost to police agencies. As police managers know, the specialized training and status that certain units receive can inspire a welcome and very constructive sense of esprit de corps within those units. However, after several years of specialization, a destructive sense of institutional elitism can develop.

Officers and supervisors in specialized units may lose a sense of identity with personnel in other sections of the department. If these views are allowed to persist, specialists begin to view patrol officers--the generalists--as second-class personnel. Even a perceived arrogance on the part of specialized units can lead to serious, and organizationally devastating, conflicts within agencies.(2)

Members of specialized units, such as SWAT teams, may also become so consumed by their narrowly focused missions that training in other areas becomes lax. This is not inevitable, but overspecialization can create a sense within SWAT units that the specific abilities they possess represent the best response to almost every situation. This sentiment runs counter to the evolving understanding that today's crime problems require a multifaceted approach from law enforcement.


Culver City

I have served in the Culver City, California, Police Department for over 16 years. In this time, the department requested the assistance of the county SWAT team once, but managed to resolve the incident prior to the team's arrival.

Culver City is not a sleepy little bedroom community. The city borders three very active precincts of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The Culver City Police Department fields 115 sworn officers, and the community confronts the same crime problems that all major metropolitan areas face. Yet, for at least 16 years, the department's patrol personnel managed all major field incidents without the assistance of the county SWAT team.

Los Angeles County

Between 1988 and 1991, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office (LASO) responded to approximately 500 requests for SWAT assistance. Through the first 3 years, every incident--approximately 385 calls--resulted in a "talkout." SWAT members fired no shots, and no one was killed. In 1991, out of 115 calls, LASO SWAT exchanged gunfire with five subjects, killing four.(3)

During this 4-year period, negotiators settled 99 percent of the incidents without shots being fired. Even in the most violent year, 1991, LASO SWAT settled 96 percent of the incidents through negotiation. These statistics take on special significance considering that crime rates in Los Angeles County generally rank among the highest in the Nation.


In no way do I advocate elimination of all SWAT teams--maintaining SWAT capabilities is an absolute necessity. At the same time, however, long-range budgetary realities will continue to force many agency administrators to search for expenditures that could be redirected.

I do believe that many of the SWAT units maintained by individual police departments throughout the country could be disbanded without threatening law enforcement capabilities. In most cases, existing regional or county SWAT teams could fill any void created. Granted, in some areas, regional SWAT units will either have to be created or enhanced, but in the long run, this will prove more cost-effective than funding individual units.

At the same time, the importance of maintaining regional SWAT capabilities cannot be overstated. Again, the Los Angeles County example applies. The county includes 47 municipal police departments and one sheriff's office (LASO). Each of the municipal departments has a mutual aid agreement with the sheriff's office, which maintains an extremely well-trained SWAT unit. Should an incident overwhelm a municipal agency's resources, the LASO SWAT team can be dispatched to help resolve the matter.

Still, no fewer than 15 of the municipal departments in the county maintain their own SWAT teams. While some of these teams are part-time, the expenditures consume a considerable portion of their agencies' financial and personnel outlays. With restricted budgets, these costs seem difficult to defend, especially in light of the mutual aid agreements.


Of course, certain exceptions exist. Large municipal agencies--such as the LAPD or the Chicago Police Department--can generally justify funding their own SWAT teams, even if they participate in countywide mutual aid agreements. Certainly, individual jurisdictions should consider population, demographics, crime rates, mutual aid responsibilities, and other factors when evaluating the need for SWAT teams.

Agencies in cities where fortified crack houses pose special entry problems for drug units should consider the special capabilities necessary to counter this problem. These and other considerations should certainly weigh in the minds of police administrators when reorganizing or reprioritizing SWAT units.


It may stand to reason that if municipal agencies disband their SWAT units, county SWAT teams will become overwhelmed by the increased workload. This need not be the case. As stated previously, many field situations that now result in SWAT callouts should be handled by patrol units.

In fact, by removing the organizational bias toward SWAT callout, agencies will afford greater flexibility to field supervisors. Simply put, if an agency's patrol units can resolve an incident as effectively and more efficiently than a county SWAT team, they should be allowed to do so. The change in organizational structure within agencies could then actually lead to reduced calls for assistance from county SWAT units.

In addition, several municipal agencies, such as the Ventura, California, Police Department, employ alternatives to full SWAT deployment. If, for example, a barricade situation involves a single subject threatening suicide, patrol field commanders may choose to call out a supervisor and a negotiator rather than a full SWAT complement.


Long-term budget constraints force managers to make decisions they may not wish to make. However, agencies that plan ahead for reduced or static funding will be better able to continue providing their communities with effective law enforcement.

SWAT is an indispensable component of the overall approach to modern policing. At the same time, it is an area where increased cooperation between municipal and county--or regional--agencies can benefit all parties involved. This increased cooperation would allow agencies and communities to maintain capabilities while redirecting funds to other areas within police budgets.

SWAT units were designed to react to specific situations and to perform a very specialized function. It may be time to adopt a more unified approach and to amend field supervision directives so that centralized SWAT units can resume handling the incidents they were designed to handle.


1 These figures are estimates based on the author's experiences and internal reports of the Los Angeles, California, Police Department.

2 See Tom Gabor, "Rotation: Is it Organizationally Sound?" FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 1992, 16.

3 Based on internal Los Angeles Police Department Special Enforcement Bureau reports, compiled 1992.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:police special weapons and tactics units
Author:Gabor, Tom
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:Reflections on British policing.
Next Article:Undercover investigations and the entrapment defense.

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