Militarization of Special Weapons and Tactics Teams In American Policing: A Los Angeles Police Department Perspective

Guest Bloggers: Charlie Beck, Chief of Police; Michael Downing, Deputy Chief
Commanding Officer, Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau; and
Ruben Lopez, Lieutenant, Officer-in-Charge, SWAT – Los Angeles, California, Police Department

There have been many reports and articles concerning the militarization of municipal law enforcement tactical teams commonly known as Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT).
Most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union’s report entitled, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, focused on the militarization of SWAT teams and whether the transfer of military equipment to these teams lacked effective civilian oversight, resulting in unnecessary and excessive force. The evolution and growth of these teams scattered throughout our country in various forms (regional, part-time, full-time), have continued with more part-time teams being assembled and equipped with current funding opportunities from the U.S. government. Questions have been raised whether the proliferation of SWAT teams without civilian oversight has resulted in some units, lacking the traditional mission, to default to serving narcotic-related search warrants, a dangerous and unnecessary temptation.

Members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT team agree with the American Civil Liberties Union that the lines between municipal law enforcement and the U.S. military cannot be blurred. The two are clearly distinct in existence and purpose. That distinction is one of the pillars the U.S. founding fathers established in the democracy in order to prevent the emergence of a military state. Equipping a SWAT team with armored vehicles does not result in a militarized posture when proper civilian oversight, policies, training, selection, and accountability processes are in place. While there are occasions when the police mission requires the use of military tactics and equipment in order to contain and control an incident, the SWAT officer’s responsibility remains that of a peace officer and not a soldier. The SWAT teams should never view their mission as one that will become military in nature. The application of negotiation and extraordinary tactics that diminish the necessity to use force should always be the primary objective of the SWAT team. The SWAT ethos is about respect for human life and protecting and defending the U.S. Constitution and laws.

Over the last decade, some of the most sophisticated technological advances and equipment have been transferred from the military to municipalities. The primary responsibility of local law enforcement when adopting and employing these capabilities is to protect against embracing the core military culture and mission that was behind its original development. Members of a SWAT team are peace officers presented with missions and core values that do not involve enemies, but rather persons who, no matter what crime they are alleged to have committed, are entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The military mission is to confront and kill a defined enemy. The peace officer has no enemies.

The formation of SWAT teams began to take shape during the 1960s and 1970s when
heavily armed revolutionaries confronted local law enforcement agencies who were viewed as representatives of an oppressive government.

Violent ordeals such as the 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery; the Columbine High School shooting; the events of September 11, 2001; the Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Fort Hood, and Aurora, shootings; and gang and drug cartel violence, caused many law enforcement agencies to reflect on how prepared they needed to be in dealing with real-world events involving phrases such as “active shooter,” “mass casualties,” and “domestic terrorism,” which have become all too commonplace in the 21st century United States.

Fulfilling the solemn duty of ensuring public safety in today’s world demands that tactical teams utilize state-of-the-art technology, equipment, training, and tactics. Staying current with equipment and technological advances contributes to the safety of all who are involved in police SWAT operations at a dynamic scene. However, the professionally managed and supervised SWAT operations employ the use of such equipment and tactics only when confronting the types of incidents for which SWAT teams were originally established: control of high-risk incidents that require extraordinary tactics, skills, critical thinking, and good judgment that minimizes harm to civilians and property while maximizing the police department’s ability to ensure the safety of everyone involved, including suspects. Also critically important is the effective civilian oversight and evaluation of the actions of SWAT teams, both in their defined purpose, as well as the aftermath of deployments.

Since its inception, the greatest legacy of the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT team has been its professional evolution in meeting the challenges presented by high-risk missions in an ever-changing urban environment, while at the same time ensuring that the constitutional values and safety of victims, suspects, and the community at large were protected. Each member of LAPD SWAT goes through a three-month school where they learn the core disciplines needed to perform the various SWAT missions. This three-month period is not only a time of learning for the student, but an ongoing evaluation of the student to ensure they are mentally, emotionally, and physically capable to fully apply the learned disciplines. The core learning domains include Crisis Negotiation Training (CNT), Hostage Rescue Tactics (HRT), less-lethal tactics, and high-risk warrant service. Once successfully completing the SWAT school and a probationary period as a member of the SWAT team, the members of SWAT select additional cadres where they receive more sophisticated levels of specialized training. These disciplines include sniper, defensive tactics, emergency medical technician, breaching, climbing, and tactical waterborne tactics. Each of these disciplines requires rigorous training and certification. Each month, all members of SWAT attend multiple days of core training to ensure they are mission ready. The various cadres then have additional days each month where members hone their skills and receive updated training to stay current with best practices. Testing, evaluation, debriefing, and outreach to other agencies are all part of an ongoing process to keep the tactics and training at a performance capacity that ensures the highest level of professional, safety-oriented service provided to the community.

SWAT teams were never intended to be an arm of narcotic squads for the routine service of search warrants. In Los Angeles, the LAPD SWAT command is tasked with the right of refusal to support the service of search warrants when, in their judgment, the tactics and equipment required do not exceed the capabilities and training of a traditional detective or uniformed police officer. In 2013, the LAPD SWAT team was used less than 1 percent of the time for search warrant service.

In closing, SWAT teams, their vehicles, armor, and weapon systems have a specific purpose and should properly be restricted to those high-risk incidents requiring extraordinary tactics and skills that exceeds the capabilities and training of traditional detectives and uniformed officers.

As stated earlier, SWAT teams should not be used for routine search warrant service involving narcotics cases. The SWAT response should be measured and limited to those dynamic, aggressive, and potentially violent incidents where the tools, training, and stature are required. To be used otherwise poses the risk of a loss of public confidence and trust.

Note: Guest posts, including the one above, represent the views of the authors listed and may not necessarily reflect the views of the IACP.

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