By Paul Howe
Unfortunately, American law enforcement will one day face criminals and terrorists who have endured more rigorous and intense selection and training than their own SWAT personnel. Because of this and several other factors, it is vital that SWAT selection and training be kept at a high standard, free from political agenda and social experimentation. As in any enforcement action, the success of high-risk missions will hinge on a cohesive and highly trained SWAT element. Elevated standards in selection and training will help ensure the survival and safety of citizens and SWAT officers alike.
I am a firm believer that mediocrity in selection and training breeds liability. Furthermore, management attempts to artificially create equality at all costs is a liability, one that will erode unit cohesion at the very core. Going up against armed, hardened criminals is not a social experiment, nor should it be treated as one. We should select the best personnel for the job, period.
Many factors motivate officers to try out for SWAT. Obviously, serving in SWAT has several advantages over other assignments. SWAT service allows officers a platform from which to “serve and protect” at a higher level. By definition, tactical team members choose to enter harm’s way more often than those who perform other departmental duties. Additionally, highly motivated officers may wish to serve with other like-minded individuals, who seek an elevated degree of training and individual proficiency in their chosen profession.
Too many times, irrelevant social standards are applied to SWAT selection criteria in an effort to get an ethnically and gender balanced team. In effect, we lower the overall standard and capability of the team when seeking some theoretical semblance of equality. Selection standards should be known, posted and applicable to the worst-case scenario, not the best. We should put the burden of attaining fitness and tactical proficiency where it belongs—on the back of the officer who applies for SWAT. Whether an officer attains proficiency or not is not the department’s problem. Simply put, if officers want to be on SWAT, they must devote personal time and energy to hone their physical fitness and individual skills (shooting, etc.) to make the selection process. They should not be handed a SWAT assignment because of a political appointment. Individual initiative is a critical component of a SWAT officer’s mindset and should be weighed heavily during the selection process. In fact, individual initiative is critical to building a cohesive and tactically proficient special operations team.
It is not my intention to stab at any gender, race or socioeconomic group. My belief stems in part from the words of a former leader “when you can do what I do, you can go where I go.” This is simple, folks—if we apply a lower standard to the selection process for social reasons, we lower the overall unit’s standards and capabilities. If we promote a lower standard, we are doing an injustice to the people we serve. We must require all selection candidates to reach the same elevated mission-oriented standards, and not lower them to make anyone feel better or increase the numbers or quotas. In effect, when we raise the bar, we require selection candidates to rise to a higher level instead of catering to a weak human nature and lame excuses. I would much prefer going into harm’s way with a few select individuals that I know and trust, rather than a group that I have to monitor for safety, tactical proficiency and courage. I would rather devote a majority of my attention to the threat we are going up against.
How do we raise the bar? We need to have one set of goal-oriented standards that apply to the SWAT mission. Separate standards for genders or ethnic groups, whether physical, written or oral will only create ill will, mistrust and tension within the unit. How do we make tests equal? Simple. I will use the average weight of a dummy used in the drag test as an example. How do we determine what the weight of the dummy should be? First, add the weight of all team members in their full tactical gear together and then divide it by the number of people weighed to get an average weight. This should be the weight of the dummy. It’s not only realistic, it’s fair. More importantly, it’s geared toward a worst-case scenario should a real-life casualty have to be moved.
Again, selection of personnel for SWAT leadership should be a gender, race and politically neutral decision. Preferably, this selection should be conducted from within the SWAT element for continuity and ease of integration. Too many times leadership is implanted from other parts of the department. Often personnel with no SWAT experience or a short “ticket punch” are sent back to lead officers who have a great deal more experience and talent.
This causes the unit to regress and take a step back to retrain a weak link. On the other hand, I do believe in a rotation system where SWAT officers go back into the mainstream of the department after 6-8 years and give back to the overall organization. These rotations will spread the leadership wealth throughout the department and also allow regular officers to interface with SWAT personnel, helping to end the perception of elitism. This will lessen the animosity that is generally present within the department toward special operations personnel.
Let’s face it, if your SWAT standards are the same as your departmental standards, something is wrong! Why? If the average patrol officer could handle the situation with their level of training, they would not need to call SWAT. Special operations exists because situations can be delicate and extremely hazardous. It follows that special skills are needed to ensure safety of the community and fellow officers, and to end the threat. Unfortunately, many times teams adopt the same standards as those of their departments because they are readily available and easy to implement. This should not happen—special operations must hold themselves to a higher standard.
I don’t care who is behind me going through a door, but I do care that they made the same selection process and training standards as I did, and that they possess the same physical, mental and tactical skills necessary to fight through any situation and accomplish the mission. True professionals don’t care about the race or gender of their team members—they do care whether or not these individuals have the same elevated standards in selection and training. Long ago, I was taught, and still believe that we all bleed the same.
About the Author
Paul R. Howe, MSG US Army (Retired) Paul served for over 20 years in the US military, with more than 10 years in the Army’s elite Special Operations Forces. During his tour in Special Operations, he participated in multiple combat operations and conducted high-risk protection missions in several overseas venues. He was a senior instructor and taught assault and sniper skills, and well as other high-risk training.