Andrew Klinger, MTI Contributor
In my previous assignment I served as the operations officer for our USAF Security Forces Squadron. In this capacity I had the same roles and responsibilities as a patrol lieutenant, overseeing the day-to-day functions of our unit. I had several different additional duties, but my favorite was as the Officer-in-Charge (OIC) for our Emergency Services Team (or EST, a common Air Force designation for a SWAT team).
The team was composed of personnel who, like many other departments/agencies across the country, were not permanently assigned to the team and performed their EST duties part-time. The team was relatively new (formed in 2017 and I arrived at the unit in 2020). I figured that ,with my training and previous experience, running the EST would be a piece of cake. Instead I discovered how complex and nuanced it is to actually manage/administrate a part-time SWAT team. What I share are the core lessons I learned through trial & errors, some successes, some failures, and lots of reflection in the post-assignment.
There are five areas should be the primary focus of leaders who oversee a SWAT team: capabilities, selection, finances, standards, and relevancy
The foundational cornerstone of a SWAT program is defining, refining, and maintaining its capabilities. While this may seem obvious to some, it wasn’t until my final six months of my assignment overseeing our SWAT team that I realized I had not sat down with the team leader and deliberately defined our capabilities. As a result, our unit had no clear guidance on when to employ our SWAT team and the operators had no definitive standards to train towards. In hindsight, the absence of defined capabilities was the root of a lot of our smaller problems within the team.
A SWAT team’s capabilities will depend on jurisdiction, existing policies, state & local law, and what equipment the unit possesses/expects to procure. These capabilities must be codified in writing.
At a minimum, part-time SWAT teams should be capable of the following:
- High-risk warrant service
- Apprehension of barricaded subjects
- Long-distance precision engagement
The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) provides a great open source guide to SWAT standards that includes capabilities that are appropriate to each “tier” of SWAT teams. Keep in mind that this is a guideline, and that it is up to the leaders within a unit to set capabilities for a SWAT team that are appropriate to the unit’s environment.
For example, our EST did not have the facilities, equipment, or an urgent operational need to maintain a sniper program. As a result, we deliberately chose to leave out long-distance precision engagement as a defined capability and instead relied on a memorandum-of-agreement with a nearby SWAT team to provide that capability, should we require it for a mission.
Leaders should tailor their capabilities to the demands of their environment. A rural-based SWAT team might include manhunt operations as part of its capabilities, whereas a coastal SWAT team might add in maritime interdiction to its SOPs. It’s up to a unit’s leaders to translate local needs/demands into defined capabilities.
Within each listed capability, there are also sub-competencies or sub-capabilities that support it. For example, apprehension of a barricaded subject has the following sub- competencies (not all inclusive):
- Apprehension of a barricaded subject
- Mission planning process
- Floor plan reading
- Manual breaching techniques
- Close Quarter Combat tactics
- Low-light/no-light equipment use
Addressing capabilities first gives a two-fold benefit.
First, it clearly defines if and when the SWAT team will be employed. One of the biggest challenges I struggled with as the EST OIC was explaining what our team did. I just figured that they did “SWAT stuff”, which is absolutely the wrong answer.
Defining capabilities allows senior leaders to clearly articulate what the SWAT team’s purpose is, and consequently justify its purpose to the larger public.
Second, clearly defined capabilities gives your SWAT team leader or training leader an objective or standard to train to. When the team understands what capabilities and sub-capabilities they are supposed to be responsible for, it presents a straightforward path to what their training should be focused around. This is crucial in the tightly constricted training environment that many part-time SWAT teams have, where teams might only have one or two days out of the month where group training can take place.
Arguably, one of the most important and highlighted features of a SWAT team is its selection process. SWAT tryouts are saturated in the media, with plenty of movies and TV shows (both fiction and reality television) that document the grueling and intense process.
Selection processes vary from unit to unit, although there are commonalities. At a national level, over 80% of units use some combination of an application, background review, and a physical fitness test. Selections are essential to ensuring the right candidates make it on to the team, and that they will continue to contribute to the team’s success. However, senior leaders should keep in mind that selections are a tool; they are a means to an end and not an end in themselves.
Selections must be deliberately structured so that every event assesses a desired trait or skill within each candidate. Unit needs and the SWAT team’s typical missions will dictate most of what a selection assesses for, but should (ideally) include the following:
- Written application (tests candidates abilities to follow directions/procedure)
- Physical fitness test (tests candidates fitness ability)
- Tactical skills test (tests candidates weapons handling, tactics knowledge, etc)
- Oral interview (tests candidates ability to communicate)
For the physical fitness test and tactical skills test, it’s essential that senior leaders and the team leader put some serious thought into what specific attributes the tests will examine. Every team will have its own mission set that comes with its own physical demands, so leaders should spend some time considering what types of fitness demands their team’s mission will ask of the operators. The best tests will test candidates’ tactical and physical skills at the same time. For example, a rural based SWAT team might find a ruck march useful for testing its candidates because it tests aerobic endurance, core/back strength, and knowledge of how to set up a pack. It’s also important for the tests to be simple, since overcomplicated tests will add unnecessary challenges, obscure the results, and open up the SWAT team to criticism on potential selection bias.
Our team ran a simple circuit physical fitness test. It consisted of four laps around a standard 400m track, with pushups, sit ups, and squats, while the candidate carried a sandbag, for time. This test worked very well for us because it assessed the physical traits we desired, was simple and required minimal equipment, and was also the same physical fitness test that operators who were already on the team had to accomplish annually.
Our team also ran the test before we used it in selection, which gave us a range of scores to evaluate candidates from. It also lent credibility to the test, since candidates knew that everyone who was already on the team could pass the test.
I recommend that part-time SWAT teams use a longer probation-style selection. In a probation style selection, candidates are invited out for a single day or even just a half day to complete basic evaluations (oral interview, fitness test, skills test). Candidates are then continuously evaluated over the next several months as they work in with the team during their routine training days. At the end of the probationary period (anywhere from 4-6 months), the team leader makes a decision to keep or cut candidates based on their performance while on probation.
Probation-style selections are more advantageous as compared to a traditional “hell week” style selection for several reasons.
Compressed, multi-day selection events are costly and have significant logistic requirements. They take officers away from their primary duties to act as cadre for the selection, which may be difficult to justify based on the unit’s operational tempo. This constraint is amplified if the SWAT team is a regional team with multiple units within it, as selection cadre have to coordinate with their respective units to set aside their primary duties to conduct a selection. This also applies to the candidates, who would also have to leave their primary duties to attend selection.
Probation-style selections are logistically easier, since candidates and cadre only have to leave their primary duties for a day or even a half-day to put on the initial selection event.
Probation-style selections allow all part-time SWAT teams, regardless of their environment or mission, the opportunity to assess for what is arguably the most important trait for a candidate to possess; the willingness to put in additional work. By using a probationary period, leaders can observe a candidate over weeks/months during the team’s training and determine whether they have the right attitude toward the team and SWAT duties. Oftentimes, a SWAT candidate may perform well during initial selection but then not show commitment to the team (i.e. make excuses and miss routine training). Probationary periods give leaders the chance to catch those kinds of candidates before significant time/money/training are invested in them.
A common complaint amongst all SWAT teams, not just part-time teams, is the lack of availability for funds. While skill is the most important feature of any team, one cannot deny that money is a fundamental resource for SWAT. Money enables better vehicles, equipment, gear, weapons, training courses, and supplies. This is an area where I, as many other senior leaders, struggled with. I was able to secure funding to get my operators into some unique training courses and we were blessed with some good equipment from previous fiscal years. But this had more to do with our status as a military unit than my ability to advocate for funds.
What I did not realize until my final few months in the job is that the key to money is to connect it with capabilities. A good senior leader should be able to clearly justify the link between what capabilities the SWAT team is required to fill and what gear/supplies/training is needed to fulfill that capability. If you are an urban based part-time SWAT team with a required capability to conduct long distance precision engagement, then acquiring long range precision weapons and sending operators to distance shooting courses is a no-brainer fiscal requirement.
If the team did not secure the funding for long distance weapons and training, what are the consequences? Will the unit have to rely on support agreements with units that have that capability? What are their response times? Who incurs the liability if the SWAT team cannot utilize their sniper team?
A good leader will be able to explain the capability-cost connection in simple terms to whoever controls the purse strings for their unit, and the consequences should they fail to be funded. Although leaders may not be successful getting money every time they ask, by being able to articulate the funding requirements needed to maintain capabilities and financial consequences (not just the tactical consequences) of failing to fund the team, a SWAT leader will find more success than failure.
The flip side of this coin is that senior leaders have an obligation to make sure that funds are appropriately used and that there is a clear justification for every penny spent. Sometimes that means taking a tough critical look inward and being able to say “no” to the good ideas and wants of the team, so that the needs can be funded.
A constant request from my EST was to get our OD green utility uniforms restocked. The team had purchased its inventory in 2016 when they were getting ready to form the team, but by 2021 were almost out of the uniforms due to routine wear and use. But there was no good justification; the Air Force supplied us with uniforms and equipment so there was no need for OD green uniforms. The team kept pressing me to make a purchase request, and I kept saying no.
When I finally confronted the team leader/subordinate leaders about the request, the best justification I got back was “we need to look different to better identify us during an incident”. Not a great answer, so I gave them a firm and final “no”. Instead, we made purchase requests for outside training opportunities that brought tangible skills we needed back to the team.
Developing, improving, and maintaining standards is arguably the most crucial process that the SWAT team will conduct as part of its day-to-day administration. It is also a facet of running a SWAT team that senior leaders must be involved with, particularly concerning accountability. By setting and enforcing standards, you can help avoid the “SWAT-shirt mentality” taking root within the team (credit to fellow contributor Joseph Hood).
The first step in this process is to make sure you have the correct standards in place to begin with. As with capabilities, standards must be formally codified and available to any member of the unit regardless of whether they are on the SWAT team or not. This assists with transparency and accountability. There should never be any unwritten rules or standards, nor any rules or standards that do not connect to the team’s mission. Publishing simple and meaningful standards helps to create assurance versus anxiety among the team since there’s no ambiguity about what is expected. Senior leaders should sit down and deliberately think through what standards they will impose on the team.
While not all inclusive, standards should address at a minimum:
- Personal conduct of operators (on or off duty)
- Physical fitness (ideally, whatever test they had to do for selection is the same test they must continue to pass while on the team)
- Tactical proficiency (broken down into two subsections)
- Basic skills (skills that all operators require i.e. shooting, CQB, mission planning, etc)
- Specialized skills (skills that only certain team members require i.e. sniper, breacher, medic, etc)
- Training attendance (this includes both attending training events as well as motivation toward training)
- Safety standards (for protective equipment, training safety, and operator safety while on mission)
- Unit standards (any failure to meet basic agency/department/unit standards should also constitute a failure to maintain SWAT standards)
To harmonize this process, the second step is to outline and codify consequences for failure to meet standards. Just like with publishing the standards, publishing the consequences for the standards helps lessen the anxiety when it comes to performance failure and create a culture of accountability on the team.
Unit policies will likely direct what kind of consequence system a team adopts, however I advise that teams adopt a “three strike” warning, probation, and then removal system. Ideally, leaders should allow operators a chance to correct substandard performance before removing them from the team. The one exception to this recommendation is personal conduct violations, as that is often a more egregious deviation from team standards.
When it comes to operators who violate personal conduct standards, the best advice is to follow unit policies and to give each case its own individual consideration. Oftentimes, this will mean removal without the chance for a warning or probation period.
It is frequently tempting for leaders to try and retain substandard operators on the team in order to keep team numbers up/maintain a positive unit culture/avoid awkward team dynamics/any other number of justifications.
I personally made this mistake often, excusing my efforts to hold onto poor performers in the name of maintaining minimum manning numbers. I would let out-of-shape operators stay on the team, and simply keep extending their probations because “they would pass eventually”. Or I would let operators consistently skip training days, excusing their absences thinking “they’ve got a lot going on personally, it’s ok if they miss this week.” While my reasoning was logical (after all, you can’t respond to incidents if you don’t have enough people), I let it get in the way of building a competent team that had legitimately high standards.
Senior leaders must adhere to/apply the standards and consequences that they set for a SWAT team in order to avoid these type of mistakes.
A SWAT team will always have an inherent level of scrutiny that surrounds them due to their mission, status, and depiction online/in the media. A SWAT team will also be in a state of constant change, because tactics, equipment, and policy updates will compound with changeover of personnel on the team. Between these outside factors, leaders at all levels within a unit have an obligation to manage the team’s relevancy.
The oxford dictionary for relevance is “the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.” In the context of SWAT team operations, especially part-time SWAT teams, the key word here is “appropriate.” Leaders have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that every aspect of their SWAT team is legal, logical, and appropriate.
This is what also makes managing a team’s relevancy so nuanced and complicated, and difficult to define. Here are some key questions that can help frame a SWAT team’s relevance.
- What is the team’s primary mission(s), and does the team have the required capabilities for that/those mission(s)?
- What policies govern the team’s operations, and how often are they reviewed?
- What kinds of training do operators on the team receive, and how does it align with the team’s mission(s) and capabilities?
- Who or what directs when the SWAT team gets the call out, and how active is the team?
- What is the public’s perception of the unit’s SWAT team, and what factors influence that perception?
- What resources does the SWAT team possess/have access to, and how does those resources facilitate the team’s capabilities?
If your team is like many other part-time SWAT teams around the US, then you likely don’t have a good answer to at least one of these questions. The good news is that the solution to managing the relevancy for a SWAT team is often well within the control of the leaders within the unit.
My EST had an issue with low operational activity. While I was grateful that we did not have an emergency situation that warranted a full EST callout during my time as the OIC, it created some understandably bored operators. After all, why give up your Saturdays or go through a selection and not get to actually do a live mission?
As the leader and manager, I identified that I had to give my team some other operational mission or interest in the team (both internal to the unit and external from our higher ups) would disappear. Our installation received dozens of distinguished visitors every year, and oftentimes they requested security escorts from our unit. I started assigning these requests to our EST. While they weren’t the most glamorous jobs, they gave our operators an operational mission and made them feel like their training was being put toward something. And as a bonus, our operators received much deserved recognition (in the form of coins/patches from the DVs) and it lessened the burden on our patrols to support those escort missions.
As the leader of a team, you can alleviate or solve a lot of issues that threaten a team’s relevancy simply by creatively using the authority of your position. Some examples include:
- Formal or informal recognition for operators, especially in front of community leaders or their peers.
- Featuring SWAT operations in recruitment events or community outreach to generate interest
- Insistence on higher levels of training, or advocacy during budget meetings
- Deliberate involvement in SWAT policy, and sitting down with the team leader annually to review the Standard Operating Procedures
- Introducing SWAT participation as an administrative metric for the purposes of promotion or career development
- Training partnerships or cross-talk collaborative events with neighboring unit’s SWAT teams
- Hosting SWAT challenge competitions where multiple agencies/departments/units can participate
- Sending operators to external training courses
- Formalizing team traditions, such as graduation from initial operator skills training or going-aways
- Inviting community leaders or partner organizations to participate in a training day for an “open-house” event
How one goes about increasing & managing the relevance of their SWAT team will be largely dictated by their unit’s unique environment (team size, budget, community, unit policies, resources, etc). The one common thread is that senior leaders need to be imaginative when using their position to help advance the team.
Andrew is an officer in the USAF Security Forces.
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