Avoiding “SWAT Shirt” Mentality – Full Time Mindset for Part-Time Tactical Teams

By Joseph Hood, MTI Contributor

As hard as it is to admit, I struggle with a false sense of self. I am on a law enforcement tactical team and suck at running and pullups right now. My handgun scores, though passing, are not the consistent 95 percent-plus that they should be. My concealed carry weapon has recently started pushing harder into my belly, or as I like to call it, my “level-two retention system”. As an 11-year veteran law enforcement officer, it shames me to admit all of this. I wasn’t always this way, so what the hell happened? How can I fix it?

SWAT Shirt Mentality

For the past 8 years of my career, I have been on units that are saddled with both investigatory and warrant service duties. During that time, I have attended many hours of tactical training. If you have ever attended any sort of law enforcement training, I am sure you have had to “stand up and tell us a little bit about yourself.”

Inevitably, at nearly every course that I have attended that involved multiple agencies, there was always at least one guy from some small department with a less-than-impressive physique who proudly stood and introduced themselves by their collateral tactical assignments; SWAT, ERT, SRT, narcotics tactical team, etc. Many even omitted the fact that their tactical job was part-time, that their primary function was as a patrol officer, a road deputy, detective, or some other law enforcement function. If anyone ever had a doubt about their tactical prowess, then they could be easily reassured by the boldly-emblazoned SWAT t-shirts they wore stretched over their bellies. Yikes.

I always smirked and judged those type of guys on face value. I assumed that their tactical team program was likely full of similar officers, more proud of getting together once a month and going through the motions wearing their SWAT t-shirts than their actual individual and team performance, standards, professionalism, and experience. And I was probably right…

In those same courses, I would also see some serious studs; squared-away operators from full- and part-time teams whose demeanor, performance, and humble attitudes projected an experienced, professional image. These dudes were fit, shot great, and held their teammates to a high standard. I truly believe I was one of those guys at some point. However, I found out that I was probably getting too comfortable in my “SWAT shirt”.

Let me clarify. I am not on an actual SWAT or SRT team, nor do I own any shirts with the words “SWAT” on them. I currently lead a team of counter narcotics investigators who are tasked with serving our own search warrants (unless they meet a certain level of high-threat on a SWAT matrix, at which point we turn the warrant service over to an actual SWAT team). Thus, I believe it is fair to say that we are a “part-time” tactical team. So instead, though many of us have had SWAT training, my proverbial “SWAT shirt” consists of a flowing beard, street clothes, and a cool-guy plate carrier. I am undercover-operator-cool personified (in my own mind). 

The Wake Up

Although I consider us to be a part-time tactical team, we typically conduct approximately 50-60 search warrant services a year. I have been fortunate in my career to have been part of, and sometimes to have led, many successful investigations and tactical operations. I have always been outwardly humble about this, but somehow was still unsuccessful in resisting the urge to portray myself as awesome in my own mind. 

Unfortunately, this self-image led me to train less. I gradually stopped running and exercising. I began to come up with excuses to skip range days to handle “more pressing” tasks. After all, I knew I was squared-away, right? Coming home and practicing dry-firing my pistol turned into cracking a beer and relaxing, especially after I started getting nagging injuries from work. I told myself that I had worked hard in my career, and had finally earned the right to chill a little. I was lying to myself. 

Was the work I was doing any less dangerous than before? No. Did I have less responsibilities, allowing me to slow down a bit? It was actually quite the opposite. I soon began to realize that while there may be such a thing as a part-time tactical team, there should be no such thing as a part-time tactical mentality.

After a recent promotion, the weight of the duty and responsibility of leading the members of my team into dangerous operations caused me to take a deep, sobering look at myself. It was like one of those dreams where you’re standing up in front of a classroom wearing nothing but your underwear, except it was reality, and instead of my underwear, it was me as a sergeant with my gut sticking out from under my plate carrier shooting sub-par scores in front of my team at the range. What a shameful wake-up call.

I also began taking a harder look at my team, and realized that some of them were in the same boat. We had allowed ourselves to dwell in the same type of tactical echo chamber that I had always imagined those goofball guys from the tactical classes being stuck in. After that fateful and embarrassing range day, I decided to take a serious look at myself and my team to see what causes this sort of mindset, what we could do to avoid it, and how to refocus on building our team up to where it needed to be.

Team Selection

Our unit is part of a multi-agency task force made up of officers from many different departments. Although there is an interview and selection process, we don’t always have a deep pool of personnel to choose from, and often have to work with whom we are sent. I find that interagency law enforcement task force teams and small agency tactical teams usually share similar team selection challenges, such as:

  • Small selection pools due to personnel shortages and / or department size
  • Mixed units of officers from different departments (task forces & regional tactical teams)
  • Poor leadership decisions from host agencies in overseeing unit selection
  • Unfit appointments due to favoritism

Thus, the standard of entry is generally a lot lower and less competitive with smaller part-time teams than that of large metropolitan SWAT teams, who have a deep internal pool of personnel to choose from. 

“Cool Guy” Mentality

Even if there is a lower standard, being “selected” for a specialized unit still indicates that you had something that set you apart from others who were not chosen for that unit. In some people, this could be a motivational factor that increases their desire to excel and achieve. Others, however, may consider making it to the team to pinnacle of their efforts, leaving them with little desire to put forth any more effort than that necessary to remain on the team. This could be exacerbated by experiencing small operational successes with the unit, typically due to luck or the actions of other, more competent team members, rather than the of abilities of that individual. If allowed to fester into self-glorification, one could end up thinking that they are “already good enough.” This could result in the following behaviors:

  • Lackadaisical training attitude – “I made the team; therefore, I’m already proven and good enough.
  • Poor training attendance – always looking for reasons not to attend – orften born out of a fear of being exposed in front of the team
  • Rather joke around OR constantly bitch and moan during training instead of taking it seriously

I have found that it is common for much of this behavior to stem from a lack of self-confidence, either consciously or sub-consciously. If you constantly find yourself feeling the need to posture, or make yourself out to be better than you really are, or if you avoid instances where you may be outed as someone you are not, you may be developing a false sense of self.

Another factor for consideration is known as the “Ringelmann Effect”, named after Max Ringelmann. Ringelmann was a French engineer who conducted an experiment in which he found that individuals working in groups tended to produce less individual output as more members were added to the group.   (Ingham, Levinger, Graves, & Peckham, 1974). This is also referred to as “social loafing”. Some team members find it easier to hide their laziness or poor performance when they know the team is there to pick up their slack.

How can this affect the team?

All of the factors discussed thus far could impact tactical teams in many ways, to include:

  • Operational readiness level – Can the team perform the high-risk tasks it must completely as safely and efficiently as possible?
  • Morale – Poor morale leads to further deterioration of the team.
  • Negatively influence on other team members – Newer or more easily influenced team members could pick up these bad habits, either to fit in with the “cool” guys or to mask their own shortcomings.
  • Unit legitimacy – Like my perception of the chubby SWAT guys in the training classes, people outside of your unit could begin to question the legitimacy of your team, leading to many problems like distrust, avoiding using / working with your team to accomplish, and possibly even the disbandment of the team by leadership.
  • Injury, liability, and DEATH – Tactical teams work in a world of elevated risk in an already high-risk profession. Lack of preparation and proper mental and physical readiness could mean unnecessary serious injuries, or even death, to citizens, team members, and suspects.

Remember, as much as any of these factors affects team members on a peer-to-peer level, when members of LEADERSHIP possess these suboptimal qualities, the team is affected EXPONENTIALLY more.

Combatting this Mentality

Let’s look at a few things we can do to foster ownership, dedication, and professionalism in our teams.

  1. Develop a solid training program that incorporates tactical and mental training. A good tactical team program should:
    1. Develop individual and team skills and to bolster confidence
    2. Establish standards and test those standards often.
      1. This includes establishing minimums standards for everything, such as firearms and PT scores, as well as attendance on training days.
      2. Publish test results for the entire team to see – This creates transparency within the unit, and fosters competitiveness and individual accountability. Even if for whatever reason a team member not meeting the standard cannot be dropped from the team, exposing their shortcomings to themselves and team members can aid in awareness of a false sense of self and can encourage professional growth.
      3. The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) provides great information for establishing standards for law enforcement tactical teams. A wealth of information can be found on their website.
  1. Experiment with giving problem team members greater responsibilities and see how they are affected.
    1. If you can identify member of the team who may be capable yet lazy, try giving them incrementally greater responsibilities to see if they react in a positive manner. It may be what they need to get them out of their rut.
  1. Cross-train with other teams
    1. If there are other teams in your area that are known for being great professional tactical teams, eat a bit of crow and ask them for help in training with you.
    2. Not only does this give the team an example of a standard to achieve, it can also lead to positive competitive mindset to improve and be on-par with or better than the other team.
  1. Leadership Development
    1. Identify and nurture the leaders with good qualities within your team. Try to ensure they are in positions where they can influence the other members. Get them as much leadership and development training as you can.
    2. Don’t forget about your informal leaders! These may be members who might not quite be ready to take on formal leadership roles, but who exhibit good qualities that could positively influence their peers. Encourage them to mentor their peers to improve individual skills and unit cohesion.
  1. Emphasize real-world severity of training deficiencies.
    1. Thoroughly and honestly debrief training AND real-world operations.
    2. Reiterate that training mindset directly affects operational mindset. 
    3. Emphasize the real-world consequences of training deficiencies.

Tactical teams must be cohesive and maintain great camaraderie, but standards must be maintained and enforced. A positive training environment created through a combination of competent leadership peer influence, and unwavering adhesion to predetermined standards must be created to ensure that team members do not fall into the trap of false sense of self. Remember the real-world implications of lying to yourself. 

Keep each other honest, but most of all, be honest with yourselves. Becoming self-aware can be a hard pill to swallow, but be proud of yourself for identifying your weaknesses, and stop at nothing to rectify them.  Others are depending on you.

Joseph is the sergeant of a counter narcotics team, and has been a full-time law enforcement officer since 2012.


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