By Jeremy Nikolow, alumnus, Criminal Justice, American Military University
In mid-April, the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) released the results of its National SWAT Study. This study assessed operations and public opinion from 254 law enforcement agencies about their Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams.
NTOA conducted the study from 2009 to 2013 with the help of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). This period was a time of sensational media coverage and public alarm about excessive force and police “militarization.”
What Do SWAT Teams Look Like?
Of responding agencies, 60% reported they had their own SWAT teams, 30% participate in a multi-agency SWAT team, and less than 9% have no access to SWAT. Approximately 90% of these teams consisted of part-time operators who performed non-SWAT primary duties. More than half (55%) of these teams include paramedics (i.e., medics).
Training for SWAT operators is extensive across the country. Between 84 – 90% of agencies reported their curriculum includes training in high-risk operations, negotiations, specialty munitions, SWAT management, tactical firearms, and tactics. Across the U.S., SWAT teams received, on average, more than 1,400 hours of training. However, the mode (the most frequently appearing number in the distribution) was closer to 240 hours.
Almost 85% of these teams had specific SWAT policies, 75% have standard written operating procedures, 66% have external MOUs, and 58% maintain a threat assessment matrix. Around 40% conduct policy reviews annually, 21% do policy reviews monthly, and 16% of these teams only have policy reviews after a deployment. Just about every agency completed an after-action report following a deployment.
The most common type of deployment was for high-risk warrants (with an average of about 15.6 per team per year). Commanders held most of the authority to deploy the team and make on-scene decisions. During deployments, the majority of teams also had access to additional resources such as hostage/crisis negotiators, emergency medical support (EMS), snipers, K-9s, armored vehicles and robots.
Building Community Relations
One of the biggest challenges for law enforcement agencies is building and maintaining strong and positive community relationships. Most agencies (67%) believed their teams were positively affecting the community. However, a better indicator lies in analyzing citizen complaints.
Amazingly, the least common citizen complaint in response to SWAT deployments (only 1.6%) was for unlawful tactics. Conversely, the most common complaint (around 38%) was for property damage.
This is not surprising. As a current SWAT operator, I can attest to the fact that teams specifically plan for the need to breach windows and doors to gain entry, deploy distractionary devices, or tactically clear from the perimeter when occupants do not respond to lawful orders.
Another citizen complaint (about 10%) was about the decision to deploy the SWAT team in the first place. This complaint does not hold much weight, since the need for SWAT deployment is unavoidable at times.
The least common citizen complaint was that officers violated the law, and the most common was about the reasonable results of ordinary SWAT tactics. That suggests teams are following proper procedures and policies.
Perceptions of Mass Media
Another interesting finding of the study was in regards to officers’ perceptions of mass media. It is no secret that officers are typically skeptical of media outlets. Because agencies and officers are common subjects of media coverage, it would seem likely that officers would report negative attitudes.
However, the study determined that officers’ opinions of the media were approximately 60% neutral, 20% positive, and 20% negative. This finding suggests that positive relationships between police agencies and media outlets exist and can continue to be fostered.
Use of Force and Deadly Force
Another focus of the study involved the outcomes of SWAT deployments. During deployments, results showed agencies encountered an armed suspect or guns between 7 and 8 times per year. Teams used lethal force about 0.17 times per year and killed less than one person per year (.07). On average, teams were about eight times more likely to use less-lethal force than lethal force options.
What Factors Have the Greatest Impact on SWAT?
The study also asked what factors had the most impact in the last five years on the agency’s SWAT activities. Around 80% of agencies reported that technology had the most positive impact on their teams. Robots, pole cameras, and armored vehicles helped to reduce risk of injury.
Armored vehicles were the most commonly used resource during deployments. Regardless of how militaristic they may look, data indicates these vehicles have a positive impact during deployments. Also, using less-lethal technology such as beanbag rounds or CS gas significantly reduced the risk of serious bodily injury or death to suspects.
Unfortunately, acquiring technology is often contingent upon the second most-important factor: an agency’s budget. It is not surprising that budget restrictions were considered to have the most negative affect on SWAT teams. In addition to limited technology acquisitions, a reduced budget also limits the amount and type of training officers receive. This is a major cause for concern, as a lack of training could increase an agency’s liability.
Conclusion of Study
So what implications do these findings have for SWAT teams? It is clear that SWAT teams are frequently used to handle various types of high-risk deployments that involve armed suspects. Successful outcomes of these incidents are linked with effective policies and periodic policy reviews, a clear command/authority structure, additional support resources, training, technology and a healthy budget.
When these factors are present, community and mass media relations are positive. Complaints for unlawful tactics are almost nonexistent, risk of serious bodily injury or death to both officers and suspects decrease, and team members are substantially more likely to use less-lethal force.
Because of the immense liability associated with SWAT teams, it would behoove police administrators around the county to ensure these basic needs are met. By meeting these needs, it will be easier to maintain a strong, effective SWAT team.
Jeremy Nikolow is a police officer with the Daytona Beach, Florida Police Department. His law enforcement career began in 2005 and has involved several areas of patrol, investigations, SWAT and specialized operations. Jeremy presently serves as a field training officer and SWAT sniper/operator. He is also Criminal Justice adjunct faculty for local colleges and universities. He graduated from American Military University in 2012 with a master’s degree in Criminal Justice.