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What You Need to Know About “Those SWAT Guys”

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By T.B. Lefever:

If we trace the evolution of police tactics backwards, we can find numerous examples of traditional police response being utterly inadequate when facing rare but ultraviolent scenarios dating back to the 1950’s in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Austin, and the list goes on.  In those early years, officers carrying standard issue revolvers had the tall task of battling suspects with sniper rifles, shotguns, and even military grade submachine guns.  Following several active shooter events in Los Angeles during the civil unrest of the 1960’s, Special Weapons and Tactics, more commonly known as SWAT, was born.  The lessons learned at the expense of civilian and police lives resulted in an escalation of tactics and equipment that continues to this day.

Even before I became a police officer, I had aspirations of one day becoming a SWAT Operator.  On a handful of occasions, I can remember being faced with dismissive claims that I must want to kill someone or that I was somehow crazy.  I eventually became drawn to hostage negotiations and my career path changed as a result.  As a Crisis Negotiator on a SWAT Team, my number one priority is to get the hostages out alive and secondly, to develop a rapport with the suspect which will lead to a peaceful surrender.  We are trained to resolve conflict with our mouths and minds.  Working closely with armor clad warriors, I can tell you first hand that SWAT guys aren’t in it for the potential violence involved. Sometimes SWAT operators are active duty combat veterans that have had more than their fill of taking lives.  Others have never served in a warzone but are “go getters” with a passionate and driven mindset of wanting to accomplish all that they can in the field they have chosen.  In big cities, SWAT is its own assignment and operators are full-time, but in the vast majority of cases, SWAT teams are comprised of officers that work in patrol just like the next cop. To work in SWAT is to voluntarily subject yourself to extra responsibilities and dangers on top of the already inherently dangerous business of protecting your community as a patrol officer working the street.  I like to think that SWAT officers are the best of us; a group expected to rise to the challenge of dispatching those that exercise the type of extreme violence that is rarely seen by others.

One Friday morning on February 28, 1997 in North Hollywood, SWAT met its match.  The LAPD responded to an active bank robbery in which two heavily armored and weaponized suspects were attempting their getaway.  The epic shootout that ensued changed policing tactics forever.  When responding officers equipped with either 9mm pistols or .38 special revolvers, arrived on scene, they were met with fully automatic rifles.  As their pistol rounds deflected off of the hard armor attired suspects, they had no choice but to hunker down and wait while SWAT was deployed.  Some officers even went to a nearby gun shop and commandeered long guns to have a fighting chance.  After the firing of 2,000 rounds resulting in the injury of 12 officers and 8 civilians, the gunmen were eventually brought down.  The entire incident was captured live on every news outlet in the country, reinforcing the necessity of SWAT’s existence and clarifying the demand for its continued evolution.  Call them crazy. SWAT operators are the glue that puts everything back together when chaos rips a peaceful environment apart.

T.B. Lefever is an OpsLens Contributor and active police officer in the Metro-Atlanta area. Throughout his career, Lefever has served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a School Resource Officer, and a Uniformed Patrol Officer. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Rutgers University.

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