Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Citizens' Police Academy: SWAT!
By Annette Dashofy
The guys from Pittsburgh’s SWAT team tried to convince us that their job isn’t glamorous, but let me tell you, they do get to play with some really cool stuff. Their presentation was so fascinating that while I started out scribbling notes like crazy, pretty soon I got so wrapped up in listening and watching the videos that I forgot to take notes! This is why I never made it as a journalist. But here is a little of what I did jot down.
SWAT teams across the country from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles employ the same techniques. They are specialists with the goals of preserving life, minimizing injury and property damage and reducing public concern over law enforcement operations.
The reason SWAT teams exist is to increase the safety of officers, innocent parties, the general public AND the suspect. They reduce liability by having more highly trained officers working as a coherent, cohesive unit. They utilize standard tactics and work together all the time, so there less chance of someone making independent decisions or taking actions that might put officers at unnecessary risk.
Some specific circumstances in which they might be called into action would be hostage rescue, a barricaded suspect, a sniper, high risk warrant service, or dignitary protection.
SWAT’s mission is not to go out and kill people as some movies and TV shows might have you believe. SWAT’s mission is to SAVE lives. Their motto is “We put ourselves second that others may live.”
In a hostage situation, their priorities are: 1. the hostages, 2. innocent bystanders, 3. SWAT officers and 4. the hostage takers.
In such a situation, there would be an Incident Commander who establishes a Command Post (CP) and manages the overall operation. Everyone answers to him.
There would also be a Hostage Negotiator
And there would be a Tactical Commander who establishes a TOC (Tactical Operations Center). He is subordinate to the Incident Commander, but oversees the operation at the scene.
On the subject of terminology, SWAT trained personnel are called SWAT Operators.
As mentioned previously, they say it’s not glamorous. It’s hard work. They get no extra pay. All SWAT team members in Pittsburgh have other duties. Some may work in narcotics. Some may work in homicide. But they all wear pagers and can be called out at any time. They carry their gear in their vehicles. They take it home with them in case they’re called from there (although they are not permitted to leave it in their personal vehicles. They must take it into the house and store it in their basements.)
And the gear they carry weighs over 75 pounds.
They brought a lot of it to the class. We got to handle an assault rifle and a Glock pistol (both unloaded). We got to feel the weight of a SMALL battering ram. Even the Level 4A Tactical Vest that they wear weighs over 20 pounds.
Some of the really cool stuff they brought to show included an eyeball camera, their newest “toy.” It’s a small black ball, just a bit smaller than a baseball. When tossed down a hall or into a window or door, it will roll, right itself, and begin self-rotating while broadcasting images to a viewing screen. We determined that there were no hostage takers lurking in the hallways at the Hazelwood Presbyterian Church. They also had a pole cam, which is a small camera on the end of what looks like a heavy fishing pole. SWAT operators can peer into windows on the second floor, for example, to see what’s there before risking their life entering a building.
Several classmates thought they would like to have one until we learned they cost $19,000. FYI, Pittsburgh SWAT only has one.
They also showed us a Ghillie suit which is a form of camouflaged jacket that allows a SWAT operator to blend into the surroundings while gathering intelligence. Other methods include going undercover as a UPS guy or a homeless person on the street.
The “toy” they didn’t bring with them was the BEAR or Ballistically Engineered Armored Rescue Vehicle.
Glamorous? Well, the “toys” are cool for sure. But then you have to consider that there’s a growing tendency of bad guys who wish to commit “suicide by cop.” While many suspects will take a stand against regular officers, most will give up when the SWAT team rolls in. But not everyone.
It’s not a job for the meek. Or the weak. But it made for one heck of a presentation to the Citizens’ Police Academy.
Next week: Another Field Trip!