By Chief Paul M. Walters (Ret.)
Senior Associate with the Center for Public Safety Management
Before the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, there were a growing number of people questioning the need for the militarization of police. Seeing law enforcement effectively use a military-grade vehicle while utilizing heavy duty weapons to eliminate the terrorist threat seems to have quelled many of those concerns.
But some still question how a full-time, highly trained military type police unit can operate in a community-based police department. Some might argue it seems counter-intuitive at best because the two naturally feel to be at conflict with the other.
I could not disagree more. In reality, a highly trained military type police unit is a critical element in a department’s ability to protect the community they serve.
When I was at the Santa Ana Police Department in California, under the direction of our then-chief, Ray Davis, we developed a SWAT team to help deal with a growing element of dangerous criminals, particularly gangs.
In our area, we were routinely tracking 90 gangs, comprised of thousands of gang members, who were terrorizing our community. I hate to call our area “target-rich”, but that’s exactly what we were during that time period in our history. We needed to augment our regular field force to combat these violent criminals. We also knew we didn’t have the capabilities or the staffing levels to provide specialized tactical training to each officer in our department, which was where the idea of a specialized, fulltime 10-officer Strike Force unit of SWAT officers was born.
Our Strike Force team was incredibly effective. Collectively, they made thousands of arrests and completely changed the complexion of gangs in our area. They were involved in shoot outs with armed criminals, some of whom had sworn not to be taken alive by the police.
But they did so because they were highly involved in multiple facets of our policing. We believed it was imperative that they interact with our community outside apprehending armed violent gangsters, conducting raids, and other high-danger incidents.
That meant having our Strike Force team perform presentations throughout the neighborhoods we served. They also joined neighborhood groups. People were impressed by their professionalism. They were equally impressed with how much they cared.
And that’s just it. You cannot have your Strike Force team only be seen as the powerful hammer of the department; otherwise, an unhealthy fear of the unit will grow in the community. They must understand the strike team is not only an important element of your department, it is integral part of their community.
But there is a very easy way to go wrong with your specialized strike team: Overuse in the wrong situations.
Just because you have a full time strike team doesn’t mean you always have to use it without some careful thought. In fact, in our department there were specific guidelines that had to be met before the Strike Force team was deployed at what would normally be SWAT calls. Overusing your Strike Force team is a great way to turn your community against you because they are a heavy duty response team and should never be used lightly, only under appropriate circumstances.
I wanted them to be able to deal with situations before they got out of hand and developed into a full blown SWAT call out. But SWAT and the strike team were not allowed to routinely conduct dynamic entries – breaking into a building with guns drawn – without even more specific criteria and circumstances being met. When I was chief, sitting at the top of that list was that they could not do it without my express permission.
For example, there were times when we had a house surrounded and a suspect cornered inside. The request might come to me for a dynamic entry and my answer was “why?” They had the place surrounded, why would you want to rush in, what is going to be gained? You only have to look at dynamic entry incidents where officers and other people have been killed to realize that may not be the appropriate strategy.
Of course, some circumstances do call for dynamic entries. The suspects have a hostage, they are threatening to hurt people, they are creating an imminent danger and other options are not practical or possible. That’s when you call in your full SWAT team to take out the threat.
Lastly, as chief, there is one more critical aspect to your role as the definitive leader of your Strike Force unit. It’s up to you to constantly monitor what is happening with the Strike Force unit, and there is nothing more powerful than firsthand experiences. You have to go out with them on regular occasions, watch how they operate, and be ready to discuss how they conduct an operation and be ready to talk about changes if you see the need.
Never be adverse to change. We had many other police departments come to learn how we operated our Strike Force team. We always kept an open door, and an open mind, which enabled us to learn from what they did. It was a two-way street, and we were better off in the long run for it.
Special Note: In 2006, three of the Strike Force officers were involved in a deadly shootout with a suspect who had assaulted two Long Beach Police Officers on a routine car stop, critically injuring them only five days previously. The suspect had a 40-caliber Glock with laser sights and a high-capacity magazine and was killed during a ferocious gun battle with 50 rounds fired in 10 seconds. The Strike Force officers were very fortunate – because of their specialized tactical training and skills, they were unharmed. Without this training, there could have very easily been another officer(s) killed in the line of duty.
Paul M. Walters served as Chief of Police in Santa Ana, California, from 1988 to 2013, making him the longest-serving chief in a major city in modern U.S. history. Walters is currently Chief of Staff for the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Fifth District, and a Senior Associate with the Center for Public Safety Management, LLC, International City/County Management Association (ICMA), in Washington, D.C. Under Walters’ leadership, the Santa Ana Police Department was recognized since 1997 as a National Demonstration Site and Training Center for Community Policing and Problem Solving.