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Mar 2008

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Eric Rose (805) 624-0572

LAPD’s SWAT Folly by Tim Sands

Most people subscribe to the adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Apparently, that well-known nugget of common sense has escaped the Los Angeles Police Department and the handpicked panel of lawyers and others unfamiliar with police tactics assembled to review Los Angeles Police SWAT. Unfortunately, this lack of common sense is going to have dire consequences.

In the business world, leaders often hire outside consultants to advise them to take actions those leaders have already decided on taking. Should the actions fail, the leaders then get to blame the consultants.

The same game is played in the public sector, except that politicians usually commission a “panel of experts to study the issue” rather than hiring outside consultants. The experts’ recommendations are, however, no less preordained.

The SWAT report and recommendations of the panel have yet to be released, although the conclusions were reached over a year ago. Perhaps the Department is embarrassed that they only included one person with any familiarity with police tactics on their panel. Or, maybe they know that the conclusions the panel drew would crumble under scrutiny.

What is known is that despite the Department’s refusal to be transparent and let the recommendations be critically examined by the public, changes based on those recommendations are already being implemented.

Chief Bratton appointed a special panel to look into his concerns, letting them know from the start that he “is looking to create change within SWAT.” The panel’s report came back 15 months ago, but to this day it is officially under secret Departmental cover. A leaked copy confirmed that, surprise, surprise, the panel decided the Chief was exactly right. The Department’s hand-picked experts concluded that SWAT “has become "insular, self-referential and resistant to change" and that SWAT’s selection criteria "underemphasized negotiating skills, patience, empathy and flexibility while overemphasizing physical prowess and tactical acumen."

Was there some evidence for these striking conclusions? We don’t know. The LAPD’s new emphasis on “transparency” does not, it appears, so far extend to the work of this special group of “experts.”

Decades of Success

For over three decades, LAPD SWAT has handled thousands of incidents successfully, and achieved a worldwide reputation for excellence.

Notwithstanding that SWAT is called in only when a police incident has escalated in danger, the Department demanded to know if the barriers to becoming a member of the SWAT team were “too stringent.” The lack of turnover in the unit was also identified by Chief Bratton as one of his concerns.

Not surprisingly, the conclusions of the panel have leaked into the public, despite the Department’s attempt to quell its disclosure. Since the panel’s make-up left it unable to intelligently debate or review SWAT tactics and procedures, the focus became the “face” of SWAT. It is known, for example, that the panel called for “greater gender and racial diversity,” and the lowering of the rigorous physical and reaction standards for selection to SWAT.

Changing the Standards

The Department’s panels of lawyers and others not trained in police tactics have envisioned a “new” SWAT. This SWAT would emphasize “negotiating skill, empathy, patience and flexibility.” These are important qualities, but they should not be the basis for determining fitness for SWAT. The less desirable qualities of a SWAT officer, the panel concluded, should be “physical prowess and tactical acumen.” In fact, the panel’s recommendations sounds like a job description for desk-bound lawyers. However, in the real world of barricaded suspects and hostage situations, we aren’t sending in lawyers –often time the LAPD is forced to send in trained SWAT officers, and “empathy” isn’t often a key ingredient for their success.

SWAT wasn’t, and isn’t, an organization that needed to be “fixed.” SWAT has performed its function with tremendous success for more than 30 years, the overriding question that should have been answered before changes were made was simple: Will these changes make a successful unit even better? The answer clearly is “no.”

The next real and very troubling question is this: How many police officers will have to get hurt or die in this experiment before the Department admits its mistake, and assembles another panel of “experts “ to evaluate SWAT?


The article is available on the LAPPL website at



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