Don’t ‘fix’ LAPD SWAT
By Tim Sands, Columnist
President Police Protective League
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 hand-picked 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” 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. Perhaps LAPD officials are embarrassed that they only included one person with any familiarity with police tactics on their panel. 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.
Police Chief William Bratton let panelists 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.
But a leaked copy in the Los Angeles Times 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.” 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.”
Bratton also identified the lack of turnover in the unit as one of his concerns. 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.
The department’s panel has 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 – oftentimes the LAPD is forced to send in trained SWAT officers, and “empathy” isn’t often a key ingredient for their success. SWAT 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: 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 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?