The most recent domestic terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida, is a stark reminder of the importance of tactical police units, also known as SWAT teams. An Orlando Police Department SWAT unit ended the hostage crisis, eliminated the shooter, and likely saved many innocent lives.
While the country is rightfully heaping praise on all of the law enforcement units that responded in Orlando, very recently, it was another story. Last year’s unfortunate events in places like Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a nationwide outcry about the militarization of law enforcement and led to calls by Congress and other federal and state agencies to demilitarize the police by restricting their access to certain pieces of life saving equipment such as armored rescue vehicles. What we learned in Orlando is that those voices — while well meaning – fail to take into consideration that an Orlando-like event could happen anywhere at anytime in United States.
In fact, in the Orlando attack, it was an armored rescue vehicle that was able to breach an opening into the club to let hostages out and to let the police in, to confront and ultimately kill the terrorist before he could inflict more destruction. Based on conversations with the officers on scene, if the SWAT team had to utilize more conventional methods, such as a hand held battering ram, they would have had more casualties, not fewer.
While SWAT teams are essential to keeping America safe, law enforcement professionals do understand that there are smart changes we can make to ensure that SWAT teams remain effective. Consider the Department of Defense Excess Property Program, also known as the “1033 program,” created to allow for the transfer excess military property to law enforcement agencies across the United States.
Although the U.S. has seen a steady decrease in overall crime over the last decade, local law enforcement agencies have also been challenged with increasing threats such as the terrorist attacks in Boston, San Bernardino and Orlando. The federal government recommended that SWAT teams involved in critical incident response, specifically terrorism, include in their equipment inventory such items as night vision, ballistic vests and helmets, personal protection equipment (PPE) such as protective clothing and respirators (gas masks), as well as impact and ballistic shields.
However, with this equipment and expanded policing role, there must come some accountability for program participants to help ensure these law enforcement tools are used correctly. Absent the implementation of proper training and equipment, law enforcement agencies run the risk of utilizing their tactical operations teams inappropriately. This can and has resulted in the loss of life and property, as well as created the potential for mistrust by the public. Implementing national standards and a federally recognized mandatory training regimen could also go a long way to ensuring that this equipment is not used when other options would be more effective.
To make federal training standards a reality for SWAT teams, my organization, the National Tactical Officers Association, has created a state of the art training academy to empower SWAT leaders with better decision-making skills and effective supervision and leadership capabilities. The academy will also offer the first-ever national certification for individuals who oversee tactical teams, helping to further professionalize the discipline.
After the Orlando attack, the media repeatedly showed a photograph of a tactical officer’s Kevlar helmet that had been struck by a bullet, but stopped that bullet from hitting the officer and either killing or seriously wounding him. To me, that helmet represents just how dangerous the job is of working on a SWAT team and why it is important that tactical officers have access to personal protective equipment, even if it was previously used, or is similar to, gear used by the military.
Like all law enforcement professionals, I hope that there will be no more events like what we saw in Orlando. However, I fear we may be in for more, based on certain geopolitical realities and the access we all have to firearms in this nation. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that local police departments all across the United States have well-trained and well-equipped SWAT teams. A failure to do so means more innocent lives will be put at risk.
Mark Lomax is the Executive Director of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), a law enforcement membership organization representing over 40,000 individual members and 1,600 tactical teams