Black Rifles & Tactical Guns

What It Takes To Be In Police Special-Operations

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By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

The current culture of mass violence as experienced in the U.S. and throughout the world – more specifically in the wake of the Parkland, Florida massacre – questions have arisen as to the thinking and reasoning capabilities, temperament, stress management even physical courage of officers responding to inherently dangerous terrorist attacks or mass shootings (like that in Parkland).

Not that all law-enforcement officers don’t have true measurable-levels of tempered reason and physical courage as determined in their initial training and ultimately honed in the field. They do.

But how do law-enforcement supervisors shape and refine those necessary mental attributes for responding officers? Moreover, how do supervisors and training instructors and training coordinators determine and fine-tune those attributes for candidates and operators on special tactics (SWAT) teams like those men and women who serve on the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s (RCSD) Special Response Team (SRT)?

“It begins for us with a mindset of de-escalation – of diffusing the threat – in any situation as opposed to a forceful hammer default,” says RCSD Deputy Chief Chris Cowan, who commands the department’s Special Teams Division, of which the SRT is one element. “We want our people – our SRT operators – to have the mindset of a guardian instead of a warrior. We want to preserve life, including that of the suspect, in every situation. This is what we look for in the hiring process, the training process, and beyond. It’s truly a cultural thing.”

Lieutenant Dominick Pagano, tactical commander of the RCSD’s SRT, says, “The old mentality of SWAT was that the teams were manned by atypical people who were largely driven to do bad things to bad people. That has changed. Today it is all about saving lives.”

According to Cowan and Pagano, saving lives as opposed to taking lives in any life-or-death situation requires a far deeper level of thought, selflessness, and even physical conditioning.

The SRT candidate or operator must first-and-foremost demonstrate a total commitment to being a team player. Secondly, he or she must be able to think and physically function in a training environment that closely replicates what happens in real-world environs.

Replicating that environment is the challenge for the RCSD.

“We know that when your heart-rate gets above 135 beats-per-minute you move into a physiological zone where tunnel vision kicks in, fine and complex motor skills begin to degrade, and there is auditory exclusion,” says Pagano. “That’s why in a combat situation, combatants often report not hearing ‘yelled’ commands; or not knowing how many rounds have been fired, because the combatant in that physiological zone literally cannot hear them.”

Pagano is referring to the zone of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS): The symptoms of which are found in the ‘fight or flight’ response to varying physical threats.

According to Pagano, SRT training focuses on the old military adage, attention-to-detail, but not attention-to-detail as experienced in the relaxed realm of the resting heart-rate. The SRT approach to attention-to-detail is developed and determined not so much through classroom instruction and inspection of gear (though those too are necessary elements).

Both Cowan and Pagano are looking for operators – and looking to develop operators – who can measurably advance their attention-to-detail while functioning in that SNS 135-bpm zone.

In other words, the RCSD operator needs to look for a sub-calmness within the SNS zone, and to expand his or her situational awareness outside of the narrow “tunnel” view. How?

Unlike normal range training, SRT operators might be tasked with, among other things, sprinting 100 yards, forcing the heart-rate up to at least 135 bpm, and then shooting.

“We want to reprogram the body and the mind to better operate in conditions of extreme stress,” says Pagano. “We want our officers to learn to slow down their breathing, to breathe in through the mouth and out through the nose, and to keep their head always on a swivel.”

It is all a matter of constant training in an SNS performance zone which leads to improved conditioning and strengthening in that zone. Training helps to settle and manage the information overload and widen the tunneling view, not unlike the fledgling fighter pilot attempting to land his jet on an aircraft carrier. Practice. Practice. Practice, which in turn conditions the body and the mind.

Cowan says, “Once our guys begin to get comfortable in that zone, they begin to take in the whole environment, everything. And they learn and develop the ability to do it in a matter of seconds. It’s all about tactical awareness.”

Speed and attention-to-detail inside the zone are key.

“If for instance, we enter a house and we have a bad guy who rushes out of the bedroom with a weapon aimed at our officers, do we have a justification for deadly force? Absolutely,” says Cowan. “But what are the other components of that environment that also have to be considered? Where is ‘she’ if there is a she? Where is the child or children? What is on the other side of that wall? What’s about to come through that side door? Is there a window?”

What else? It’s not all about shooting, physical training and being able to function in the SNS zone.

“We evaluate people based on humble servanthood, guardianship, desire, communication skills, as well as their capacity and capability for handling everything else that is put in front of them,” says Cowan.

Both Cowan and Pagano say they are far more impressed by the slowest SRT candidate who refuses to quit as opposed to whether or not he passed an initial PT test.

“If he doesn’t quit in training and continues to push forward, that tells me that if an operator is down he’ll do everything in his power to get that operator out,” says Pagano.

Cowan agrees, adding, “In training we like to provide our operators with scenarios where it’s not always about shooting or how well they PT. We give them multiple scenarios where they have to think about – and engage in – the process of what they are doing.”

Natural fears also factor into the RCSD’s SRT assessment and training: Everything from determining if a potential operator has a fear of water, fire, tight spaces, or heights; all of which are interconnected in gauging someone’s physical courage.

In all training scenarios, surprise sub-situations are thrown in. And as in the real world, not all training scenarios have a possible solution or a positive outcome. The training is deliberately geared that way.

“We can teach a guy to shoot and we can enhance his physical fitness to be able to operate in SNS,” says Cowan. “But equally important is that we have people who are flexible and who are team players. We want people who have mental and emotional well-being who can recognize their weaknesses; not as an obstacle or an impediment to improvement, but something that drives them to excel.”

Cowan says that during the interview, assessment and selection phase when the question is asked: “Why do you want to be a full-time SRT operator?” the answers might range from “I have a military background” to “I want to be the best.”

The better answer, he says, is, “I work hard. I don’t know everything. But I want to learn.”

He adds, “We want people who use these [eyes and ears] first, brain second, mouth third. We want people who listen, think and process information, and act and speak last.”

When asked if every patrol deputy has it within him or her to be an SRT operator, Pagano says, “The potential may be there, but the heart has to be there. Being an SRT operator is a huge commitment in terms of hours and training and all the other variables associated with the mission.”

Cowan adds, “It takes a unique person to be a school resource officer. It takes a unique person to be an investigator who works child sex crimes. It takes a unique person to be an SRT operator. We have about 967 people in this department, and what the Sheriff has done so well is that he has put them where their desires are and what their goals are. More importantly, he has positioned them in the best possible places which best-serve the mission and the needs of the department.”

Creative training scenarios developed for SRT operators are based heavily on after-action reports, reviews and evaluations of – best practices and mistakes made in – ongoing SWAT operations and counterterrorist-unit missions, worldwide.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott also has his SRT operators train with and learn from those outside of the department. Training has been conducted with other police SWAT teams, the FBI’s regional teams, U.S. Army Special Forces operators and U.S. Navy SEALs.

Many SRT operators have overseas military experience like Pagano, who prior to the RCSD deployed as a parachute infantryman with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. And Cowan, who has worked as an exchange officer with various foreign police departments, is a former U.S. Naval officer and graduate of the FBI National Academy.

“All of these officers bring a spirit of innovation and drive to the culture of our SRT, which frankly positively impacts every other element within the department,” says Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott who, years ago, served as a sniper on one of the RCSD’s earliest SWAT teams.

“This SRT is truly one of the best in the nation,” says Lott. “It is so for several reasons not the least of which is we have uniquely experienced and very capable leaders. We have developed a culture of operational creativity. We have replaced the old warrior mentality with the mind and heart of a guardian. And no one man or woman serving on the SRT believes themselves to be better or superior to another: They see themselves as just differently skilled.” 

– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a special deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Dept.

Editors’s Note: W. Thomas Smith Jr. serves as a special deputy with the Richland County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Dept. He is a formerly deployed U.S. Marine infantry leader and a former SWAT team officer in the nuclear industry. While in the Marine Corps, he developed and implemented a nuclear-security plan for shipboard sailors and Marines, and he directed training for repelling boarders and close-quarters combat tactics. He later founded and directed the counterterrorism advisory team for the S.C. Military Dept.’s Joint Services Det.