Changes to how the Los Angeles Police Department selects officers for its SWAT training program have prompted angry letters, disgruntled anonymous quotes in the newspaper and even a claim of unfair labor practices from the police officers union. These critics charge that the department has lowered the standards for entry into the Special Weapons and Tactics Team. What is missing in all that rhetoric are the facts.
Much of what has been said and written is based on misinformation, assumption or emotion. The Police Protective League, for instance, claims it was never consulted about the SWAT changes. The fact is, the department met with the league on Jan. 3 -- and its initial response was favorable -- but the union canceled meetings scheduled for Jan. 10 and Jan. 24 and asked for more time. The LAPD simply couldn't be held up indefinitely; it needed to train more SWAT officers before staffing levels got dangerously low. Its new class of 13 started training on Monday.
SWAT officers have one of the most dangerous and demanding jobs in the department. They serve warrants on known violent offenders and respond to high-risk situations in which suspects barricade themselves or take hostages. Choosing these officers is something the LAPD takes very seriously.
But the process it had been using was 20 years old. Candidates were required to spend five days completing 14 events, many of which were held on a Camp Pendleton obstacle course. Tasks were redundant, had little to do with actual police work and were needlessly hazardous. In 2006, seven of the 38 applicants were injured, four on the military course. Two had to undergo surgery for torn ligaments and were off duty for about a year.
No one's best interest is served by results like that. The military course was just an unnecessary rite of passage. Current SWAT officers, by the way, do not test themselves on that rigorous course. They use one at the Police Academy, which better replicates the urban environment SWAT works in.
Still, there's been a lot of misguided speculation as to why the LAPD is changing the selection process now. Several news articles have wrongly linked the changes to a SWAT board of inquiry, a panel of outside experts that made many recommendations in a report researched from 2005 to 2007. (An executive summary of the final report soon will be submitted to the Police Commission.) While the panel recommended that changes be considered, the specifics of the selection process were already being designed and implemented by SWAT and Metropolitan Division supervisors and commanding officers.
We've also broadened the pool of candidates. For years, only members of the Metropolitan Division could try out for SWAT, but ultimately the goal is that any sworn officer with five years of service will have that opportunity. That's how it's done in law enforcement organizations nationwide. Candidates also will be interviewed by a panel that includes SWAT supervisors from outside law enforcement agencies, who will bring their broader perspectives to bear.
But most important, once candidates are accepted, their 12 weeks of SWAT training will be tougher than ever. The centerpiece of that training remains its 40 hours on crisis negotiation.
The LAPD was the first metropolitan police department to incorporate a full 40 hours of this training into its SWAT curriculum. This speaks volumes about the unit's philosophy, which emphasizes defusing dangerous situations so that officers don't have to resort to using force. While the LAPD's SWAT unit has ended some historic gun battles by force of arms -- the 1997 North Hollywood bank shootout, the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout in 1974 -- its greatest legacy is its negotiation program. From 1972 to 2005, the period for which statistics are available, there were 3,371 SWAT missions. Of those, only 31 resulted in the death of a suspect. Thousands of others were settled without any force whatsoever.
SWAT's new selection process, combined with more extensive training, will take the unit and its officers to the next level. In our post-9/11 environment, SWAT has to be prepared for anything -- bank robberies, armed standoffs, even threats involving weapons of mass destruction. We use state-of-the-art technology to respond to these situations, and our officers need both strength and intellect.
As we move forward, other changes may be made, but legitimate criteria will never be compromised. The department is committed to providing training that will constantly evolve. And SWAT is dedicated to selecting only men and women who have the physical, tactical and intellectual prowess the job demands.
No one is lowering the standards. In fact, we're raising the bar.