It has been over 40 years since the Warwick Police Department started their SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team and you’d think a 40-year-old would be getting a little flab around the middle, a little droop to the shoulders and a little less hustle. Fortunately for us, that’s not the case. Inspector Chris Mathiesen, the founder of the Warwick team, says his boys are as fast, agile and smart as ever and can hold their own against the best of them.
Now, you might think that’s just a father’s pride and a hollow boast but you would be wrong. Warwick SWAT came in 6th in a field of 27 teams and Officer Dale Drowne, just back from reserve deployment in Afghanistan, came in 2nd out of a field of 27 for the “Top Cop” individual competition in the SWAT Challenge founded and hosted by the West Hartford Police in August.
Held since 2005, this was the fourth time Warwick participated in the Challenge. They placed 10th in 2009, 4th in 2010 and 7th in 2011. The Challenge is three grueling days of competition among teams of police officers from around the country.
“It’s not just New England departments,” said Warwick SWAT leader Lt. Brad Connors. “They have teams from places like California, Pennsylvania and Quebec.”
The Los Angeles Police Department is credited with forming the first SWAT team in America. It was initially called the “Special Weapons Assault Team” but was changed when people complained that it sounded too military and they changed it to Special Weapons and Tactics, which sounded less martial but also reflected the fact that SWAT training entails a good deal of psychological training toward ending a crisis without any shots being fired, which is perhaps the most important aspect of the SWAT team’s purpose.
Mathiesen remembers the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of new challenges to civil order. Firefighters were shot at as they responded to fires that were deliberately set to lure them. Political assassinations, urban guerrilla warfare declared by militant groups and the general volatility of crowds caught many police departments unprepared.
“The unpredictability of the sniper and his anticipation of normal police response increase the chances of death or injury to officers,” was one of the reasons given by the LAPD for the formation of special tactical units at the time. “To commit conventionally trained officers to a confrontation with a guerrilla-trained militant group would likely result in a high number of casualties among the officers and the escape of the guerrillas … The purpose of SWAT is to provide protection, support, security, firepower and rescue to police operations in high personal risk situations where specialized tactics are necessary to minimize casualties.”
SWAT officers are selected from volunteers among their ranks. Applicants must pass rigorous agility and psychological testing to ensure they are not only fit enough but also psychologically suited for tactical operations. They are, after all, police officers and not combat troops.
Emphasis is placed on physical fitness so an officer will be able to withstand the rigors of tactical operations. For Lt. Brad Connor and Officer Dale Drowne, their place for getting and staying fit is called The Way Human Performance Institute in Cranston.
“They have been working with us for a while,” said Drowne. “They work with a lot of police, fire and military people and developed personal training programs for us. We use dumbbells, lifting [weights], balance and coordination. We stand on one leg, we do a lot of rocking and balance beam. A lot of the Challenge competition involves balance.”
Standing on a seesaw firing a weapon is one test that comes in the Challenge.
Connor and Drowne said the program they developed falls under the rubric of “functional fitness,” which entails training for any conceivable situation a SWAT team will confront. Mostly it is quickness and agility, but a rifle specialist must have a Zen-like patience to sit in one position without moving for a long time.
After an officer has been selected, the officer must undertake and pass specialist courses to be qualified. They are trained in marksmanship, explosives, sniper-training, defensive tactics, first-aid, negotiation, rappelling and roping techniques and the use of specialized weapons and equipment. They are trained for special ammunition such as beanbags, flash-bang grenades, tasers, and crowd control and close-quarters defense. Most teams have special specialists, like Drowne, who is trained in “breaching,” or opening a door or gate to allow the team to enter fast.
“Sometimes, you can just use a battering ram to get inside,” said Mathiesen, “but sometimes you need an explosives expert who knows just how much bang you need to break a lock or make an opening in a wall. It has to be just right.”
Too much explosive can kill a hostage, too little can prompt a captor to kill a hostage. Tactical aids for breaching include flash-bang, stinger and tear gas grenades.
Most teams use semi-automatic pistols, such as Glocks and Berettas. SWAT teams typically used shorter submachine guns for more room to move in confined areas. Specialty shotguns and military issue assault rifles like the AR-15 or M16 are used by marksmen or SWAT officers when a longer ranged weapon is needed. Common sniper rifles used are the M14 rifle and the Remington 700P. Many different variants of bolt-action rifles are used by SWAT, including limited use of .50 caliber rifles for more intense situations. Ballistic shields are used in close quarters for cover and to deflect gunfire.
SWAT team members have to qualify annually and are required to train for a minimum of 16 hours a month, although most do more. Some specialists do 24 hours of training each month.
If you think that officers volunteer for SWAT for pay, you would be wrong. Mathiesen said he wants to see officers volunteering because they want to do their job better. For many, it’s a question of increasing the odds that you can survive on the street when confronted with unusual problems or situations.
“We decided a long time ago that we wouldn’t pay people extra for being on the SWAT team,” said Mathiesen, who said team members are given time off for training. “We wanted them to do it for other reasons. They have to be very motivated.”
Mathiesen said he is very impressed with the officers who continue to come out for SWAT. Things have fundamentally changed since the SWAT team was started. It’s a far more dangerous world and, as the events of 9/11 showed the country, there is no such thing as being too prepared.
“For the 40 years we have been around, I can honestly say that every time we were called out, it ended positively,” said Mathiesen. “We went out 175 times and not one operation has been unsuccessful.”