I spent some twenty years of my twenty-five year career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) serving on and leading FBI tactical response teams. I was a member of the FBI’s New York Office Brooklyn-Queens SWAT Team from 1991-1997. And then served four years as a counter-terrorist operator on the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT).
I returned to the New York Office in 2001 and spent three years as the SWAT Team’s Senior Team Leader (STL), leading forty-five men and planning and directing all dynamic entry, barricaded-subject, and high-risk arrest missions within the five boroughs of New York City, Long Island, and six upstate counties for the FBI and FBI-NYPD task forces. I have led and been led in the tactical resolution world. I KNOW the business.
I am also a member of the FBI’s select marksmen group, having shot an “FBI Possible,” and I successfully attended the United States Marine Corps (USMC) Sniper Course. From 2005-2008, I served as the New York Office’s Crisis Management Coordinator, with responsibility to provide guidance and tactical resources to senior FBI onscene commanders during crisis incidents in New York City and beyond. In parts of 2002 and 2003, I was attached to JSOC military units in a combat theater in Afghanistan.
I am as versed in military tactics, gear, and equipment, as I am in law enforcement guidelines, constitutional legal provisions and the Attorney General’s Guidelines. This by no means makes me an expert in any of these disciplines. It does, however, provide a backdrop to my impending disassembling of the fear-mongering and one-sided Times article on SWAT Teams.
What do I take issue with? Well, firstly, it goes to hypocrisy. The New York Times seems to make as much news as it reports these days. The 24/7 news cycle has been fairly consumed of late with questionable tweets from the occupant of the White House and one, in particular, ill-advised Twitter blast accusing the former president of having “wire tapped” Trump campaign headquarters last Fall in New York City.
No denying that the Times ran this headline on January 20th of this year: “Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides.” This reporting, based on leaked intelligence reports and the unauthorized and illegal unmasking of a U.S. citizen, resulted in the resignation of Trump’s National Security Adviser, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn.
The word leak is just so benign a word. In the above instance, it actually related to an illegal unauthorized disclosure of classified information. As the FBI Director, James B. Comey, Jr. testified before the House Intelligence Committee last week, these leaks are criminal acts that can result in a ten-year bid in the federal penitentiary. The New York Times — and in this case, The Washington Post, as well — are releasing information to the general public, and the world at large, that is not authorized to be disclosed. That’s a crime. That’s not a good balance of providing the public what it needs to know while respecting classified information as just that, CLASSIFIED INFORMATION. That’s using your protected status as journalists to disabuse yourself of the law and smear a politician and his administration that you so openly loath.
It is sensitive information. And American citizens captured on overhears that are authorized in a FISA Court, are protected from disclosure, unless they are in the process of treason or some other egregious criminal activity. Not the case with Flynn. And the Times is hiding behind their assumed protect-our-sources façade, in defiance of the law. They’ll argue that they need this protection, or sources won’t come forward.
Snidely, I’d respond, and then the Times wouldn’t be able to push their liberal agenda. And they wouldn’t be free to attack, er, report “without fear or favor,” on the Trump Administration. Ergo, they face no charges for printing information that the average citizen (or member of the outgoing presidential administration) may face ten years in prison for disclosing. That’s quite the protection, no? Well, we in law enforcement want protection too.
Our request for protection is not related to complicity in sharing unauthorized classified information — you listening, Mr. Sulzberger, sir? — but rather the type of protection that the training, tactics, equipment, weaponry, and mere presence of SWAT affords law enforcement as they go about their daily business, accepting a higher level of risk during the conduct of their chores than the rest of the populace typically does. And you’d quibble with that protection for them, New York Times? Again, really? REALLY?
And, as a former tactical response professional who has participated in and led hundreds of SWAT operations, the tools that law enforcement have at their avail aren’t unnecessary contrivances in the way that investigative journalists view them. As I read and reread Sack’s piece, I couldn’t help but think I was watching (reading) a Michael Moore “documentary” — the kind of film whereby you’ve already formed an opinion BEFORE you conduct your research, and then elect to film a treatment that supports your original position or ideology.
It’s not a journey. It’s a preordained arrival at a predetermined destination. I’d argue that The New York Times entered this “investigation” with the pre-formed opinion that SWAT Teams are dangerous, unnecessarily violent relics of a bygone era. And how better to assist in making them obsolete than by tarring them as needlessly violent, reckless and bloodthirsty?
And then, staying on script, highlight the INFINITESIMAL number of incidents where mistakes are made. What perplexes me is your highlighting the number of folks killed by SWAT operators without indicating how many were due to poor decision-making by the officers and how many were justifiable shootings precipitated by someone who decided they didn’t want to be apprehended that particular day. That’s most interesting. Why don’t you fairly acknowledge the distinctions? You have a conclusion already arrived at and need sloppily attached data points that you refuse to distill down to relevancy because it won’t support your hypothesis? What did I miss, New York Times? Is this comprehensive and honest investigative reporting? Or — ahem — is there only a requirement to report down to the granular level, without fear or favor, when it helps to make your liberal/progressive “police-are-bad” point?
It’s apparently part of the intractably entrenched liberal media bias that engenders certain presumptions when conducting investigative reporting about law enforcement actions; to wit, officer-involved-shootings and the protections — recall that luxury when we afford it to the Fourth Estate when they protect criminals who illegally release classified information to journalists — that law enforcement uses to provide that added edge to police who are expected to assume higher risk than ordinary citizens in the daily conduct of their duties. A bit different from that stubborn copier unclogging task, I gotta tell ya!
SWAT Teams employ the elements of speed, surprise, and violence of action in order to level the playing field. Every military planner understands the “3-to-1 Rule” as it relates to attackers and defenders in combat operations. For law enforcement, when assigned a mission to take into custody a violent felon, or members of an illegal narcotics conspiracy ring that often involves firearms and violence to protect turf and business, we bring superior numbers to the apprehension site. That is as essential to success as are those three dynamic entry elements — they are, simply put, the margin of victory in many cases.
But, wait, some like this Times reporter would argue — You’re introducing violence into what might be resolved peaceably. Yes, yes, you’re right. Because in over two decades’ worth of experiences in dynamic entry operations, as well as standard “knock and announce” arrests, as well as employing the stakeouts and patience that Sack views as the answer in every situation, I have witnessed and experienced what a well-trained and staffed SWAT unit can do to reduce the inclination for the “bad guys” to fight. The presence of SWAT actually reduces the tendency to violence that committed felons have a predisposition for. This was my experience across some two decades.
SWAT Teams are more a deterrent to violence than an inciter of same.
You see, when SWAT is deployed effectively, deftly using speed, surprise, violence of action, and a failsafe breach at the entry, there is no time for the wanted subject to debate fight or flight in their own minds. The normal human calculus goes by the wayside. Outmanned, outgunned, and overwhelmed by presence, the vast majority of subjects — no matter their violent past histories — choose to meekly surrender. Better to take my chances fighting this in court than to lose “bigly” in a scrap with these guys. But, alas, that doesn’t fit the narrative the Times wants to push…
Which takes me back to that one-sided “reporting”. Put the offensive sensationalist headlines and the story about the errant flashbang diversionary device — the Times inaccurately refers to it as a “stun grenade” — that landed in a baby’s playpen in Georgia, aside. Yes, there are police departments in the country that simply do not have the resources required and available training to properly staff a professional SWAT Team. We agree here. Not everyone is equipped to play baseball at the level of Major Leaguers. I want to play wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. Anyone want to watch my shagging passes in the Georgia Dome on Fall Sundays? No? Well, not everyone can or should be a tactical resolution specialist — a SWAT operator.
Yes, not every cop and federal agent has the chops to be a SWAT Team operator or member of the HRT.
And selection for SWAT should be undeniably rigorous and demanding — physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging. And a level of maturity needs to be achieved in order to be selected. Decision-making during in extremis conditions demands that mature and seasoned and experienced folks fill SWAT Team ranks.
Furthermore, standardized training and tactics are necessary. We learned this in the after-action-review following the mass shooting at Columbine High School in April of 1999. Arriving officers, fearful of the dangerous effects of adding into the complex tactical situation assault teams comprised of disparate departmental elements, elected to exercise patience and caution, and the end result was an elevated body count. Go to the sounds of the guns.
Unfair to Monday-morning-quarterback a crisis site that I wasn’t a part of, yes. But we have learned a lot in the past two decades of evolutionary tactical resolution development. Being familiar with standard practices and protocols relieves some of the “fog of war” during a crisis incident.
Hearing the critics at the Times reach their verdict, in some three and a half printed pages of “investigation,” that SWAT programs are unnecessary and that police departments are maintaining them because of the Supreme Court’s eroding of Fourth Amendment protections, or because, well, America is still a racist nation, is just so predictable and pedestrian an argument. Of the eighty-one civilian deaths — to go with thirteen murdered SWAT officers — tallied by the Times in 2016, half were members of minority groups, the Times points out.
You would think that as august a body of editors as the Times boasts, some senior editor would raise their hand and inquire as to whether patterns of offending related to individual ethnic groups is a relevant avenue for investigation and reporting. Does it always have to go to racism? Is it not an irrefutable fact that while African-Americans make up some 13% of our population, they also commit some 50% of all crime in this nation? Would it not then stand to reason that their interactions with police would occur with greater frequency than say a Native American or a descendant of the Pacific Islands might encounter?
Facts: they can be such pesky inconveniences…
In one particularly offensive assertion offered in the piece, Dr. Peter B. Kraska, a criminologist from Eastern Kentucky University, offered by Sack as an “expert” in the field, had this to say about the reason that SWAT Teams have staying power in law enforcement circles:
It’s culturally intoxicating, a rush. It involves dressing up in body armor and provocative face coverings and enhanced-hearing sets, a cyborg 21st century kind of appeal. And instead of sitting around and waiting for something to happen twice or three times a year, you can go out and generate it.”
What an ignorant, clownish, and insulting thing for the venerable Ph.D. to say about a profession he has never — far as I can tell — engaged in. This is emblematic of a rather HUGE problem in academia on university campuses today. There are no shortage of academics and theorists. However, there are damn few practitioners to speak about, lecture on, and teach courses in the disciplines that the Dr. Kraskas of the world have studied relentlessly, without ever DOING, and of course, while never SERVING.
I am fairly certain more than a few GWOT veterans face similar misunderstanding by the communities that study them and define policy for them. I am fairly certain we share the same type of frustrations — folks commenting on, reporting on, and treated as “experts” in a field that we have LIVED, and been damned lucky to have SURVIVED.
Yes, I will admit, I have spent much of my adult lifetime reading and cautiously trusting what the current president famously refers to as the “Failing New York Times.” The Times recent overture into unapologetic shill territory for the Clinton campaign — and many other Democrat campaigns and politicians before November of 2016 — was disappointing to witness, an exposure on such a grand stage under the klieg lights, and all.
But, again, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Ironically, they bet the wrong horse last November. Their projections and predictions about the will of the American people were woefully incorrect. And I’ll submit that they got this one wrong too — When trained properly and provided the appropriate resources and LED by the right leaders, SWAT Teams are an essential and vital piece in the law enforcement bag of tricks.
Every situation encountered is not one size fits all scenario. And every example of a tactical team is not equal. We practitioners recognize this. And we realize that tactics and techniques and methodologies must constantly be reviewed and tweaked and perfected OR discarded. But you provided no solid reasons to discontinue SWAT.
And no matter how many theorists or academicians you present from liberal college campuses to dispute the effectiveness or utility of a well-trained and led SWAT Team, understand that I’ve been there. I’ve BEEN THERE. My SWAT Teams have saved countless lives. This can be proven with empirical data that buttresses the countless anecdotal accounts. You researched this issue and neglected to find those studies? Interesting, as a cursory Google search turns up more than a few.
Those lives that were saved by tactical teams aren’t an abstraction. Law enforcement lives have been saved, and the lives of folks who walk among us and have a predisposition to refuse to adhere to our nation’s laws, as well; as in the bad guys. And presented with a different, less stolid array of folks assembled to arrest them, those dangerous folks might just do the calculus in fairly short order and make that split-second decision that, in an instance, increases our national body count.
So, as for me, the SWAT I know doesn’t leave a “trail of blood”. It leaves behind a litany of rescued hostages, safely apprehended neighborhood scourges, unappreciative journalists, and a safer America.