How to go SWAT
By Bill Johnson / July, 2011
No one can predict when a criminal, an unstable mental patient or a gunman with hostages will become violent. Responding to a situation involving such individuals is dangerous for police, requiring training and skill to reach a resolution.
In Coconut Creek, fifteen police officers have been trained to react to potentially dangerous scenarios. They form the city's SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactical) team, also called SWAT operators. Executive officer Frederick Hofer takes pride in the team's preparation and performance. He admits that there is a bit of luck involved in bringing situations to a peaceful end without serious injury. But also needed are skill and judgment.
In Hofer's thirteen years as a SWAT operator, the team has zapped people with tasers, but never shot anyone with a bullet. No one has ever been seriously injured. "I shot a guy with a bean bag once,' Hofer says. As he describes it, the SWAT team's mission is to respond to situations that present grave danger. These situations include the taking of a hostage, a person barricading himself in a building and the serving of an arrest warrant on a potentially dangerous person.
To do this as safely as possible, Hofer says, "We want smart people, not just big and tough (people)." He points out that the SWAT operators do not get paid extra, "We don't want people doing it just for the money."
An officer who volunteers must have at least two years of certified police experience, pass a weapons qualification course and a written examination on policies and procedures, and submit to an interview by the entire team. The would-be SWAT member must negotiate an obstacle course twice and run a quarter of a mile in ten minutes. There is also time spent in a state-of-the-art training simulator. The officer faces a wall-size video screen and interacts with life-size characters in various scenarios. The test demonstrates how one reacts under stress.
Once selected, a new team member goes to SWAT school, two weeks of intensive training, ten to twelve hours a day. "Recruiting is probably the most important aspect of our training," Hofer says, because of the considerable investment by the police department. All the team members have other work responsibilities but can be called upon at any moment for SWAT duties. In the last decade, Hofer says, the team has been deployed approximately fifty times, not counting the delivery of arrest warrants roughly six times a year.
Team members continue specialized training at least ten hours a month. Snipers train for an additional four to eight hours a month. Each member has individual training for four to six hours a month. Training also involves what is called the shoot house -- a small house in which the team practices various scenarios. The house is designed so that walls can be re-configured to create different and unpredictable situations.
Technology has improved equipment and techniques in thirteen years. Hofer remembers when the team had an old six-person van with no air conditioning. It was equipped with a sledgehammer and a crowbar to get into a building, if necessary. Now the team has a kind of shotgun with special projectiles. It can blow a lock out of a door without destroying the door and without hurting anyone on the other side. Communication systems, protective vests and gas masks are much improved. A fire rescue vehicle has been retrofitted to carry all fifteen members, along with equipment. There is a $350,000 on-site firearms range for convenient weapons training. It is built on a trailer truck chassis. All this new equipment, Hofer point outs, is at no cost to taxpayers. Other than regular salaries, the SWAT team operates on money or proceeds from cars and equipment forfeited by criminals in drug-related arrests and other crimes.
Hofer clearly sets an example for physical fitness for SWAT operators. He is what the military calls "squared away" -- crisp starched uniform, military-style haircut, good posture, and a lean and wiry build. He does ten workouts a week including running, jogging, swimming, biking and weight training. He also participates, along with team members, in a few triathlons each year. These events include a quarter-mile swim, a bicycle course from ten to fourteen miles, and a 3.1 mile run. Steeped in team spirit, Hofer was somewhat reluctant to be photographed for this story alone. He preferred to focus attention on his entire team. He thrives on team spirit and camaraderie, aspects of the work that attracted him to it in the first place. "My best friends are here," he says. "I trust them with my life." In his line of work, he may need that trust some day.
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