Day in the Life of a SWAT team member
Ever dreamed of becoming a Navy SEAL or an Army Ranger, but wanted to protect the folks at home rather than traveling overseas? The Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team gives you the chance to enter one of the most elite police jobs in America. Find out more about the degrees and law enforcement training you need to become a member--and whether or not you've got what it takes.
Being on the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team is the police equivalent of being a special federal police agent, Army Ranger, or Navy SEAL. While the skill sets of each vary, as do the missions, members of all three elite teams have been given advanced training, weaponry, and high tech body armor to prepare them for the most dangerous missions their profession has to offer. There is also a prestige associated with being a SWAT team member similar to that afforded members of the military's special forces, because those who make it in into this advanced law enforcement job are generally acknowledged to be the best of the best.
So, how do you get there? And what is it like to be a member of a SWAT team?
The Team with the Top Police Jobs: History of SWAT
The first SWAT team was formed by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1967 in response to the Watts Riots, during which sniper fire was directed at police officers and civilians. The purpose was to create a specially-trained law enforcement team capable of dealing with extraordinary crises such as hostage situations, armed suspects occupying fortified or barricaded positions, and the apprehension of violent suspects. The success of LAPD's SWAT team in dealing with the most dangerous and potentially volatile situations the department faces has led virtually every large police department across the country to form a special tactics squad. Many smaller city police departments, either on their own or in conjunction with neighboring departments, have likewise followed suit.
Law Enforcement Training for SWAT: Preparation, Experience, and More Preparation
While SWAT teams do have more powerful weaponry than other police officers, the key to any unit's success isn't firepower, it's the advanced law enforcement training they receive. SWAT team members are able to act decisively and correctly in virtually any situation because they have prepared for every type of crisis. Repeatedly.
Captain Randy Pennington of the Huntersville, NC Police Department is the commander of a multi-department Special Response Team (SRT). He admits that SRT members develop skills, such as rappelling, that they will almost certainly never use in the line of duty. But when it comes to life or death situations, it's infinitely preferable to have a skill you don't need than to need a skill you don't have.
"If you never have to use those skills, that's great," Pennington says. "But if you ever end up in that one situation where they come into play, that's when you realize all of that training was worthwhile."
Large city police departments often have full-time SWAT teams. Smaller police departments, like Pennington's, which have less manpower and deal less often with situations that require a SWAT response, typically have teams made up of law enforcement officers who are on call 24/7, whether they are on duty or not. In either case, competition to be on SWAT is typically intense. Because of the elite status of this police job, SWAT commanders are looking for candidates that are physically fit, proficient with firearms, and experienced.
"You want a certain maturity level, someone who is not easily flustered," Pennington says. "It takes a certain type of person to deal with [SWAT] situations."
It also requires a continuing commitment, as SWAT team members train continuously, and must maintain higher fitness standards and firearm proficiency than is required with other police jobs. Pennington notes that the snipers on his SRT are tested monthly. For one of the tests, they have to hit a target the size of a dime with a single cold bore shot (meaning no practice shots allowed) from a distance of a hundred yards. A single miss lands them on probation.
Preparing to Prepare: Bring Criminals to Justice with the Right Degree
Prior military experience is helpful, though not required, for would-be SWAT team members. Most departments require at least a couple of years on the force before an officer becomes eligible for SWAT. Increasingly, police departments require that applicants have an associate's or bachelor's degree--and both online degrees and on-campus degrees are widely accepted. A degree in criminal justice is ideal, but other majors such as psychology or sociology are also attractive. The pay of SWAT team members varies by department, but the average earnings in 2008 for police officers overall in 2008 was about $52,000 for patrol officers, $63,000 for detectives, and $76,000 for supervisors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. SWAT team members also make attractive candidates for promotion, sometimes to advanced federal police positions, because of their advanced law enforcement training and proven ability to work as part of a team and under the most stressful of situations.
About the author
Brett Freeman is a freelance journalist. He also owns a landscaping and irrigation company in North Carolina. Previously he has worked as a beat reporter, a teacher, and for a home improvement company, and he used to own a bar/live music venue.