Becoming a SWAT Operator (or member of a SWAT or Tactical Team) requires basic law enforcement skills and experience, as well as special skills including a tactical mindset, advanced decision-making skills, teamwork, and a lot of training. While many SWAT Operators are former members of the U.S. military, it is not a requirement.
All SWAT Operators are part of a law enforcement agency. The team may be part of a mid- or large-sized agency, a county police or sheriff’s department, or a multi-jurisdictional team comprised of smaller agencies. Ancillary members such as snipers are also law enforcement officers. Tactical or SWAT medics may also be operators, other law enforcement personnel specially trained in tactical or paramedicine, or paramedics with specialized SWAT or tactical response training.
What are the basic requirements to become a SWAT Operator?
To become a SWAT Operator, you must first become a certified and commissioned law enforcement officer with an agency that has a SWAT or Tactical Team. In medium- and larger-sized departments, the teams may be full-time. In smaller agencies or in multi-jurisdictional teams, the SWAT or Tactical team may be part-time and the assigned officers perform other law enforcement functions on a daily basis (for example, patrol officers or detectives).
Becoming a law enforcement officer requires enrollment in an accredited law enforcement academy and approximately 1,000 hours of training. Prospective officers are trained in Constitutional and state criminal law, juvenile justice, state traffic regulations, report writing, communication, de-escalation and overcoming racial bias, firearms proficiency training, defensive tactics training, and basic first aid. While in the law enforcement academy recruits also attend rigorous physical fitness training to prepare them for a career in law enforcement. After successfully completing all the components of the law enforcement academy, prospective officers are eligible to take their state’s Peace Officer Standards Training (POST) certification test. Once individuals are POST certified, they may apply with law enforcement agencies within their state.
Hiring processes typically take three to six months and are often comprised of a lengthy application with an extensive background investigation, a physical fitness test, a written exam, a series of interviews, a psychological evaluation, and a polygraph examination. Once hired, the officer becomes commissioned by their agency and is authorized to uphold the laws in their state and local jurisdiction.
Once an officer has demonstrated proficiency in exercising his or her duties as a law enforcement officer (generally after a period of three to five years), he or she is eligible to test for the SWAT or Tactical Team. The testing process usually consists of a physical agility test and interviews.
SWAT Operators must be the best of the best and in peak physical condition. The standards for fitness are established by the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), though individual agencies may modify tests for suitability. The fitness assessment may include a mile or two-mile run, a sprint, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, a dummy drag/carry, and a firearms proficiency test. Test components are generally completed in full SWAT gear and/or while wearing a weighted vest.
Officers selected for the SWAT or Tactical Team undergo additional training at a 40-hour Basic SWAT School followed by a 32-hour advanced SWAT School. Beyond initial training, SWAT Operators are expected to attend at least 120 hours of training annually to ensure skills proficiency.
What are the personality characteristics and special skills necessary to become a SWAT Operator?
Because SWAT Operators are exposed to uniquely dangerous situations and multiple traumatic events, they must possess resilient personality traits. Several scientific studies have evaluated the personality traits associated with healthy and stable law enforcement officers to determine which personality traits are best suited for a career in law enforcement. Scholars determined that individuals who exercise high levels of self-control, positive impression, psychological well-being, independence, and empathy had the most successful careers and a lower likelihood of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/Syndrome. SWAT Operators must be able to mitigate their stress and employ positive coping mechanisms to avoid adverse psychological effects associated with repeated and cumulative trauma exposure and compassion fatigue.
To become a SWAT Operator, officers must be knowledgeable about state and local laws as well as the Fourth Amendment and related case law, particularly how it applies to searches and seizures, warrants, and surveillance operations. Officers must be able to exercise independent judgment and make sound decisions while operating under high-risk and high-stress environments. SWAT Operators must also be master marksmen, achieving a score of at least 95% on firearms proficiency tests.
What is a good day on the job?
A good day on the job is when everyone goes home. No one is injured or killed, including the suspect. Ideally, the operation is completed as planned, the suspect surrenders without conflict, and all the involved officers go home uninjured. The reality is that most operations result in the suspect being placed in custody and no officers are hurt or killed during the mission. However, as of late there has been an increase in suspect resistance and fleeing resulting in injuries or death to officers and in some cases the suspect or private citizens.
Officers and SWAT Operators must be physically and mentally prepared to accept the risks and realize that not every day will be a good day.
What is a typical day on the job?
SWAT Operators don’t engage in high-risk operations every day as they do on TV. A typical day for a SWAT Operator includes performing their daily physical fitness requirements including cardiovascular and resistance training, conducting surveillance on a target, reviewing probable cause statements for obtaining a warrant, ensuring intelligence on a target is timely and reliable before executing a search warrant, planning how/when/where a target will be apprehended to mitigate risk, and completing paperwork related to cases. In other words, there is a lot of “downtime” and planning involved to ensure operations are executed with minimal risk to civilians, officers, and suspects and to reduce collateral damage.
SWAT Operators may spend days or weeks planning an operation. Operations may be eliminated if the information is no longer valid, the target is no longer in the area and not likely to return, or has been arrested by another agency or for another charge.
SWAT Operators must be available to respond to high-risk situations such as an active shooter or barricaded subject. In these instances, patrol officers have responded and secured the initial scene, but the tactical objectives are beyond their scope of training and available equipment. When the SWAT or Tactical Team is dispatched to these types of events, they respond in one or more armored vehicles like a bearcat, bear, or MRAP and have additional equipment such as flash bangs, OC grenades, tear gas, robots, throw phones, and listening/viewing devices. These types of occurrences are considered high-risk because the subject is an active threat and officers have had little to no time to tactically prepare and best position themselves for the arrest. Often weather conditions and lighting are not ideal, putting SWAT and other Tactical Team members at an operational disadvantage. However, training and experience provide these officers with the requisite knowledge to effectively mitigate almost any situation successfully.
While being a SWAT Operator may sound glorious, it requires a great deal of mental fortitude, dedication, and physical and mental strength. The profession also demands patience, skill, and knowledge, but can be equally rewarding when a known criminal is arrested and ultimately charged, resulting in a safer community.