Budgets and bullets: Send in the SWAT team

A retired sheriff’s deputy sends me e-mails regarding current issues that are confronted by law enforcement around the United States.

One critical component of many law enforcement agencies that gets attention from police professionals (and sometimes makes the news) is the SWAT team — those men and women with all the special training and weapons who show up when things get really dangerous.

I called the Federal Way Police Department in order to find out about how Federal Way is organized for responding to such tactical situations. I found out that Federal Way participates in a regional SWAT team, Valley SWAT, which includes 36 officers plus command staff, plus a communications/negotiations unit. Auburn, Des Moines, Federal Way, Kent, the Port of Seattle, Renton and Tukwila each contribute officers and share in funding this unified SWAT team.

Experienced police officers compete for open positions on the team. After going through a selection process, a new SWAT officer gets 60 hours of SWAT training during six days at the state SWAT school.

After SWAT school, team members work together, occasionally with other SWAT teams, to train their own members. After making team probation (which is usually one year), team members can become specialists in topics such as breaching or precision rifle.

The team often trains in vacant buildings, in occupied buildings with role players, and at various locations similar to real life tactical situations.

SWAT teams include counter-sniper capability and officers with high-powered scoped rifles. In addition to observing the crisis site, these special operators are prepared to surgically stop an individual or group that poses an immediate threat to innocent people. There are also team members trained in special breaching techniques.

One of the challenges facing SWAT teams is obtaining funding to keep up with available technology — “gadgets” and vehicles that would help the team accomplish its mission, which is to save lives.

How many of your neighbors are talking about what will happen if terrorists show up at your local elementary school? Start talking about terrorists showing up to commit mayhem against our children at the next PTA meeting or neighborhood barbecue, and you may find out who your real friends are.

Such a thing is just not going to happen in Federal Way, right?

One thing that we have learned from school shootings in recent years is that no matter how good the contingency plans are, even when the first responders arrive within a few minutes, it is usually too late to prevent carnage.

When a small school district in Harrold, Texas, announced its plan to arm teachers, one reasonable sounding objection was that teachers and school staff are not trained to deal with hostage situations. How could the police sort out the bad guys from the armed teachers running around with guns?

Those that volunteer and complete the training are probably going to be folks with military experience and/or avid shooters with years of training before they volunteer to participate in any school security program. The proficiency testing will be tough.

In my opinion, it only takes a small number of well-trained recruits to provide a major deterrent to a mass shooting because an armed volunteer may be almost anywhere. A terrorist has no idea whether an armed volunteer is in the vicinity or how many volunteers may be nearby.

The SWAT teams can deal with hostage scenarios; an armed volunteer, however, may prevent things from developing to the point where hostages are taken.

Remember, at one time people opposed the concept of paramedic firefighters.

In 1966, law enforcement realized that most agencies were not prepared to protect lives when a mass shooting unfolded at the University of Texas. Modern SWAT teams evolved from the experience of stopping Charles Whitman, a lone shooter. The University of Texas tower provided a killing zone over such a wide area that many victims were unaware the shooter had already shot many victims at different locations.

Civilians using hunting rifles managed to force Whitman to stay behind cover so that he was unable to kill as many people from the tower as he otherwise would have (he killed 14, nevertheless, and wounded many more during his 90-minute shooting spree). One of the individuals that actually went into the tower was a civilian with military experience who was carrying a borrowed weapon.

I am not advocating that school staff go around armed with deer rifles — just concealed pistols with which they are able to qualify on the range just like police officers do every year. 

Eventually, I would like to write a short history of where the Federal Way Police Department has been and where it is going with disaster preparedness and planning related to terrorist attacks. For now, it is sufficient to state that armed security in the schools will stretch the budget if the school district hires armed police or professional security.

In the future, it may not be an option to just station uniformed officers at some of the schools — one armed police officer at each high school at present. The time to get prepared is now. Make sure the professionals have what they need and start having the conversation that needs to take place about whether we are willing to just hope for the best in our schools and other public places.

Some experts have reason to believe that teams of terrorists deploying with small arms could become a reality in the United States, as has occurred in other countries.

Additionally, I am asking for any local information related to surveillance of school buses, reports of eavesdropping on school transportation personnel and/or reports pertaining to stolen communications equipment such as radios used for dispatching school buses in our area. If you know of such reports or just want to discuss the above referenced information in more detail, please contact me.

Federal Way resident Mark Knapp: knapp.m@comcast.net. Also visit http://firearmslawyer.net.

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