SWAT teams differ from Hollywood blockbusters

By Lindsay Carroll

‘ ‘ ‘ This is the fifth installment in a series of reports from Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled… ‘ ‘ ‘ This is the fifth installment in a series of reports from Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled in the Citizens’ Police Academy, a 15-week training course run by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. When you think SWAT, you may think Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell fighting drug lords and kidnappers. ‘ ‘ ‘ But the 2003 movie ‘S.W.A.T.’ and other Hollywood interpretations of the infamous Special Weapons and Tactical Team aren’t really accurate, said Pittsburgh Police SWAT team officer Steve Mescan. ‘ ‘ ‘ Mescan came to the bureau’s Citizens’ Police Academy class to explain SWAT history and tactics ‘mdash; and to debunk the myths surrounding the team. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Hollywood portrays it as high-speed, low-drag and get all the ladies,’ said Mescan. ‘It’s not like that at all.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ SWAT becomes necessary when police confront situations that are too complicated or intense for them to handle with their training. The police need a specialized team with a high amount of training in order to keep people safe, said Mescan. ‘ ‘ ‘ Originally, Mescan said that police used military personnel for these situations, but the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prevented the military from enforcing civil law in cases without foreign invasion. ‘ ‘ ‘ Mescan said the SWAT team is particularly helpful at fighting large-scale organized crime incidents. ‘ ‘ ‘ The Symbionese Liberation Army was a group of criminals who kidnapped important figures and assassinated a superintendent of a school district in California between 1973 and 1975. Such groups made it clear to police that special units were needed to fight in extreme cases, said Mescan. ‘ ‘ ‘ SWAT team officers have more specialized training than regular officer and are more used to coordinating, as well as a group that can use the same standard tactics locally and nationally. Mescan said that in a cohesive team, the members are also less likely to make independent decisions that could escalate the situation, as regular officers with less team training may sometimes do. ‘ ‘ ‘ Mescan said that, contrary to popular perceptions, SWAT’s main goal is to keep the public and the suspect safe. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘The perception of the public ‘mdash; and we hear this on the street all the time ‘mdash; is, ‘Uh oh, someone’s getting shot,” said Mescan. ‘ ‘ ‘ The team’s main tasks include hostage rescue, river rescue, dignitary protection or sniper and barricaded gunman situations, in which a gunman may lock himself in a room and threaten to kill himself or others. ‘ ‘ ‘ In a hostage situation, the team prioritizes who to rescue ‘mdash; first the hostages, then any innocent people, then SWAT officers and, finally, the hostage takers. ‘ ‘ ‘ When the team is called to duty, the officers quickly assume their roles within the team. An incident commander will decide what needs to be done, while a tactical commander will determine how to do it. Negotiators communicate with the suspect to try to get him to comply with their wishes. ‘ ‘ ‘ Beneath the commanders are a lead scout, who leads the team when executing a plan, a marksman and an observer team, who plays the role of a sniper and can watch the scene to provide information. ‘ ‘ ‘ The breacher and the shield try to protect the team, while other members keep in close contact with commanders. ‘ ‘ ‘ Mescan said that SWAT officers must be dedicated, decisive, trainable and intelligent. They must have good aim and be physically fit enough to carry equipment, such as big guns and gear that can weigh 50 to 125 pounds more than their body weight. Most importantly, they have to be team players. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘You have to check your ego at the door,’ said Mescan. Pittsburgh SWAT often undercover ‘ ‘ ‘ Mescan showed footage of SWAT team missions, including one where the Pittsburgh SWAT intercepted a hostage situation, when a man threatened to kidnap his sister and mother in their own home. ‘ ‘ ‘ Some members of the class were surprised to see the flashing light and loud noises coming from the house where the family was. SWAT used a noise-flash diversionary device, which basically works like shock and awe. The house members were shocked enough to comply with police, especially because the operation took place early in the morning. ‘ ‘ ‘ One student in the class, Bonni Mackin, said she found the SWAT class engaging. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘I like that [Mescan] had examples of what it was like to see them in action,’ she said. ‘You can give them the respect of doing their job.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ Mescan said Pittsburgh’s SWAT team handles about 100 to 120 missions per year ‘mdash; and a lot of times, the people do not realize that SWAT has a mission.The team may be deployed for a Monday night football game when the Homeland Security raised the terror alert level. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘We provide a lot of invisible security that’s not noticed by the public,’ said Mescan. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘We must put ourselves second so that others may live.’