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March 22, 2005 > SWAT: Who Are These Guys?

SWAT: Who Are These Guys?

Public perception of a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team is colored by media clips and movies that emphasize a group of black-clad individuals storming a building filled with hostages or setting up sniper positions. Each Tri-City police force has formed a special SWAT unit to cope with such difficult situations. TCV asked Sergeant Andrew Bidou, SWAT team leader, Lieutenant Tom Milner and Captain Lance Morrison about SWAT protocol and who participates in these units.

TCV: What is SWAT?

Bidou: SWAT is a specialty assignment that requires officers to test to become a part of the team. I am a patrol sergeant; most of the team is comprised of patrol officers, one is a detective and another is a traffic officer. This is above and beyond normal duties. We train once a month for 10 hours plus additional training of about 60 more hours per year, not including callouts. We all have pagers for callouts. When someone in the field or administration decides to call for SWAT, we will respond.

I have been on the team since 1991. Members of the team remain on SWAT as long as they can fulfill the physical requirements and are productive until they promote out, decide to leave or retire.

Morrison: When you are part of a team like this, it means something. Leaving is probably the last thing on your mind.

Bidou: Recently we have a lot of call outs, but there are long periods when there is little action. We have had five callouts in the last week and a half. We have done several search warrants for outside agencies and a domestic dispute that "went sideways" when a shot was fired out the door. We took that individual into custody by using a beanbag round rather than lethal force.

Morrison: In a different situation, an individual came out of his house with knives, went back into his home and reappeared with bigger knives. Sensing that a SWAT response might be more peaceful, officers called for SWAT. In this case, the situation was quickly brought under control.

Bidou: If the team on patrol is being actively engaged with force, SWAT will respond appropriately. The SWAT team philosophy is to respond at the lowest level each time. We give people every opportunity and then some to resolve the situation in a peaceful manner. We have a myriad of tools to achieve that goal before resorting to deadly force.

Milner: There is usually a lull between initial contact and SWAT involvement. Unless there is a reason, SWAT does not rush in with guns smoking. I am really proud of our team and the relationships we have established with the teams of Fremont and Union City.

TCV: Is there coordination between SWAT teams of different cities?

Bidou: We just had a county meeting and all team leaders of the county are going to get together on a quarterly basis to make sure we are all on the same page. We can learn from each other.

We just had a regional meeting with Fremont and Union City that was a huge success. We ran through different scenarios and accomplished the tasks perfectly. Our training is geared towards issues such as how to relieve each other and how to communicate.

We have not needed to use other services but certain tactical situations can drag out for a very long period of time. At some point, a SWAT team needs to be relieved so the group can rest. This could require coordination between SWAT teams. Coordination of Tri-City SWAT teams is way ahead of county coordination.

TCV: What is the command structure of the Newark SWAT team?

Bidou: There is a team commander (Lt. Milner) and two sergeants - myself and Al Lewis - who are team leaders. We have three assistant team leaders, each in charge of a squad.

TCV: Are the skills of team members duplicated within the team? Are a specific set of skills sometimes missing?

Bidou: Since I have been on the team, we have never had a situation that has been undermanned. The average team in the state is 13 to15 people. We have 14 on our team (there are currently three openings which will soon be filled) not including six hostage negotiators - another segment of SWAT although not tactical in nature. There are periods when people are on vacation or at offsite schooling, so we don't always have the full compliment for response but we have always had an adequate number.

We try to have redundancy amongst the squads. That doesn't always happen, but within the team, we definitely have redundancy. When we send people to specialty schools for training, we make sure there are others with that specialty close by. Also, those training at specialty schools are tasked with training the rest of us when they return. I cannot think of anything that any member of the whole team cannot do.

Morrison: Anytime there is a SWAT call, there will probably be several people on their day off, but when the call goes out, they come. During a recent call, one member was in the car with his family just about to leave on a trip to the snow and responded. The sense of duty is very strong; that is why it works. Specialties are duplicated. For instance, there is more than one "gas person" and certainly more than one sniper.

TCV: What type of situations warrant a SWAT response?

Bidou: The threshold is most often mental; someone needs to decide whether the situation requires Special Weapons and Tactics with a higher level of training and resources. For instance, many instances of serving a search warrant, arrest warrants or apprehension of a fugitive do not call for SWAT services, but in some cases, intelligence suggests the presence of guns and/or a poor attitude. Hostage situations can present a problem that requires special training.

If a situation occurs without advance warning, the sergeant on watch will decide if SWAT should be called out. An example of this was when an individual came into our town after having shot and killed an officer in another town, then shot one of our officers and two other people, then disappeared down a city block. A perimeter was set up and then SWAT flushed out the suspect.

SWAT actually has a peaceful mission; to try to keep something bad from happening. Many situations end with surrender rather than worse possibilities.

TCV: Does SWAT always wear the black uniforms with hoods that are so often seen in the movies?

Bidou: We employ two uniforms. When something like a search warrant calls for SWAT, this is unplanned from the perspective of the person in a residence. There should be no doubt in that person's mind that these are police officers. About eight years ago in Stockton, a team was doing a search warrant and a person just waking up in the house shot a police officer claiming that he didn't know the people in the house were police officers.

In situations where a suspect is aware of police presence such as a hostage situation and the SWAT team is activated, the uniform is much different, much like you described. In that case, although there is obvious police presence, we don't want him to know where we are.

TCV: Is Newark SWAT ever put on a high alert status?

Morrison: SWAT is always ready but functions when a situation calls for it. Newark is large enough to have many of the troubles that all Bay Area cities have, but small enough that many of these behaviors stand out. We have avoided the consistent street level crime that creates constant anxiety and fear resulting in frequent flare-ups. Here, SWAT is called when a suspect is a "bad dude" that is doing his thing and doesn't care about the consequences or when a domestic situation has spun out of control.

TCV: Are K-9's members of SWAT?

Bidou: There is a specific school for K-9 to integrate into a SWAT team. I had a K-9 partner until he retired and considered him one of the most valuable assets of the team. The two current K-9 officers are not part of the team but have volunteered to go through the school and go through the callout and work with us. It is recommended that the dog be out on the street for at least a year prior to working with the unit.

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