What the Best SWAT Training Teaches
And why one cop wants to be on the scene when something goes wrong, especially if loved ones are involved
I attended my annual patrol rifle re-qualification mandate on my off day last week. It was an unbearably hot Georgia summer day at the range — it left me visibly drenched in sweat. I shot pretty well, considering I don’t get to practice as much as I would like to. After two rounds of shooting, I put up a 280 and 286 out of 300 with my Colt M4. A passing score is 260.
One officer at the range that day had a mental lapse and failed his first attempt. He’s an army reservist with plenty of proficiency with his weapons, and his poor round of shooting proves that we’re all human. He wound up passing with two scores in the 290s on his second and third attempts.
Our department’s firearms instructor is a SWAT operator and veteran cop who is a true professional in every sense of the word. I had the opportunity to ride with him during the field-training phase of my career at my current police department. He’s what we in law enforcement refer to as a “squared away” dude. We’ll call him Cpl. Clayton.
At the end of the day of training, I found myself benefiting more from what the corporal had to say about weapon skills and proper mindset than I did from actually shooting rounds at the range. As we stood in the scorching heat, the corporal likened us to doctors — he posed this scenario:
You get that ill-fated call where you're told that your wife, your kid, your mom, your dad, or any one of your loved ones has just been in a horrific car wreck. Upon hearing the news, you rush over to the hospital to learn that they're about to go under the knife for a lifesaving surgery. Before you can even process everything that's happened, the surgeon approaches. He's already changed out into his scrubs and he quickly tells you what he plans to do to keep you from having to make funeral arrangements. He then disappears into the operating room to go to work — and so begins the waiting game.
You have the expectation that this surgeon is an expert. His precision will be perfect. His hand will be steady. His mind will be focused. Armed with a scalpel, he has dedicated himself to knowledge, training, responsibility, and the stress of being the one to save lives. He can't miss with that scalpel. Missing means your loved one dies — and that's unacceptable.
I haven't had the experience of a devastating car crash putting any of my loved ones in this situation, thank God — but I've relied on a brain surgeon to perform a craniotomy on my father as his brain swelled with blood during a sub-dermal hematoma. As I flew across the country to be there for him, I wondered If I'd already shared my last moments with my father — but I hadn't. That surgeon, whose name I'll never forget, saved my pop's life. Some call it a miracle, but it wasn't. The doctor put in the time to master his art. With a life hanging in the balance, he executed flawlessly — because it's his job to.
Cpl. Clayton then posed this question: What if after sitting for hours in the waiting room for news about your loved one, the doctor resurfaces only to tell you that he failed. The person you spend your life with is dead. "My hand slipped," he says. "The scalpel cut too deep. I couldn't stop the bleeding." Perhaps he even begins to make excuses: "I'm sleep-deprived and mentally exhausted." "My wife's having an affair, and my daughter is on drugs again." "I haven't been training enough." "I just didn't have it today."
Could those excuses ever be enough for you? Would they bring your kid back to life? Would any excuse in the world soften the blow of losing your husband or wife? The obvious answer is no, of course not. Any "expert" is only human, and all of us make mistakes – but it doesn't change the fact that he failed you, and it's resulted in a life lost forever. In the same way that I'll always remember the name of the surgeon who saved my dad's life, you'll always remember the name of this surgeon — the one who let you down.
The corporal's message was this: You may show up to the range and throw a shot wide right. You may put in a sloppy shift on the road on any given day or night. What are you doing to fix it? The police officers around the country that I serve with are not paid to the degree that doctors are, nor are any of us specializing in brain surgery. Yet, when push comes to shove — when your mother is being held hostage, when your wife has a gun pointed at her head, or when your toddler's life hangs in the balance by the twitch of an index finger — who do you call to thread the needle and put a surgically placed .223 round or .45 caliber hole in something to stop the threat?
It's us every time. There is no one else.
In my seven years as a cop, I've known the types of officers that make excuses. "Pay me like a doctor and I'll train like one," they'd probably say in response to the corporal's lesson. Others just have no desire. There are guys out there who haven't cleaned their weapon in years. You can tell by the rust built up on the slide of their M&P. These animals learn that their gun still works once per year when they shoot during qualifying.
Often, they barely pass. They're just proud of themselves for holding onto those credentials that give them one more year of showing up to work and collecting a paycheck. These dudes exist — and if policing continues to be systematically treated as a job instead of a profession — not only will they always exist, but there will be more of them.
Various media outlets, community organizers throughout the country, and the rest of the anti-cop crowd don't just wait for the Mr. Bean cops of the world to slip up — they're out there looking for them to slip up. In some cases, they're even trying to create the slip-up.
At the same time, these folks will ignore the existence of the legitimate professionals who take their jobs as seriously as Michael Jordan practicing free-throws, Mayweather mastering defense, or Brady studying a secondary. Cpl. Clayton is one of those guys, and he inspires the rest of us to be one of those guys as well. After all, you don't have to be a SWAT operator to have a SWAT operator's mentality.
I don't have a PhD, and I sure don't get paid to perform brain surgery, but I want to be on scene when something goes wrong. There are a million jobs out there that pay better than mine, but I'm not trading in my Glock for a briefcase any time soon. If this job requires me to be a poor man's surgeon who's relied on to bring someone's loved one home, I'm going to be one of the guys putting in the training to get the job done.
T.B. Lefever is a police officer in the Atlanta, Georgia, area and an OpsLens contributor. Throughout his career, he has served as a SWAT hostage negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a school resource officer, and a uniformed patrol officer. He has a BA in criminal justice and sociology from Rutgers University in New Jersey. This OpsLens article is used by permission.