Do thin SWAT ranks put Chicago at risk?
Chicago City Wire has learned that Chicago Police (CPD) routinely has only two members of its SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) unit on duty in the city overnight.
The source said that from 2 to 6 a.m., CPD SWAT officials "on call" might show up for an incident, say, of domestic terrorism in Chicago. Or they might not.
"There are volunteers on standby, but they are not required to respond," the source said.
The source said that the CPD has a total of 60 full-time deployable SWAT members as part of its Special Functions Division. But they perform other duties as well.
The CPD reports that over the past year, its SWAT team has responded to 40 calls, including barricaded subjects, suicidal subjects and hostage-rescue incidents. It has also engaged in 65 high-risk search warrants and 500 missions at professional sports venues, large concert venues and major events, such as the Chicago Marathon.
A CPD spokesperson said it was the department's policy not to reveal either the total number of SWAT officers or the number assigned to each shift. But the spokesperson did confirm that volunteers are not required to respond to a call, and they are paid only if they do respond.
The Los Angeles and New York Police departments, citing security reasons, also declined to release details on its SWAT team's numbers or the shifts of their tactical units. The NYPD has three tactical police units, but none of them are referred to as a SWAT team.
Having a fully staffed SWAT team is critical for the success of the operations, according to the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), which sets SWAT standards for law enforcement through its “SWAT Standards for Law Enforcement Agencies” manual. First published in 2008, the manual is updated periodically.
“The reality is that violent incidents require a large allocation of trained officers,” the NTOA manual says. “When any single position is not filled because of a shortage of police SWAT personnel, the potential for failure is increased with each tactical position that goes vacant.”
NTOA recommends 26 members for what it calls a “SWAT Tier 1.” Members include a commander, three team leaders, four snipers and 18 operators.
The NTOA manual says that the operations that a SWAT Tier 1 team member must be proficient in include “hostage rescue, barricaded gunman, sniper operations, high‐risk warrant service and high‐risk apprehension, high‐risk security operations, terrorism response, special assignments and other incidents which exceed the capability and/or capacity of an agency’s first responders and/or investigative units.”
J. Pete Blair, a professor of criminal justice and director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University, said there was no per capita rule of thumb for how many full-time SWAT team members a city should have.
“The number is going to depend on the number of SWAT calls they get, the number of simultaneous calls, how their shifts are scheduled and how they run their SWAT system,” Blair told the Chicago City Wire. “...Same-sized cities with similar crime rates could have very different numbers of SWAT team members and both be justified in what they are doing. In Chicago, you could have two on duty but other patrol officers out that night trained as SWAT who could respond immediately if needed.”
Some experts on police tactics say Chicago's staffing levels aren't necessarily alarming or unusual.
“The number sounds a little low,” Gregory Shaffer, a retired FBI Supervisory Special Agent with over 10 years of FBI SWAT teams and six years on the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team, told Chicago City Wire. “But you really have to look at how the city structures its SWAT operations and when team members are deployed. Some cities, like Dallas, use SWAT teams for drug raids. In Chicago, you have a lot of murders, but it’s bang bang, they’re dead and it’s then a police investigation. They normally don’t require a SWAT operation.”
Shaffer added that the FBI has a Chicago-based SWAT team.
Some recent shootings with high numbers of casualties where a SWAT team was involved have hinged more on response than team numbers, Chris Grollnek, a colleague of Shaffer, told the New York Daily News after the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
In the Pulse massacre, 11 SWAT members waited three hours before entering the club and killing Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people on June 12.
"Police are trained that if there's an active shooter in progress, you go in and confront the shooter at any risk,” Grollnek told the New York Daily News. “When an active shooter is shooting, you go in and shoot the shooter.”
Survivors of the Pulse shooting and family members of the victims recently filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the officers who stayed outside the club as the shooting was happening violated the civil rights of the club's patrons.