The “Tactical Evangelist”: After 30-plus years on the job, Sid Heal continues to find ideas, challenges and issues that are new and refreshing. Photo Courtesy Charles Heal
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Picture this: The First Gulf War. Iraqi prisoners are being herded by their American guards away from the front lines. A Marine officer watches as they pass by. One prisoner catches the officer’s eye. He orders him stopped and moves to look closer. His intuition and observation skills tell him there’s something different about this soldier. One of the small details that first drew the officer’s attention was the prisoner’s uniform. Not only was it better quality but an area on the shoulder had a less faded appearance than the rest of it. In addition, the other prisoners were clearly deferential to the man. A little investigative work revealed that this was a ranking “shot caller” from the Republican Guard who had removed his unit patch to avoid identification.
If this scenario sounds like a scene from the TV show Cops transplanted to Iraq, then you’re right. The Marine warrant officer is my friend, Charles Heal who retired last year as a commander from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD). Known as “Sid” to his fellow professionals and friends, his military and law enforcement career has had a significant impact on individuals in both professions.
Sid is a talented, multifaceted and an excellent trainer. He holds four different college degrees and is also a licensed contractor and master carpenter. Sid has been married for longer than most cops have worked the streets and has five children that he is justly proud of. He spent more than 35 years in the Marine Corps Reserve rising to the rarified rank of Chief Warrant Officer 5 and fought for our country from Vietnam to Baghdad.
He’s taught a lot of us in law enforcement to observe, analyze and resolve tactical problems using basic concepts developed decades, if not centuries, ago. During his time at LASD, he was a member, team leader and later captain of their highly respected SWAT team as well as the agency’s point man on developing technology that could be adapted to law enforcement use. Although Sid has had many assignments over his career, the previous sentence probably gives you a good idea of his versatility. True to the character he is, I also learned from him a rhetorical phrase that helps to emphasize the obvious: “Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back?”
One day when we were talking, I asked him what advice he had for law enforcement trainers. He began by talking about relatively new instructors. Having known him for some time, it didn’t come as a surprise that he immediately chose to draw an analogy from his own skill sets: For new trainers to be good—really good—they have to view their work as a “craft.” Even though books are extremely important to the learning process, there are some lessons you just can’t get out of books. Sid pointed out that certain career paths require a hands-on apprenticeships, like a carpenter. Police work requires the same sort of approach. From there, he made the point that the new instructor has to learn from “master craftsmen,” just like a carpenter does. This means that trainers should know the material—I mean really know it—but also experienced it, preferably with the advice and guidance of a very knowledgeable person.
Sid believes there are two ways for a trainer to truly become a subject matter expert. One is to write successfully, knowingly about a topic. The second is the ability to stand in front of a bunch of cops and teach with the same assurance.
As for the veteran instructors out there, Sid thought for a moment and then with a chuckle, shared a phrase he learned from another cop and former Marine: “Never be too cool for school.” By way of illustration, he told me that even after 30-plus years on the job, he continued to find topics, ideas, challenges and issues that were new and refreshing.
Some of you may be thinking “Yah, that’s easy for Commander Heal with all the doors that were opened for him. But I’m here at my agency which is in no way comparable to L.A. Sheriff’s Department. How am I going to do that?” Well, I’m here to tell you—and I’m sure I speak for Sid as well—that rather than being complacent, you can establish your own trainer’s persona. Especially today with all the resources available, there’s no way that you can’t do it—unless of course you don’t want to try. That’s your decision.
“You Can’t Make Me Learn”
Similarly, one of Sid’s more challenging instructional experiences came shortly after he retired. As he started teaching a 40-hour course, he found some of the officers were trying to infect the program with a “too cool for school” attitude. If one student has this attitude, it’s a problem. However, if multiple students pull this kind of classroom crap, it can affect everything. In this case, they arrived with a very apparent attitude of entitlement and resistance. As he tried to interact with these students, he realized that their thoughts could be characterized with the following descriptive phrases: “There’s nothing you are going to teach me that will make a difference”; “I’m here because I have to be”; and “You can make me sit here, but you can’t make me learn.”
He was solely there to help the officers identify their weak spots and develop their skills. Trying to get buy-in on the topic’s importance, he stressed that we’re in a profession that sometimes punishes its failures with untimely death. Even that approach didn’t work. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “Your attitude is your destiny.” It became gospel for the students at the closing session. Recognizing that their attitude hadn’t changed, Sid’s rightly felt that their behavior did not meet his standards. Accordingly, they were sent back to their department without certificates. That’s a pretty gutsy step for an instructor to take. But if you know Sid, his commitment and trainer’s ethics wouldn’t allow him to do anything else. Eventually, many of these same students apologized for their behavior.
A Failure to Act
During the 1992 riots on the heels of the Rodney King trial, Sid was in command of a platoon of 60 sheriff’s deputies. Their task was to restore order, and do so quickly.
To accomplish this, one of the key ingredients had to be proactive aggressive police work: The criminal element needed to go to jail. But to his frustration, Sid encountered another platoon commander who had instructed his deputies not to make arrests. This lieutenant did not want his personnel dealing with future court appearances. Such an approach to riot control basically empowered the criminals. The lieutenant had clearly lost sight of the primary mission: Take back control of Los Angeles, NOW. The crooks saw that his personnel were not taking real enforcement action in response to their riotous and larcenous behaviors. This surely triggered even more problems. However, once this mismanagement was identified at the command post, the lieutenant’s attitude was adjusted after a significant part of his posterior had been removed in a non-surgical manner. With that, his platoon started doing real police work.
Out of this and other events where the law enforcement response could and should have been more effective, came the Platoon Commander’s Course. It was created in partnership with two other LASD tactical thinkers, Lt. Dick Odenthal and Lt. Denney Beene. When it came to leadership and decision making on the streets, there was a tactical void that was filled by this training. It worked in combination with the fact that by then, the LASD had adopted an area command team approach to top level management of critical events. These teams consist of personnel who have been trained to handle the challenges at the higher management levels.
Word of the Platoon Commander’s Course got around and soon Sid was teaching the basic elements of this three-day course to other departments. Although he had been doing law enforcement training since at least his days as a SWAT team leader, now it shifted into overdrive. However, he came to realize that he could not reach everyone through this method. This is when he decided to write his first book.
One of Sid’s greatest training legacies came when he authored Sound Doctrine, A Tactical Primer. (From this eventually came the companion training program, the Tactical Science course.) The book is not just a distillation of Sid’s law enforcement and military experiences and knowledge. Instead, ideas from his peers to sources such as Von Clausewitz’s ponderous volume On War are incorporated into it.
Sid gives many reasons for writing Sound Doctrine. Many of these came from his tenure as an LASD watch commander and as a lieutenant at the agency’s Emergency Operations Bureau. All manner of traumatic, county-wide events—Sid describes them as “of biblical proportions”—in Los Angeles have been managed from this location.
In these command assignments, he witnessed firsthand the need for a more intuitive approach to managing critical incidents. These were often massive in scope, involving thousands of law enforcement personnel and hundreds of vehicles. He characterized the poor decision-making by some incident commanders as “good folks wanting to do the right thing but having no clear idea of what that right thing was.” In such circumstances, tactics were practiced as a “skill set” rather than the more appropriate thoughtful application of fundamental doctrinal principles. Sound Doctrine gives readers ways to apply these principles and therefore have a greater probability of success.
For those who haven’t read it yet, the book starts by posing the question: “Is tactics a science or an art?” According to Sid, it is definitely not the latter. Indeed, the “art” of war is the application of the science. Hence it’s a blend of intuitive thinking, liberally dosed with sound doctrinal procedures. To be a competent tactical practitioner, you must study the science and know how to apply it.
From the Neck Up
Through his experiences, Sid has identified an all to frequent issue: Law enforcement often spends large sums of money on training officers to use their tools (firearms, patrol units, less lethal devices, etc.), but the effort put into preparing command level personnel for their roles in a critical incident is often virtually non-existent or, at best, minimal.
One of the acronyms he uses is “CHAOS”: “Chief (or Captain, Commander, etc.) Has Arrived On Scene.” Please don’t take this as being anti-administration because that is not the intent. Rather, it’s reflective of the fact that quite often, well-meaning incident commanders just don’t know how to properly manage a critical incident. They may have the rank and years on the job, but unless this is complimented by an understanding of the tactical “whys,” more than likely they can’t do a good job. He emphasized this with a quote from Marine Corps general, Al Gray: “In tactics, the most important thing is not whether you go left or right, but why you go left or right.”
Sid also quoted Commander Daryl Evans, an excellent incident manager and tactical thinker in his own right. After one memorable and exhausting night handling multiple back to back critical incidents, he said, “Our only contribution to these things is from the neck up.”
The Tactical Evangelist
The publication of Sound Doctrine in 2000 was intended for those who hold command responsibilities—or aspire to do so in the future. The goal is to develop the institutional decision making brain power of American law enforcement. It’s even become a textbook for various other training courses and is often on the required reading list for promotion. The focus is to help the reader tactically work through—from the neck up—a critical incident, whether it’s a riot, a flood, a wild fire or a SWAT call out.
The book was so well received that Sid hit the tactical lecture circuit again. Eventually he developed the Tactical Science training course. This is a 40-hour multi-media course where all the elements of Sound Doctrine are shared with the students. It’s a demanding, challenging effort for the participants.
If a student comes to the program with the attitude that they will just fill a seat and by default get a certificate, they’re in for a surprise. To be successful, students have to have earned the diploma with Sid’s signature on it. The bonus is that at the end of class, students are given a CD with all the PowerPoint presentations, handouts, bibliographies and videos from the class so that they can take the material back to their own agencies.
For Sid, this is one of the most rewarding parts of the training process. He made it clear that he is extremely proud of the students who take this material and become trainers of the material in their own right. He reluctantly accepted my giving him the title of “Tactical Evangelist.” It’s a very accurate and appropriate. In addition, while Sid’s lifetime accomplishments include success in a variety of aspects, his ethics, humor, common-sense style and lack of ego are inspiring. They are qualities I wish were mandatory at all strata of police work.
The No Bucks Cop Out
Although the majority of our time together focused on the Sound Doctrine/Tactical Science tactical double play, we also took a few moments to discuss other topics. Chief among them was the fiscal impact of reduced training budgets. Sid jumped on this pretty quickly labeling the mindset that you need money to train as a “cop out.”
“If you have to have money to train,” he says, “you are already thinking in the wrong direction. I’ll just tell you right now, youre never going to have enough money. Where you really prove yourself as worthy as an instructor is how many different ways you can think of to make training work.”
For years now, with law enforcement and the Marine Corps, Sid Heal has been training professionals of all ranks. He’s in the process of a well-deserved retirement but like many of us who are passionate about training police officers, he hasn’t really retired. An accurate description that I use also applies to Sid: “I’d rather wear out than rust out.”
On a personal level, he challenges his mental and physical toughness in unique ways. For example, since he retired he has twice navigated by himself from California to Michigan on a two wheel recumbent bicycle. But his passion is in teaching cops how to do their job better. He is still extremely involved in training on a number of levels including through the California Association of Tactical Officers Association of Tactical Officers and the National Tactical Officers’ Association. In my book, he will always be the Tactical Evangelist.