Police snipers monitor a hostage situation at the Trustmark National Bank in Jackson, Miss., on April 8, 1999. A lone gunman released hostages throughout the day. By late afternoon, he released his last two hostages, and officers took him into custody. Photo AP/Rogelio Solis
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The balance between the expenditure of time and the rapid exploitation of opportunity can make or break a barricade-hostage situation. Often command staff thinks if they can wait out the hostage-taker, there'll be a better chance of resolving the incident nonviolently, says SWAT instructor Mark Schlegel. In reality that's not always the case.
A mind-set that favors the expenditure of time and a strict adherence to the prior approval of all actions through the chain of command, over the empowerment of personnel to use their own initiative so they can act on unexpected opportunities, may end up costing innocent lives.
Schlegel and two other members of the Los Angeles County (Calif.) Sheriff Department s (LASD) Special Enforcement Bureau, Rick Rector and George Creamer, offer SWAT tactics instruction nationwide through their training organization, FTF Tactics, LLC. Recently they made hands-on and classroom presentations at the annual conference of the Association of SWAT Personnel-Wisconsin and shared their philosophy on time vs. opportunity with some 200 attendees.
"Based on their teaching experience with a wide variety of agencies large and small," Schlegel concludes, "Many tactical teams are micro-managed by command staff. They still operate on a red light/green light approach, with the SWAT commander wanting to dictate everything that goes on from the command post, even though line-level tactical personnel are at the target location, adapting to real-time changes in conditions."
"During any operation, as intelligence develops, windows of opportunity may arise. There may be a moment when the hostage-taker separates himself from the hostages or when he has established a pattern of movement that makes him vulnerable to the team," Schlegel says.
"At such moments, immediate aggressive action, at times incorporating the application of deadly force by one or more SWAT team members, can produce a high probability of success. However, if time must be eaten up with seeking approval to act from command staff, the fleeting window of opportunity may close before it can be exploited.
To keep time and opportunity in the proper balance, command staff must trust and empower operators in the field," Schlegel says. Opportunities are often very time-sensitive. There isn't always time to get on the radio and discuss matters back and forth. We should be able to seize sudden opportunities without asking for approval.
After all, an agency s use-of-force policy doesn't change from the street to SWAT call-outs. SWAT operators should be able to make decisions on their own and articulate them later, the same as street officers do.
To underscore the trust that does exist between command and field operators on his own department, Schlegel says the LASD s SWAT command staff has extensive prior SWAT experience of their own, and they regularly attend and participate in hostage-rescue exercises so they stay comfortable with team tactics and decision-making. This way, the command staff can anticipate reactions and everyone gets on the same sheet of music.
The majority of hostage-takings are resolved through negotiation, Schlegel emphasizes. Planning is important and should always be on-going. Decisions and actions that do not involve exigent exploitations of opportunities can, and should be, approved through the appropriate chain of command. But leeway should exist for the team to resolve the situation immediately if the opportunity occurs.
Otherwise, letting time pass with an opportunity unexploited may result in the suspect killing his hostages and then himself.
For more information on training available from FTF Tactics, LLC, go to www.ftftactics.com.