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Not like the movies: SWAT team saves lives and avoids shoot-outs

Jul 25, 2017 03:13PM ● Published by Ruth Hendricks

Officer Jason Mudrock, leader of UPD’s SWAT team. (Jason Mudrock/UPD)

Images of black-clad police officers with shielded helmets rushing in to shoot everything in their path comes from TV and movie depictions of SWAT teams. Officer Jason Mudrock with the Unified Police Department (UPD) would like people to know that isn’t a realistic image of SWAT. “The primary function of domestic SWAT in the US is to save lives. Period.”

Mudrock is the team leader for UPD’s SWAT team. “The reason why SWAT teams are used,” said Mudrock, “and the acronym of Special Weapons and Tactics is because they are specially trained with different weapons than are available to local street level law enforcement, different tools to be able to deal with an unusual or a more dangerous elevated event.”

Mudrock explained that, “We’re viewed as more or less the big stick of the organization. There isn’t a bigger hammer we can take out of our tool box to do the job.” Whenever the SWAT team is requested, a threat analysis must be done to make sure that the level of force is justified. “We have very strict guidelines on how and when our team is deployed,” said Mudrock. 

The threat analysis uses a matrix of information. For example, in a request for SWAT to serve a high-risk warrant, Mudrock looks at known information about the subject, such as his criminal history, what the warrant is for, how the subject has dealt with law enforcement in the past, and his propensity to use firearms in the commission of crimes. 

Then information about the target site is reviewed. Could the home be booby trapped? Is the target building fortified? Is there a school nearby? All the variables are used to determine whether SWAT is needed or not.

Once a threat analysis has been completed, it must be approved by the SWAT commander or division commander. Then it would go to Mudrock for operational planning.

The tactical decision model that is used for all situations is called the “Priorities of Life.” Citizens often don’t understand these priorities, but SWAT uses them to decide how to approach an operation. 

Mudrock explained that the first priority is always hostages, because they cannot leave the area or help themselves. They are at the mercy of the hostage taker. Second come uninvolved citizens. This includes anyone in the area such as neighbors and bystanders. The goal is to get them out of the area. 

The third priority is patrol officers who may have been first on the scene or responded to the call. SWAT’s goal is to make sure these officers are safely moved away while SWAT takes over. Fourth in priority is the safety of the SWAT team members. 

Fifth in priority is the suspect. “Sometimes it is necessary, when we look at the Priorities of Life, that we must take a life to save one. This is hard for people to understand. We do want to keep the suspect safe, he’s a priority, but not if it comes at the price of the higher priorities. The suspect is the one that has chosen to be in that situation.”

The sixth priority is property. Mudrock noted that some people don’t like this, but property can always be replaced. If breaking a door or window, or blowing a hole in the side of a house will help save someone, that’s a good tactical decision. It’s much safer for SWAT officers to be able to quickly enter through a window or wall instead of having to navigate through a house and go through the only door to a bedroom where the suspect has a gun aimed, ready to shoot. 

Mudrock would like the community to understand that the SWAT team is there as a resource to save lives. Officers know that when they’re deployed, it’s the worst case scenario. “We want the public to know that we have a highly competent, well-trained tactical team,” said Mudrock. “We’re not a bunch of trigger happy, bloodthirsty folks.”

On average, UPD’s SWAT team is called out 60 times per year. So how many times was deadly force used from 1991 to 2017? For that 26-year period, there would be an average of 1,560 SWAT deployments. “Understand that every time we go on an operation, someone is believed to be armed.” Mudrock reported that deadly force was only used three times during that period. 

“Truly our mission is to save lives, because if we wanted to go in there and hurt all those suspects, there would be lots more instances. But that’s not our job.” In those situations involving armed suspects, Mudrock is sure that if there weren’t all the special tools and tactics that SWAT uses, there would have been many more that ended in a lethal confrontation.

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