SWAT Vet’s Research Analysis: Why Tactical Ops Succeed Or Fail

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At the core of another recent research-based book are detailed dissections of what went wrong and what went right in six high-risk SWAT callouts where lives teetered on the edge–and in some cases were needlessly lost.

SWAT Operations and Critical Incidents: Why People Die reflects the unique background of its author. Across a 30-year law enforcement career as an operator and trainer, Stuart Meyers has participated in more than 1,000 life-threatening tactical deployments in the US and abroad. And, as of 2013, he has a master’s degree in liberal arts from Harvard University. The book had its genesis as his thesis, which was honored as Outstanding Thesis in the Social Sciences for its extensive research and analysis of critical incident dynamics and management.

In the book’s 200 pages, Meyers explores how organizational structure, leadership skills, team performance, and suspect actions combine to determine the outcome of SWAT encounters. For his case histories, he dug into departmental policy and procedure manuals, incident reports and debriefings, training materials, team assignment and equipment lists, videotapes, and interviews with participants, including in some instances suspects and hostages.

His compelling selections range from a successful, injury-free warrant service on a suspect who had vowed to kill officers to a calamitous op in which a former police captain killed eight hostages aboard a tourist bus before he was finally shot dead.

Also in the mix are a barricaded subject callout that resulted in a chief and an incident commander being criminally indicted for involuntary manslaughter, a standoff in which negotiators kept talking while a hostage was repeatedly raped, a dual murder that occurred after a commander allowed the suspect’s ex-girlfriend to try to effect a surrender, and the successful dramatic rescue of hostages from a suicide bomber.

Meyers does not offer any idealized “model for guaranteed outcomes.” But for each incident, he does present an analysis of the conditions and factors contributing to successful and unsuccessful resolutions that he believes “can yield a better understanding of how to identify and implement essential organizational conditions that can consistently lead to desired results.”

Part of his approach is to subject each case to a thorough “counterfactual examination.” That is, he pinpoints key “determining factors” that, had they occurred or not occurred, would have made failed operations successful and vice versa.

For example, in critiquing an extended incident in which two hostages, including a deputy sheriff, ultimately were killed, Meyers points out that “a sniper was denied the opportunity to shoot the suspect while the latter was observed standing at a window.” That leadership decision to favor persistent negotiation over seizing an opportune moment without hesitation “placed the life of the hostage-taker above the lives of the hostages,” and sacrificed a chance to end the threat successfully, Meyers writes.

“My definition of a successful SWAT operation,” he explains, is one in which “no hostages, innocent civilians, law enforcement officers, or operational support personnel experience loss of life or serious, permanent debilitating injury.”

Studying the key elements of successes and failures in real-world deadly encounters can be a vital stride toward that goal, “allowing tactical teams to be better tomorrow than they are today.”

The book and a two-day instructional program by the same name are available through Op Tac International, Meyers’ independent training organization. For more information, email: info@optacinternational.com or call 443-616-7822.

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