The last true meritocracy in the Los Angeles Police Department, perhaps one of the last to be found anywhere in America outside the military, is about to pass into memory. The LAPD’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, which since its inception in 1971 has confronted and captured thousands of murderers, robbers, kidnappers, and every other type of crazed thug imaginable, will soon be crushed under the accumulating weight of a foe it is ill-equipped to oppose and can but hope to vanquish: misguided but nonetheless inexorably advancing notions of political correctness and social engineering. And what a shame this is.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Robert C. J. Parry, a former Army National Guard infantry officer who served in Iraq, exposed the LAPD’s plan to lower the standards for applicants to the department’s SWAT team, this with the transparent aim of placing the first female police officer in its ranks. The Times followed up with added details in this front-page, above-the-fold story last Tuesday, a story for which neither LAPD William Bratton nor anyone else in the LAPD hierarchy would comment. It appears that Bratton, who at every opportunity has proclaimed his commitment to openness and “transparency” within the department, has been caught in his own web of duplicity.
Changes to the long-established SWAT selection process have been instituted without publicity (at least until now), and without the approval or even the knowledge of the civilian Police Commission, ostensibly the policymaking board that oversees the LAPD. The changes were based on a report by a panel convened by Bratton himself and charged with, we were told at the time, investigating a 2005 incident in which a 19-month-old girl, Suzie Peña, was killed by police gunfire. The girl’s father was using her as a shield as he fired at the officers who were trying to rescue her, and she was tragically shot and killed when the officers returned fire. Remarkably, this was the only incident in the unit’s history that resulted in the death of a hostage.
While an examination of this incident was the stated purpose for Bratton’s convening of a “Board of Inquiry,” it is now clear that Suzie Peña’s death was merely a pretext, one that provided cover for Bratton to institute changes to the SWAT team based on the report of a supposedly objective panel of experts. But, as Mr. Parry pointed out in his piece, the board did not interview even a single officer involved in the Peña incident. Moreover, it is now clear that many of the board’s members were selected neither for their objectivity nor their expertise, but rather for their willingness to produce a report that supported the changes Bratton already sought to implement. Only one member of the board had SWAT experience (and what a lonely ordeal it must have been for him), while the others were either police executives or lawyers. None of the members were LAPD officers.
Among its criticisms of the LAPD’S SWAT team, the Board of Inquiry found that its culture is “insular.” And indeed it can — and should — be. In any organization, be it a business, a branch of the military, or a police department, a subgroup’s insularity is bound to be commensurate with differences in the standards applied to it and those applied to the larger group. When the LAPD’s SWAT team is no longer insular, it will only mean that its members are no longer held to a meaningfully higher standard than is the rest of the police department. As I’ve observed over my long career with the department, it often takes little in the way of intelligence or skills to rise to the very highest levels in the LAPD, but you have to be special to get into SWAT. Until recently, that is.
The selection process for a new group of SWAT officers is currently underway, but it is radically different from the one used in 2006, when the last group of officers was added to the team. What had been a five-day series of evaluations designed to test not only a candidate’s skills but also his dedication and leadership abilities has now been watered down to a four-part process consisting of a physical fitness test, an obstacle course (one that is not all that challenging), an interview, and a background check. Any candidate who passes all four phases will be sent to SWAT school, and all who complete SWAT school will be placed on an eligibility list and selected for SWAT as vacancies occur. Two female officers are among the current applicants, and at least one of them will surely make it through to the SWAT team, even if only because Chief Bratton wishes it so.
This lessening of standards has predictably met resistance from current SWAT team members, some of whom spoke to Parry and to Times reporters on the condition that their identities be protected. More interestingly, the changes have also aroused considerable outrage among these officers’ wives, some of whom have written to city officials asking them to reconsider the new selection criteria. “We are concerned,” one of them wrote, “with the safety of our husbands, the fathers of our children, if they are expected to go into these highly dangerous situations with someone who got in under a compromised standard.”