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.”
These are more than theoretical concerns. The debate comes just weeks after Officer Randy Simmons was killed in a gunfight during an abortive rescue attempt in the San Fernando Valley. Simmons was the only LAPD SWAT officer killed in action in the unit’s history. A second officer, Jim Veenstra, was seriously wounded in the same incident but survived. The SWAT wives wonder, quite understandably, if a female officer, or any officer selected under these new criteria, will be able to pick up and carry a wounded comrade to safety. A SWAT officer might weigh 250 pounds or more when loaded down with weapons and other gear.
But such worries are inconvenient to utopians such as Chief Bratton, who is more concerned with breaking down perceived societal barriers — even barriers grounded in reality — than in breaking down actual doors behind which are waiting armed criminals. It is telling that Bratton and the department brass made these changes in secret, and that even now, after being confronted with the evidence, they refuse to admit their involvement or discuss the changes.
Responding to an e-mail sent by one of the SWAT wives, an LAPD assistant chief, the department’s highest-ranking female officer, wrote that she is “not aware of any actions being taken to lower the standards for getting into SWAT.” One might be inclined to give the woman the benefit of the doubt by assuming she is merely uninformed, but given that she was charged with overseeing the Board of Inquiry — whose report was completed more than a year ago — her denial lacks even a modest claim to credibility.
Indeed, the whole affair casts an unfavorable light on how the LAPD’s upper management operates, one that Bratton and others are now scrambling to deflect. Asked by reporters to comment on the new SWAT criteria, Police Commission member John Mack was characteristically obtuse in reply. “It’s important for us to understand,” he said, “that one can modify standards without lowering standards.” One can, but in this case, didn’t.
When reporters asked Bratton about the controversy, he seemed miffed that the affair had come to light at all. Referring to the officers who dared to question the wisdom in these changes, Bratton said, “They’re all entitled to their opinion.” What they’re not entitled to, he seems to believe, is a right to express those opinions to anyone who might publish them. Robert Parry has learned of what he describes as a “witch hunt” within the LAPD to identify and silence any officer who spoke with him.
Longtime readers of these columns will recall that I advocated Bratton’s hiring back in 2002, and that I applauded the changes he made to the LAPD during his first year in office. The department had suffered greatly under his predecessor, Bernard Parks, and Bratton enjoyed a period of goodwill with the rank and file as he sought to undo some of the damage Parks had inflicted. But since that first year we have seen one disappointment after another as Bratton revealed himself to be little more than another ambitious politician, albeit one more adept at the game than was Parks.
Parks’s downfall was his hubris, which was such that he flatly refused to listen to anyone offering assistance or guidance. Bratton’s hubris is only marginally preferable: He listens, but only to those who agree with him. In conducting his secret campaign to put a woman on the SWAT team, he seeks to burnish his reputation as a champion of “diversity,” thereby aiding him in his quest for a position in the Democratic administration he hopes to see installed in January 2009.
But when he moves on, what will be his legacy? The headlines may soon read, “Bratton appoints first woman to SWAT team,” but if that woman should one day fail in her mission because she was held to a lower standard than her peers, and if that failure results in her own or someone else’s injury or death, what will the headlines say then? And what will William Bratton have to say about it?
— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.