Advertisement

Bratton panel’s report exposes rift with SWAT

Times Staff Writer

A panel of law enforcement experts convened by Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton to examine the department’s elite SWAT unit concluded in an undisclosed report that the rigorous testing to get into the unit should be changed to make it more open to women, called for tighter supervision and criticized officers for relying too heavily on force over negotiations.

Those conclusions and others, included in a draft of the panel’s confidential report obtained by The Times, have deeply angered several Special Weapons and Tactics Team members, who say the changes -- some of which already have been imposed -- are misguided and will probably weaken the specialized unit that is charged with handling hostage situations and other high-risk operations.

“This is a recipe for disaster,” said a SWAT officer who has served in the unit for more than a decade. “We don’t get to back up and do things over. . . . These changes are going to put us and the public in danger.”

Several current SWAT officers and one former team member who were interviewed for this report all spoke on condition that their names not be used, out of fear that they would face retaliation by superiors. In an agency that rarely, if ever, deals publicly with internal turmoil, the report exposes a growing rift between Bratton and the department’s most storied group of officers.

Advertisement

The report was submitted to Bratton more than a year ago. He has denied requests by The Times to make the panel’s findings public and has not shared the full contents of the report with the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian body that oversees the department.

Assistant Chief Sharon Papa, who oversaw the panel’s work, said the report’s recommendations would be presented to the commission in two to three months. Papa and Bratton declined Monday to comment on the report. Several of the report’s authors also declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of their work. One member confirmed that the final version of the report does not differ significantly from the draft obtained by The Times.

The report comes to light at a time of heightened attention on SWAT, which last month saw the first officer in its 40-year history killed in the line of duty and another badly wounded when they stormed the house of a mentally ill man who had barricaded himself after killing three family members.

Born out of the 1965 Watts riots and formalized as a unit in 1971, SWAT has been at the center of some of the LAPD’s most violent and sensational encounters.

Advertisement

In 1969, members of the Black Panthers greeted a SWAT squad with shotgun blasts and machine gun fire when the officers arrived at the group’s stronghold.

In 1974, a gunfight broke out with members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that had kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst. Six SLA members were killed.

In the 1980s, the unit’s activities were scaled back in part because of criticism of its military-like nature.

Intensely proud and tightly knit, the unit is used largely to serve warrants on dangerous suspects and handle standoffs involving barricaded people.

Its record is impressive. In its 3,371 operations between 1972 and 2005, 83% ended without “untoward incident” and with the suspect in custody, the panel found. Of the 174 incidents involving hostages, several were killed by suspects, but only one died accidentally at the hands of SWAT officers. Through 2005, SWAT officers had killed suspects in 31 confrontations

Bratton called for a review of SWAT in August 2005 after a chaotic incident in which officers accidentally killed 19-month-old Suzie Pena, who was used as a shield by her father as he opened fire on officers. The eight-member panel included lawyers, consultants and police officers from outside agencies. At the time, Bratton told the media that the panel would dissect the Pena shooting, saying that “we need to understand intimately what transpired in that incident.”

But in his private instructions to the panel that are included in the report, Bratton was far more expansive, calling Pena “a catalyst for the opportunity to look at SWAT” and saying that the unit “has been in a number of incidents that have raised concerns with me.”

He said the panel should review fundamental questions about SWAT, including how the 60 members are selected and their strategies to resolve perilous confrontations.

Advertisement

“Are my concerns well-placed?” Bratton asked in his instruction letter to the panel. “The concerns include tactics and the speed at which SWAT engages in operations. . . . Are there artificial barriers for getting into SWAT that the ‘good old boys’ network has maintained?”

In fact, the panel did not ultimately address the Pena shooting, saying that it “was precluded from gaining a full and complete understanding” of what had happened. A source with knowledge of the panel’s work said that happened because it waited until the department’s internal investigations into the shooting had been completed before asking questions. By that time, the panel’s report was largely finished.

Instead, the board drew its conclusions from examining other SWAT incidents, conducting interviews and reviewing internal documents. In many ways, their conclusions echoed the concerns Bratton had raised going in.

One of the most pressing issues, the board members concluded, is the “insular” culture of SWAT. They said there has never been a woman in the unit and there is very little turnover.

The panel criticized the rigorous physical tests and scenario simulations that, for more than a decade, every officer has had to pass to gain entry into the unit’s multi-week training school.

The selection criteria, they wrote, “under-emphasize negotiating skills, patience, empathy and flexibility while over-emphasizing physical prowess and tactical acumen.”

The board members also recommended that Bratton do away with the SWAT policy of selecting applicants only from the department’s specialized Metro Division and open the tryouts to the entire department.

The findings apparently had an effect. Department officials recently imposed a shorter, less rigorous set of tests, according to several sources, including SWAT officers who said they were briefed on the changes. Several SWAT members pointed out that the more rigorous testing regimen was vetted by city and police officials about 10 years ago. The changes, they said, are a dangerous watering-down of standards.

Advertisement

“I don’t care if you are male or female as long as you can do the job, and this is one way we know,” one SWAT officer said. “It is intense. It was trying to simulate as best as you can the stressful environment we work in. We need to see how people are going to react.”

The issue prompted the wives of several SWAT officers to write e-mails to top police and city officials, asking them to do away with the new criteria.

“It is widely believed this is an attempt to be politically correct and allow a female officer on the team,” one wrote in an e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. “We will not sit quietly by and allow you to compromise our husbands’ safety.”

After examining a handful of cases, the panel also found in SWAT a “trend” of resolving confrontations with suspects -- especially those in excitable states or the mentally ill -- by using physical force instead of exhausting the possibility of a peaceful end through negotiations. A related shortfall, they said, was that commanding officers have too little say in the decisions that SWAT teams make in the midst of crises.

The board members recommended that Bratton implement a model in use in New York City and other eastern U.S. cities, in which negotiators and tacticians work separately.

SWAT members, several of whom were involved in operations examined by the board, rejected that notion.

“It makes me sick to my stomach that they are drawing these conclusions after the fact. They weren’t there. They didn’t see what a maniac she was -- how she tried to stab us with that knife,” said one, referring to a case in which the panel harshly criticized SWAT officers for using Tasers, non-lethal projectiles and tear gas to apprehend a woman.

“We never go tactical unless we have to. We’ve talked to people until they literally fell asleep. But sometimes there are situations when negotiations don’t work.”

--

joel.rubin@latimes.com


Advertisement