NEIGHBORHOOD COPS OR SPECIAL OPS?
POLICING IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM
by Patricia A. Robinson
The 1990s saw the parallel development of two contradictory
models in policing: Community-Oriented Policing (COP) and Special Weapons
and Tactics (SWAT) teams. Most departments do not choose one model over
the other, but instead try to do bothpartly in
response to external pressures. The challenge for trainers is how to
train officers to function effectively in both modes. This article
will examine the officer qualities each model values and suggest ways
trainers can design training to equip officers for both roles.
Community-Oriented Policing grew out of public dissatisfaction with
police forces that were perceived as occupying armies rather
than public servantsand with police concerns about increasing
calls for service. The idea behind COP is that if police departments
can work with other agencies and community groups to address underlying
problems, the quality of life for citizens will improve, and police
calls for service will decline.
Policing under the COP model is multi-dimensional and proactive, depending
heavily on officers' abilities to took at situations from a big-picture
perspective and to problem-solve creatively. The COP approach means
that officers use a range of skills: social work, negotiation, grass-roots
organizing, planning, and others. Citizens get to know officers as human
beings, not just robo-cops in blue. Officers get to know
citizens as well, forging closer relationships between the police department
and the community.
To be effective in the COP model, officers need to be open and people-oriented,
comfortable with being known as a person. They need to show individual
initiative. They must be flexible and versatile, and at ease with the
messiness of a multi-disciplinary, inclusive approach to solving problems.
Control freaks need not apply!
SWAT teams arose out of a different historical context and follow a
very different model. Since the first SWAT team appeared in Los Angeles
to combat the riots of the 1960s, the concept of specially equipped
and trained tactical units to deal with high-risk situations has taken
firm hold. Pick up any police equipment catalogue and you will see an
astounding array of tactical gearsuch as night-vision equipment,
flak vests, and thermal imaging equipmentas well as an impressive
arsenal of weapons and ordnance.
SWAT teams are, by definition, reactive, and are deployed only for critical
situations such as violent public emergencies, riots or multiple-casualty
shootings, execution of high-risk search warrants, and hostage situations.
Once the situation is resolved, the SWAT team leaves. SWAT team call-ups
are defined, one-time encounters that do not involve ongoing relationships
SWAT teams depend on highly practiced teamwork, not individual initiative.
Team members often wear a distinctive uniformtypically black or
camouflage BDU-style clothing. They use special, military-style equipment
and weapons (ballistic shields, flash-bangs, and fully automatic rifles,
to name a few). The uniforms and gear contribute to enhancing the team
image and diminishing the individuality of the officers involved. To
the public, they may seem like faceless commando unitsan image
enhanced by tactical gas masks and balaclavas.
To be effective SWAT team members, officers must be comfortable with
this tight discipline and repetitive training. Because of the nature
of the SWAT team's activities, officers must be familiar with a variety
of weaponry and other technology, and they must accept the separation
from ordinary citizens. "Cowboys" likely to go off on a mission
of their own do not make good SWAT team members, nor do those officers
who are uncomfortable with being perceived as police first, people second.
In many ways, the characteristics and activities that make effective
neighborhood officers are the exact opposite of those that make effective
SWAT team members. One might think that there could be no crossover.
Few departments have the luxury, however, of being able to field a full-time
SWAT team. Most SWAT teams are part-time units, made up of officers
assigned to patrol and other
areas in the department. Similarly, most departments expect officers
to employ the principles of COP, and some have full-time neighborhood
officers. In a critical incident, however, those neighborhood officers
are expected to function tactically as well.
In addition to individual officers inclinations, various outside
forces bear on departments use of these two models of policing.
These influences are difficult to quantify, but they are clearly present
as reality or perception.
Increased Danger. While the overall crime rate may be declining,
the rate of youth violence is still going up. The number of officers
killed on duty has not declined significantlyand many of those
deaths have been the result of ambushes and sudden assaults. In addition,
officers are finding more sophisticated weaponry on the street: pistols
with laser sights, submachine guns, and sometimes rifles are replacing
the cheap revolvers and semi-autos of the past. The reality of the danger
in the streets tends to lead officers to adopt the SWAT mindset. Its
worth noting that in many ways the profile of the "typical"
officer killed on duty looks a lot like a neighborhood officer.
Incidents of Police Brutality and Perceived Racial Bias. The
news has been full of reports of police brutality, from the Rodney King
incident in California to the sexual assault of Abner Louima while in
police custody in New York. The widespread media attention given to
these incidents has fed public perceptions of police as power-hungry
brutes. As public mistrust of police increases, officers'
feelings of isolation and defensiveness increase, further reinforcing
the SWAT model.
Related to brutality concerns is the perception that officers enforce
the law unequally. Recent articles addressing the perception that minority
motorists are stopped for DWB (driving while black), or
shot and killed more often by officers fuel the belief that police are
racist. That there is a disproportionate impact of law enforcement on
minority citizens seems evidentone need only look at the incarceration
rates for blacks and whites to see that. The reason for that disproportionate
impact is hotly debated. Many citizens believe that its because
the police are racist; most officers would disagree.
Lately, the debate has shifted slightly from the alleged racism of individual
officers to the fortress mentality fostered in police departments.
A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor included this statement:
...some observers say ... police brutality isn't caused so much
by the simmering racism of individual cops. Rather the overzealous,
militaristic culture of some police departments is partly to blame,
too. In the same article, Joseph McNamara, former chief
of police in San Jose, California, was quoted as saying, If you're
training cops to think theyre in a warincluding a drug waryoure
going to get atrocities like these.
Implications for Trainers
Well, we do train cops to think theyre in a war. Politicians talk
about the war on drugs and the war on crime.
The current issue of a national law enforcement magazine refers to the
war on gangs and, in another article about the medias
misperception of the street cops reality, states ...it's
a war out there, and, as in any war, there are no rules.
We refer to police as modern warriors and we refer to citizens
as subjects and contacts and civilians.
We increasingly equip patrol officers with military-style rifles and
carbines. We emphasize officer safety as the first and most important
consideration for officers.
And so we should. It is dangerous out there.
But we are not soldiers, and we are not in a war. In a conventional
war, the enemy is easily located and identified, and collateral casualties
are unfortunate, but expected. We have a much more difficult job: we
do not know which of the many citizens we encounter will try to kill
us. They will look no different from the rest. We cannot have any innocent
lives lost, or we can expect lawsuits and even criminal charges. No
wonder the SWAT model holds appeal for officers: theres
an identified enemy and a defined crisis.
But the more we focus solely on the danger, the more we slide into military
jargon to describe what we do (invisible deployment, clearing fields
of fire), then inevitably the more we separate ourselves from the people
we serve. It becomes that much easier for citizens to stereotype police
as racist and brutal, and for police to see the publicnot just
the criminalsas the enemy. And it becomes that much more difficult
to do community-oriented policing.
Yet community-oriented policing seems to work. There will never be enough
police to impose order on an unwilling populace: we need the community
as a partner. And in the long run, positive one-on-one relationships
with people in the neighborhoods will help keep us safer when we respond
As trainers, we must actively train officers to have friendly human
interactions with the citizens they serve, as well as to recognize and
respond to danger. After all, most of the people we encounter on the
street don't want to kill us. How do we do this? The following four
suggestions (all used to some degree in the authors agency) are
1. Recruit new hires with a range of prior experience, not just law
Some of the tasks of policing are technicalshooting, for example.
Mostly, however, policing is more art than science, and demands people
skills such as defusing conflict, making complex decisions, and deflecting
hostility. The wider experience an officer has, the more he or she has
to draw on. It is no surprise that rookie officers are more likely than
veterans to be involved in situations involving
excessive use of force.
2. Put recruit officers in scenarios in which they have to rely on
verbalnot physical skills to resolve the situation.
Give recruits staged calls, such as a woman having a psychotic
(but non-dangerous) episode, or a despondent man threatening to overdose
on prescription medication, and stipulate that they will not need to
use force in resolving the situation (although good tactics are a must).
Have veteran officers act the roles, and brief them to reward good verbal
skills with cooperation. Veteran officers
have the experience to make the reactions realistic, while controlling
the scenario to provide good training. Each successful rep gives the
officer another experience to draw from on the street.
3. Have recruit officers practice common activities, such as non-high-risk
traffic stops, to reinforce both safe practices and friendly, courteous
interactions with citizens.
Again, using officers as actors, give recruits as many reps as time
allows. Vary the encounters and make a few of them offbeat: a driver
reaching under the seat not to grab a gun, but to capture an escaped
gerbil. Such a scenario may require the officer to use sound tactics
and considerable caution to handle the stop, but may also require some
explanation and calming of the citizen afterwards.
4. Emphasize throughout training (academy and in-service) that we
are sworn to uphold the Constitution, including its protections against
undue government intrusion.
Too often the protections in the Bill of Rights are viewed as annoying
obstacles to efficient law enforcement. For example, in our zeal to
get drugs off the street, do we continually try to get citizens to consent
to searches of their cars by countering a refusal with, If you
don't have anything to hide, why don't you want us to search?
Most officers would not see this as coercive, but most citizens
probably would. We cops tend to forget the impact of the uniform. We
need to re-emphasize that our role is not just to enforce the law, but
also to protect the rights of individuals.
These broader skills and attitudes may be more difficult to teach than
shooting and fighting, but they are no less critical to an officers
survival. The coming years will place increasing demands on police agencies:
community expectations are higher and the level of danger is greater.
We need officers who are versatile and capable of functioning in more
than one mode. As trainers we need to
balance our training to reflect both models of policing.
This article appears in the March/April 2000 issue of
the ASLET Trainer, the official journal of the American Society for
Law Enforcement Training.
 In the Line of Fire: Violence Against Law Enforcement.
United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation,
National Institute of Justice, October, 1997,
page 12. Descriptors include friendly to everyone, well-liked
by community and department, tends to perceive self as more public relations
than law enforcement,
service-oriented, tends to look for good in others.
Other descriptors, however, indicate that poor tactics, such as not
waiting for backup, also play a role in officer deaths.
 Christian Science Monitor, June 23, 1999, page 3.
 Police, Vol. 23, No. 7, July, 1999, pp. 51-52