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How to Become a S.W.A.T. Officer

What Does a SWAT Officer Do?

swat team on rooftop

SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) officers are members of highly trained paramilitary units that tackle situations beyond the capability of conventional police forces. SWAT teams are called in when an incident presents significant risk to law enforcement officers or the public. These elite professionals use their advanced training in weapons, teamwork and strategy to resolve crises. When not responding to crises, SWAT officers perform more routine duties.

SWAT officers are trained to resolve numerous crises, including:

  • Hostage situations
  • Counterterrorism operations
  • Apprehension of armed and barricaded suspects
  • Suicide intervention
  • Warrant service under fire
  • Protection of visiting dignitaries
  • High-risk search and seizure
  • Covert and undercover operations
  • Crowd and riot control
  • Fugitive tracking in rural environments

While all SWAT officers are expert marksmen with in-depth training in close combat, most play a specialized role within the team. Some serve as negotiators or medics while others are experts in handling assault vehicles or weapons. Each team includes several tactical officers who coordinate and carry out assaults on barricaded positions and apprehend armed suspects.

Many officers spend a majority of their time in conventional policing activities such as patrol and traffic enforcement. In some areas, they use their specialized tactical knowledge to conduct crime suppression exercises that ferret out dangerous offenders.

Most SWAT officers consider serving on the team an honor and privilege. Members are chosen from the ranks of experienced police officers based on their superior fitness, marksmanship and service record. They take great pride in protecting the public and their fellow law enforcement officers in life-and-death situations that put their years of training and experience to the test.

Workplace Details

Large, urban police forces and county sheriffs’ departments often include a dedicated SWAT division, as do most state-level law enforcement agencies. Many federal agencies also have SWAT capabilities, including the National Parks Service, Secret Service, Coast Guard and Border Patrol. The FBI maintains SWAT divisions at each of its 56 field offices around the country.

The work of SWAT teams revolves around crisis response. Officers must therefore be prepared to face dangerous and life-threatening situations and to deal with people who are aggressive, dangerous, mentally ill or threatening the safety of bystanders. To resolve incidents and prevent loss of life, these professionals rely on training, experience and teamwork while adhering closely to established police procedures.

SWAT officers are experts in a wide range of weaponry and equipment, some of which include machine guns, sniper rifles, armored vehicles, concussion grenades and night vision systems. Because of the risk inherent in their operations, they wear specialized body armor and protective gear on missions.

In most police departments, SWAT officers perform regular police duties while standing by to respond to critical incidents. Their work environment and conditions therefore overlap considerably with those of conventional police officers.

Like most law enforcement professionals, SWAT officers usually work full time. Shifts are extended, irregular and cover all hours of the day as well as weekends and holidays. Many supplement their income with generous overtime and holiday pay.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of police officers (including SWAT officers) is $58,320 as of May 2015, with 80 percent earning between $33,430 and $96,110. Members of SWAT teams generally take home a police officer salary commensurate with their education and rank, plus additional hazard pay. Like other law enforcement officers, they supplement their income with generous overtime and bonuses.

Wages vary widely by region and are generally highest for those employed by federal agencies. In some locations, SWAT officers can boost their earnings potential by completing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that employment of police and detectives - including SWAT officers - will grow by 4% from 2014 to 2024, which is slower than the average for all occupations. This is due in part to ongoing budget concerns that are inhibiting government job creation in many areas of the country. SWAT units are quite expensive to train and maintain, and relatively few law enforcement agencies can afford to support them in-house. Candidates who have earned a bachelor’s degree will generally enjoy an advantage when applying for jobs.

The amount of money invested in training usually translates into excellent job security for SWAT team members. Even in the rare event that a unit is disbanded or restructured, members will almost always be quickly reassigned where their unique skills are needed.

Steps to Become a S.W.A.T. Officer

1

Earn a high school diploma or GED.

Almost all SWAT team members begin their careers as police officers or sheriffs’ deputies. In most agencies, this requires a high school diploma or GED.

2

Complete an associate or bachelor's degree.

Because competition for entry-level positions is fierce, many candidates pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and related fields in order to increase their job prospects.

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3

Undergo police academy training.

New recruits complete 15–30 weeks of academy training covering law, tactics, police procedure, firearms, emergency driving, report writing and leadership. Instruction covers both classroom and practical learning and includes simulations of common field situations. Physical conditioning is a key component of the program, and recruits must generally meet rigorous fitness standards in order to graduate.

4

Enroll in field training.

Following graduation from the academy, most police recruits complete a period of field training and probation before becoming eligible for solo assignments and increased responsibilities.

5

Work at least three years in law enforcement.

Officers must generally have at least three years of law enforcement experience before applying for promotion to a SWAT unit.

6

Pass the examination.

SWAT recruits are generally chosen by an open examination, which usually includes an interview, psychological exam, and fitness testing and skill evaluation. Those deemed fit for SWAT duty continue on to the academy for advanced training. SWAT officers undergo continuing education and requalification throughout their careers and must maintain a high standard of physical fitness.

7

Return to the police academy for specialized training.

Police officers who are chosen for SWAT duty return to the academy for training in close-quarters defensive tactics and special weapons use. During this time, they are subjected to highly demanding physical conditioning.

8

Look into voluntary training programs.

Aspiring SWAT officers can improve their chances by attending voluntary training programs in defensive tactics, legal education and marksmanship through the local police academy. Because SWAT is considered an elite posting, candidates must demonstrate superior marksmanship and fitness and maintain an excellent service record.

Depending on the unit’s mission, SWAT recruits may take additional courses in counter-sniper tactics, helicopter and armored vehicle insertion, explosives, rope skills and crowd control.

9

Meet state requirements.

Some states require police recruits to pass a certification exam upon completion of their basic training. SWAT team members must pass yearly fitness testing and re-qualify regularly on the weapons they use.

10

Look into opportunities for advancement.

SWAT team members earn increases in pay, rank and responsibility through seniority and job performance. Some experienced officers go on to command units or become academy instructors.

Explore Degree Paths

HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA

4 years

SWAT is an elite assignment given only to top police officers and special agents. In order to join the SWAT team, you’ll first need to gain experience as a police officer, sheriff’s deputy, military police officer, or federal special agent. This means passing through a rigorous selection process and graduating from your agency’s training academy.

Many local policing agencies accept candidates with a high school diploma or GED. Check with your local police department and county sheriff’s office to learn more about the requirements in your area.

Keep in mind that while college may not be required in your jurisdiction, education will almost certainly help you climb the law enforcement career ladder. This is especially useful if you aspire to an elite force like SWAT. So if you join up with a high school diploma, consider taking college courses. Many agencies offer tuition assistance to help officers earn a bachelor’s or even advanced degree.

If you’re interested in becoming a police officer but don’t yet meet the minimum age requirements, find out if your local agency has a cadet program. This may allow you to gain paid work and educational experience before applying to the force.

ASSOCIATE DEGREE

2 years

When it comes to hiring officers, some agencies have college credit requirements. Even where it’s not required, education can mean higher pay and faster advancement (to the SWAT team, for example.) Also, the skills you learn in college will give you an edge in writing, communications, critical decision-making, and other aspects of policing.

So if your agency requires an associate degree, consider it a good thing. Usually there’s no prescribed field of study, so look for a program that supports your interests and career goals. Good choices include criminal justice, foreign language, psychology, and sociology.

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Some helpful courses to take:

Criminology

Examines criminal behavior from a variety of angles, including the legal, social, psychological, and political.

Forensic science

The gathering and analysis of crime scene evidence in order to gain insight into the people and events involved.

Corrections

Current and historical perspectives on our justice system covering policing, the courts, correctional institutions, and the parole process.

Criminal law

Overview of the statutes, regulations, and case law that define criminal activity as well as criminal penalties, accusations, and defenses.

When choosing a school, remember that not all are programs are created equal. Often your law enforcement agency will be able to point you toward reputable choices in your area. The better programs often have articulation agreements that allow you to transfer your associate degree credits to a four-year college.

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years

Most federal agencies, including the FBI and DEA, require their special agents to hold four-year degrees. A growing number of local agencies are also adopting this requirement.

Even if it’s not required, a bachelor’s degree can be a big help when it comes to pay and advancement. It also demonstrates your commitment, professionalism, and critical-thinking abilities — all excellent attributes for a future SWAT officer.

Useful fields of study include criminal justice, foreign language, sociology, psychology, and social work. Your bachelor’s level coursework will vary depending on your major, but you might find the following subjects useful:

Cross-cultural perspectives

Looks at issues (including crime and policing) from diverse viewpoints, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and national origin.

Foreign language

Proficiency can be a huge asset in geographical areas and federal agencies (e.g., FBI, Customs and Border Protection).

Lab-based biology or physical science

Hands-on experience with the scientific principles used to investigate crime scenes and analyze evidence.

Political science

Learn how the political process impacts policing, the court system, criminal law, and society in general.

Many bachelor’s degree programs also require an internship. This is a great opportunity to make connections with law enforcement and corrections professionals in your area.

Keys to Success as a SWAT Officer

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Hard working

A police officer who wishes to join SWAT must have an excellent service record and secure a recommendation from a superior officer.

Physically strong

Success on the competitive exam requires superior marksmanship and physical fitness. A career as a SWAT officer requires extreme physical fitness and physical courage. Team members must be able to run long distances, climb stairs, lift and carry heavy loads and handle large weapons without becoming fatigued. They must also be comfortable working in all types of weather and endure long periods exposed to the elements.

Mentally and emotionally stable

Candidates must be able to pass a rigorous psychological interview that tests their suitability for service in a high-stakes environment.

Decisive

SWAT officers must have the ability to make quick decisions under stress.

Able to communicate well

Because SWAT units operate as a close-knit team, strong communication and interpersonal skills are essential.

Additional Credentials

Officers chosen for SWAT assignment complete additional training at their agency’s academy. All tactical personnel are required to engage in continuing education, and many develop professional interests in certain areas.

The following are common pathways for advanced SWAT education. Some agencies and organizations, such as the National Tactical Officers Association, offer certification upon completion of selected courses.

  • Tactical leadership
  • Crisis negotiation
  • Hostage rescue
  • Active shooter response
  • Dynamic entry
  • Riot control
  • Armored vehicles
  • Sniper training and instruction
  • Risk management
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