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

Overview

SWAT officer aiming his rifle

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 such as:

  • 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.

When not responding to crises, SWAT officers perform more routine duties. Many 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.

Work Environment

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.

A career as a SWAT officer requires extreme physical fitness. 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.

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.

Requirements

Education

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

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.

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. 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.

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

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 also demonstrate superior marksmanship and fitness and maintain an excellent service record. 

SWAT recruits are generally chosen by an open examination, which usually includes an interview, psychological exam, 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.

Licensing and/or Certification

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.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

A police officer who wishes to join SWAT must have an excellent service record and secure a recommendation from a superior officer. Success on the competitive exam requires superior marksmanship and physical fitness. Candidates must also be able to pass a rigorous psychological interview that tests their suitability for service in a high-stakes environment. Other desirable qualities include emotional stability, physical courage and the ability to make quick decisions under stress. Because SWAT units operate as a close-knit team, strong communication and interpersonal skills are essential.

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.

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Salary

The median annual wage of police and detectives (including SWAT officers) was $55,010 in May 2010, with 80 percent earning between $32,440 and $88,870. 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.

Job Outlook

Employment of police and detectives (including SWAT officers) is expected to grow by 7% between 2010-2020, which is considered 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. 

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.

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