Chicago SWAT: Dropping In, But Not For Dinner

CHICAGO — The SWAT team of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police was getting ready to make a forced entry at a house belonging to dope dealers. The room filled with guys in Ninja gear-ballistic vests, pistols in tactical holsters, riot guns, what have you.

SWAT operations may look spontaneous, but they aren’t. They’re planned like a football play-John will go here, Sam will go there, if this happens, then A; if that happens, then B. The team leader went over everything in detail. For example:

The door of the target house. Would it be open? If it had to be forced, would the ram be able to knock it in? If not, could the frame be spread using the hydraulic door-opener? (Because of a lot of surreptitious reconnaissance, they knew the door would likely be open. “Likely open” and “open” aren’t quite the same thing.)

The dog. The dealers were known to have a good-sized dog which might or might not attack the entry team. A man with a shotgun was assigned to kill it if need be. No, SWAT guys don’t like to kill dogs. But it’s hard to work with a Great Dane hanging from your carotids.

Kids. Were there going to be any in the house? (No, which meant the operation could proceed normally.)

Escape routes: If bad guys began leaking from windows, the containment teams would stop them. These guys would be at the corners of the house so they could see two sides of the building at once.

What if a fire-fight developed? Answer: Back up, seal off the house, get the negotiation-and-barricade guys. The whole idea of the assault entrance was to get in and get control before anyone, including the bad guys, got hurt. Gun fights aren’t real predictable. A problem with SWAT units is that guys can get pumped up, think they’re invincible, take chances, and get killed.

The approach: The entry team would drive up quietly, stop where some hedges provided cover, and go in. The dog-handler, Monica, and her dope-dog would wait until the house was cleared and then go in to find the dope. The whole thing should happen fast.

I was impressed. Lots of departments have what they call SWAT teams, but most of them aren’t really. A real SWAT operation needs a lot of training, some of it specialized, and a lot of equipment that most forces don’t have. Six part-time guys with SWAT jackets don’t make it. Easily the best SWAT team I know of on the East Coast is Washington’s. The Chicago guys were as good.

We went to the (unmarked) vehicles, and set off into the night.

The target house was in a tolerably nice neighborhood, though not at elegant one. The vehicles stopped silently behind the hedges. The entry team was out in nothing flat. I couldn’t see whether they rammed the door or found it open, but I heard no thump of a ram.

The shouting was terrific. The idea is to produce shock. You don’t want the bad guys to have time to think, to decide maybe that they want to fight. Ideally the door flies open absolutely unexpectedly and the dope-dealers are paralyzed by surprise.

“Down! Get down! DOWN! NOW! Get down now! Now! Down!”

These operations would make lousy television. Done properly, they last about ten seconds, with maybe another twenty to check all the rooms and make sure that no one with a gun is hiding. This one was done properly. Monica and I went in with Ajax, her German Shepherd.

The house was ill-kept, but not truly filthy. Several Hispanic guys were in cuffs. They looked stunned.

By various means we won’t go into, the team knew the dope was in the house. They didn’t know where. Down in the basement Monica told Ajax that it was time to do his stuff. Dogs are nice to watch. Usually they get all excited: Oh, good, now I get to go find something. Ajax went to it. He wasn’t relaxed about it. Instead he hurried here, sniffed there, bingo, two pounds of marijuana hidden in a box of miscellaneous crud.

That was that, except for careful analysis of little things that went wrong or were unexpected. For example a guy was in the hallway, which was narrow, when the team shouted, “Down.” He obeyed, creating a minor blockage for the rest of the team. Something to remember next time.

We left.

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