When you confront mortality on a daily basis, you develop a deep appreciation for the gift of life.
There is nothing cavalier about the life-and-death decisions made every day by law enforcement officers and members of our SWAT teams.
There has been much interest in the recent decision by Pima County and other jurisdictions to settle the case of Jose Guerena, who was killed in a May 2011 SWAT operation. Although legal restrictions have prevented us from making all of the evidence fully available to the public, loss of life in cases like this is always sobering. And while our office did not agree with the settlement decision, which was made strictly on a risk-management basis, it was not our choice to make.
What I fear has been lost in this discussion is that the SWAT officers who serve this county are extremely judicious in their use of deadly force.
The Sheriff’s Department approved the formation of the first SWAT Team in Pima County in 1971. Since then, over more than 40 years, there have been more than 2,000 warrants served by the SWAT officers.
Deadly force has been used exactly one time during the serving of a warrant — in this case — even though SWAT is used in only the highest-risk cases.
That isn’t just fortunate happenstance.
When officers are considered for this highly trained unit, physical strength and shooting skill remain important assets. But the critical asset that trumps all others is the ability to practice restraint in the use of physical force coupled with critical thinking, which comes into play in identifying appropriate methods to resolve a tactical problem, whether it’s a hostage situation, a terrorist incident or a high-risk arrest. It’s called emotional intelligence, and it is the No. 1 priority in the selection process.
While we don’t have much information about the number of missions in the early years of Pima County SWAT, we do know that over the past 15 years, our Pima County/Regional SWAT efforts have averaged more than 54 missions every year. The total missions over the past 15 years include some 55 high-risk arrests, 115 barricaded subjects and 26 hostage rescues.
The Pima Regional SWAT Team also has served as a model for other municipalities interested in forming a regional team that can share resources and personnel. The Regional SWAT Team since 2004 also has conducted a three-week, intense SWAT training for new officers, filled with academic, physical, decision-making and leadership challenges. Students from other states have attended the school, and the training protocol is regularly requested nationwide.
All this serves to make sure our officers are trained and equipped for public safety operations, while keeping at the forefront efforts to save lives, including the suspects’ lives.
While we were exhorted in a recent newspaper column to take lessons from this case, let there be no mistake: There are always lessons to be learned from every case. We constantly reassess and evaluate all major events, in the form of action plans, operations plans, debriefing activities and board discussions.
It would, of course, be ideal if suspects engaged in dangerous activities simply surrendered. That’s not reality.
What I can say is that our Regional SWAT Team performs admirably in situations that involve serious threats. They hold the line between order and chaos, security and peril. We are safer as a community as a result of their efforts, and I am deeply grateful to the dynamic, dedicated officers who risk their own lives to save others.