The Star-News


Better now than they were then

Sat, Dec 08 2012 12:00 PM Posted By: Tom Basinski

In last week’s installment I wrote that Chula Vista's first SWAT team was figuratively put together with hair pins, chewing gum, duct tape, and the iron will of the men who formed the team. The original 1971 group had virtually no money and no equipment. They did tap into the overtime budget for training.

The small arsenal of specialized equipment was, uh, appropriated from the military. (No “Fast and Furious” here. They obtained spare parts and weapons slated for surveying by some sympathetic Marines.) Lt. Hal King was a gunsmith who could work miracles.

The team wore blue utility uniforms. When we would see them in their gear we  asked where they were going. When they said they were heading to Camp Pendleton for training some irreverent guys would say, “I feel safe when I see you guys in your gear. I feel safer when I learn you’re going out of town.” Maybe some were jealous they weren’t picked for the team. Nothing stopped us from joking and being irreverent though.

Today’s SWAT team truly is a precision machine. The team gets its strength from its personnel, practiced preparedness, and its formidable equipment. While money is still tight, a grant from Homeland Security has softened some of the financial pain. The officers travel in a Lenco Bearcat mobile unit that has anything a battle-ready group could want, including a device for thermal imaging to see if a warm body is someplace.

SWAT Commander Lt. Scott Arsenault said selection today is different from the original leaders who hand-picked people they knew would get along and follow orders. Today, a notice is posted advertising an opening on the team. Prospective applicants apply and then are interviewed. Those who make the decision on who joins the team look for  hard workers. They also look for those possessing the necessary physical skills. Lastly, the person must be able to get along with others. It would do no good for a “Lone Wolf” to apply if he or she was a jerk who couldn’t get along, no matter how many physical skills the applicant possessed.

There is also the physical test, which is pass-fail. Then, there is a firearms proficiency module. Lastly, the team meets and confers about prospective applicants, bringing up the good and bad points of each person. No rumors are allowed. If someone has something negative to say, the statement must be backed up by facts. Not liking someone’s personality, without factual examples to back up the opinion, is insufficient to disqualify an applicant.

The modern SWAT officers attend a grueling academy, including night shooting, high stress drills, and working in inclement conditions. Today there are 23 SWAT officers. They are divided into entry and perimeter teams. There is even a Level One Reserve Police Officer who is a medical doctor attached to the team. It’s nice to have one of those around.

The SWAT officers are continually training, including range days and physical training, with the snipers doing even more shooting. Most of the officers keep in shape on their own anyway.

All of the officers are “on call” all the time. If an officer is out of town or otherwise unavailable, he must notify the SWAT Commander of his status. There is no additional compensation for being on call. The turnover rate for SWAT officers is almost non existent.

Arsenault said he is in awe of the dedication and resolve of the officers. They put the team first. They are talented and selfless. He said the budget is his most difficult part of the job. He said that the support he gets from “upstairs” (the administration) is very helpful.

Just like everything else in the physical aspects of the Chula Vista Police Department, everything is better now than it was years ago.

Basinski was a hostage negotiator who worked with the team during the early days of SWAT.


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