Law enforcement special-response teams are "thinking" teams

by SHERIFF LEON LOTT April 18, 2017

sheriff Lott _ full by tc 600 px

These days we hear so much about the "militarization of police forces," suggesting either the over-equipping or perhaps the unbridled "overreach" of law-enforcement agencies as they operate in their respective communities. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Police officers - and I am speaking specifically about the deputies and other officers who serve within the Richland County Sheriff's Dept. (RCSD) of which I am sheriff - are trained and equipped with that which is needed to ensure the absolute safety and security of the citizens for which they are sworn to serve and protect. And in the 21st century, that is a weighty responsibility requiring, among other tools, a keen mind.

Not to suggest that the job of enforcing the law throughout history has not always been a challenge of the mind: It has. But even more so today.

Granted: Policing in 2017 does at times parallel the activities of military forces operating overseas; just as the work of soldiers overseas - often operating in large, often-unfamiliar, urban environments - parallel what we do here at home. And in both instances, a good, quick mind is key.


Here in Richland County, "it is our mission as trusted public servants, to prevent crime and the fear of crime by providing excellence in law enforcement services, accountability and connections with our communities."

Let's look at three key words - "trusted public servants" - in that mission statement. What do those words mean? Most people might assume they simply mean men and woman who are trustworthy, honest, people of integrity. In other words, not dishonest. And our deputies are those things, to be sure, if they are to work here at the RCSD.

But there is so much more when we speak of "trusted public servants."

I personally demand - and, in that, I trust - that our people may be counted on (trusted) to be brave; to be committed to their given communities and to each other; to be committed to the mission of enforcing the law; to value human life above all else; and to be physically, mentally, and emotionally fit to carry out every responsibility handed them and every split-second decision for which they will potentially and in all-probability face. 

Moreover, the public has to trust that we are fully capable of all these things.


In the 21st century wherein the criminal element (and any potential terrorist or terrorist group) has easy access to technologies that 20-years-ago a soldier on the battlefield did not possess, we have to always be one, perhaps two or three tech-steps as well as great mental leaps beyond the bad guys. As the saying goes, we have to get it right every time, the bad guy only has to get it right once.


How do we do it? It first begins with culture and tradition. The deputy needs to have a sense of who he or she is, where they come from, and the traditions they are bound to uphold. The RCSD has a long history, stretching back to the 18th century and Sheriff Joel McLemore, who distinguished himself a S.C. militia officer during the American Revolution, before becoming sheriff of the new Richland County in 1787.

Sheriff McLemore had one deputy covering a vast stretch of sparsely populated South Carolina territory described as "remote" and "lawless" in those days. Today, we're the same team. But we've evolved into a technologically sophisticated force composed of approximately 700 sworn officers tasked with protecting a diverse population that is well-beyond 410,000 people. We are a force that is able to respond within minutes anywhere in the county (and beyond when requested) with the training and tools necessary to get the job done and save lives wherever life is threatened. And we are able to do that through the fielding of well-trained, specialized law enforcement units, prepared in every way - including having developed critical thinking skills - to respond to any situation.    


Special weapons and tactics teams (commonly known as SWAT teams) are but one reality - and yes, necessity - of modern police forces, particularly in the post-9/11 world. Our SWAT team which was formed in the early 1970s' is today referred to as the Special Response Team (SRT).

Is the SRT considered to be a paramilitary force? Sure, if that means whatever the SRT is "capable of doing" - and the tools and tactics it brings to any situation - parallels that of other special-operations forces in the military. Yes, we are capable. We have to be.

Is there overreach because of our high-speed training and equipment? It's actually quite the opposite. Because the SRT's weapons-systems are so lethal, the tactics and techniques are so complex, and because the various potential missions of the SRT are so dangerous; we have to ensure through intense training and personnel selection that our SRT members are the sharpest mentally and emotionally, the most deliberate, the most capable of focusing and being creative under stress, and generally speaking the ones who take the proverbial calculated-risk to its finest point. There are no "cowboys" serving within the SRT, nor in any of the Special Teams Division's units, nor among our patrol officers.


Years ago, specialized units operated autonomously under their given skillsets. Today cross-training is the norm. So a special teams officer (whether SRT, snipers, crisis managers, K-9 handlers, explosive ordinance disposal personnel) will regularly work and train directly with other units within the department and vice-versa. Experience and information is shared. Everyone talks. Moreover, we work with the military. We help them. They help us. And we partner will allied-nation police agencies. Everyone learns from everyone else. This speaks to the new culture within American police forces.


Modern police forces with our vast array of high-tech weapons platforms and other high-speed equipment may make us appear to be "militarized," but that is frankly a loaded word and it creates a wholly wrong perception.

In today's world, law-enforcement agencies are not looking to bring down a heavy hand - firearm, fist, or baton - on a bad situation. In 2017 it's all about "diffusing" the situation and saving lives. How? For us, it's not always - and never first - the utilization of the physical equipment that we have; it's the bringing-to-bear upon the situation the creative mental capacities of our men and women. And we train hard to perfect that dynamic. Ours is a thinking force. And I would venture to say most large metropolitan police forces and sheriffs' departments in 2017 are thinking forces. We all have to be. 

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Leon Lott _ thumb 2016Sheriff Leon Lott leads the Richland County Sheriff's Dept., one of the largest law enforcement agencies in South Carolina, and one of six regularly featured LE agencies on A&E's hit TV series, LIVE PD. In 2010, Lott traveled to Erbil, Iraq - at the invitation of the Iraqi government - to assist in the establishment of, planning for, and training at the first-ever Iraqi female police academy.    

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