Special Report II: Women in Law Enforcement: A New Look for Swat

Article excerpt

Working in an abandoned public building, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office SWAT grenadier Venessa Bornost and her team of four formed up and moved out. They tactically moved deep into the building to the sounds of the guns, in scenario training made urgent by Columbine and other school shootings.

Elsewhere, on a schoolyard track, Seminole County Sheriff's Office SWAT team member Sergeant Mary Ann Clelland and her team leader Lieutenant Tony Fannin ran with sheriff's deputies and area police officers. The deputies and officers were SWAT team hopefuls going through the team's tryouts. Clelland and Fannin, running along with the pack of hopefuls, paced themselves alongside individuals, offering encouragement.

Aren't women SWAT team members rarer than hen's teeth? Actually, in Florida the expression is rarer than alligator feathers. The answer is yes. Mary Ann and Venessa are SWAT team members: the focus in these two departments is on leadership, training and selection, not the gender of the officers.

In the old days, the necessary requirements to become a SWAT team member were thought to be brawn and more brawn. SWAT members trained like marines, running and crawling through obstacles, doing rope work, repelling and using intense upper body strength. Times are changing. Now SWAT supervisors look for level headedness, maturity and analytical ability along with proper physical fitness. It was found that a diversity of people made for a more efficient team and this blend gave strength to the whole, according to Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Lieutenant Dan Simovich, the commander of Special Operations. The best teams try out tactics and methods, and discuss their success and failures. Decision-making is crucial to SWAT effectiveness.

At the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office female deputies are now encouraged to try out for SWAT. Venessa Bornost is a case in point. She came to Florida from Chicago at 18 and enrolled in Florida State University, achieving her BA in Criminology. After serving for five years on the narcotics squad, she applied, went through a tryout process and was selected for the SWAT team. Her SWAT team trains part time, and members have other assignments.

Like other SWAT team members, Bornost's normal policing duty is as a narcotics detective. She attended basic SWAT school, a seven day straight course. Her SWAT team trains 11 hours per month and annually has a 40 hour block of training called SWAT Week. She is the grenadier on her team and has attended a two day departmental Gas School. A good part of the team's work involves the serving of search warrants.

Think Fast

What makes a good SWAT deputy? Bornost believes it involves: commitment, sound mind, the ability to think under pressure and on her own, being a team player and having physical stamina. "The toughest part of SWAT," she said, "is always being mentally ready to go all of the time, mind set, make it happen. If I didn't love it, I couldn't continue."

When an emergency erupts there is not always time to assemble the SWAT team for instantaneous response. In Pinellas County, the elite SWAT teams are testing methods of response and planning to pass on their expertise to fellow deputies who may someday be at the right place at a dreadfully wrong time. There are two 12 member SWAT teams for a sheriff's office of about 800 deputies. In a situation when there are weapons in a building and innocent people are being threatened with systematic killing, by the active shooter, the deputies or police officers must go in there and immediately neutralize the threat. The response may have some tactical flaws, but it cannot be delayed.

SWAT teams accustomed to working together and practicing constantly have to switch gears and think like patrol deputies. They have to understand what patrol deputies, some of them young and without military experience, feel and think about going into a situation that is life threatening. …