Air Beat Magazine
Journal of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association
Special Operations; The Way of the Future
By Craig Dyer
Special operations are becoming increasingly important for law enforcement, and what are now considered to be "special" operations will in the future become "standard" operating procedures (SOP).
Major turning points in relation to U.S. military special operations were the dismantled Soviet threat of the late 1980s and the 1991 Iraq war. Since then, special operations and rapid deployment capabilities have been a major priority and hot-ticket item for U.S. armed forces. Since 9/11, this same philosophy is transitioning into the mindset of domestic law enforcement management for homeland security reasons. Due to its versatility, the helicopter is one of the most important resources for special operation forces. It quickly gets highly trained troops or operators where they need to go and keeps them moving when the situation dictates.
Ten to fifteen years ago, the average law enforcement helicopter equipment package consisted of an air-to-ground radio, possibly a high power searchlight, and an aerial observer outfitted with stabilized binoculars. Today, the standard law enforcement helicopter contains a vast array of state-of-the-art electronics, sensors and specialized mission equipment. Advances in technology have provided helicopters with the ability to accomplish more and more complex and diversified missions. It is amazing how fast we have taken all these advancements for granted and how quickly we have effectively integrated technology into the airborne law enforcement mission. And with this rapid pace of advancing technology, new mission scenarios are developing as a result. Also, to mention the obvious, the rapidly changing world situation is driving new mission requirements.
Because of the emerging new mission requirements dictated by the latest domestic and global threats, agencies are rethinking the job of the airborne law enforcement helicopter. Homeland security issues are redefining established airborne law enforcement doctrine. Police helicopters have primarily functioned as air support and observation platforms. Now, with greater homeland security concerns, protocols are changing and agencies are evaluating their operational capabilities and looking to expand the helicopter mission role. The primary objective is to take a more pro-active approach with the helicopter in relation to counter-terrorism and special circumstance type duties. The natural progression of figuring out how to deal with these new demands guides us to employ special operations personnel, tactics and equipment. A tremendous cross-pollination of information is occurring between military and police forces, leading to better counter-terrorism mission possibilities.
In an attempt to anticipate a variety of new mission needs, one manufacturer, Tyler Technologies, took its 40 years of experience designing helicopter camera mounts and applied it to the development of the Tyler Special Operations Platform (TSOP). This product is specifically designed to conduct special operations and is the next evolution in airborne law enforcement helicopter equipment. The TSOP provides an external transport structure (bench) for rapid SWAT team insertion/extraction, fast-rope/rappel, dive team transport and emergency evacuation response. The TSOP is FAA-certified and makes special operations missions extremely efficient.
The concept of transporting personnel external to the helicopter is not entirely new. The U.S. Army has been operating with an external transport system for their Special Operations "Little Birds" (Military MD500) for a number of years, and so has the power industry, providing an external work platform for live-wire workers. Undeniably, the light helicopter is ideal for special operations, however, transporting special operations personnel is a challenge for smaller helicopters due to limited cabin size. The average SWAT team member or operator, geared-up with mission equipment, finds it difficult to cram into the back of a small helicopter, which the majority of civilian law enforcement agencies operate. The cowboy days of riding on the skids are over and very few organizations still practice this method of transport for obvious safety reasons. By utilizing the TSOP, agencies can expand their mission capabilities and conduct a number of special operations safely.
One agency that is committed to expanding their mission capabilities is the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Traditionally, the LAPD has been a pioneer in the field of law enforcement methods and procedures. As a significant example of this, they created the SWAT team concept and other tactics widely used by agencies throughout the world today. In this tradition, LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Hillmann, and LAPD Chief Pilot Don Reuser, along with their staff at Air Support Division and METRO, supported the TSOP idea from the beginning. In fact, the LAPD was instrumental in co-developing and designing the TSOP with Tyler. The LAPD’s involvement is a major endorsement for the product and, more importantly, brings validity to the new and changing mission scenario theory. The LAPD has not only embraced the TSOP concept, but has had a clear vision in relation to its employment directly supporting homeland security and other vital missions.
One of the most notable missions now being taken very seriously is airborne use of force. Recently, agencies like the LAPD have developed tactics and training making airborne use of force a clever option in their bag of tricks. Prior to 9/11, this type of mission for civilian law enforcement agencies was viewed as taboo and highly controversial. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is one of the few agencies that have successfully utilized airborne use of force in the past. Last year, dealing with an impromptu situation, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department had an airborne use of force engagement after a suspect fled into a remote canyon in Southern California.
Most agencies considering airborne use of force should develop clear-cut operating procedures and rules of engagement. A risk assessment is essential in determining when, and if, this type of mission should be conducted. Many factors will come into this decision making process. However, when airborne use of force resources are committed to a relevant situation, participants need to be prepared, practiced and proficient. Training and crew coordination (Crew Resource Management) are paramount to safety and mission success.
From an equipment standpoint, the TSOP provides an external bench, which separates active shooters from the flight crew, thus increasing safety levels. It is recommended that when conducting live fire from a helicopter, brass catchers be used on weapons and that clear fire safety zones are established. Additionally, for any special operations mission, employing a command and control helicopter to oversee the situation is a huge benefit, especially if equipped with a surveillance camera and downlink capability. A standby medical evacuation helicopter is another bonus. These supplementary resources should be airborne during the mission in order to quickly respond if needed. Keys to mission success involve good communication, smart tactics, teamwork and overwhelming force.
A number of agencies have developed effective and realistic training programs surrounding airborne use of force in _addition to other special operation missions, such as quick insertion via fast-rope. Special operation missions are being combined to great advantage in response to potential threats. While most law enforcement agencies don’t operate the hardware the US military operates, they can still apply military mission concepts, integrating their own resources. Every organization has a slightly different mission in a slightly different environment operating different helicopters under the banner of homeland security. All agencies need to be creative in tailoring strategies that maximize their capabilities and exploit their equipment to its fullest potential in support of their defined mission.
Special operation missions provide modern day law enforcement agencies with a greater number of options and response plans. In today’s atmosphere, organizations must be prepared for the unexpected. The current trend is moving organizations towards the special operations arena and this momentum is accelerating. Like any new thing, it takes some time for agencies to warm up to the changes that are occurring and set up quality programs to meet the changes. The world is a dynamic place and the preparation and response to potential threats must also be dynamic. Special operations allow agencies to implement well-organized plans swiftly in order to combat many diversified situations that inevitably arise.