Physical rigors, mental fortitude test SWAT recruits' true grit

Only a select few will make the cut

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They came from different ranks and units, with cargo pants and duty belts, looking prepared for the rigors of a test that would open the doors to one of the police bureau's most elite teams.

Around a conference room table at the Pittsburgh police bureau's North Side headquarters last week, they looked unfazed when a lieutenant reminded them that the SWAT team is an around-the-clock commitment, for both them and their families.

"If this is what you want to do, you're expected to be here for the call-outs," Lt. Joseph Tersak told the nine candidates before they set out on the daylong tryout. "Thank you for your interest. And good luck."

But, as a message scrawled on a white board inside their heavily armored truck would caution, "Luck is not part of this operation!"

Instead, a mix of physical stamina and mental fortitude would help them pass this test. But even passing doesn't guarantee them a spot on the tactical unit, which is expanding from 39 to 46 members.

Those who qualified during tryouts last week must also excel during even more strenuous basic and advanced SWAT training before they are ranked and finally chosen by the police chief.

Those who want to join must request and be approved to tryout and generally spend months training and preparing. Still, some won't make the cut.

Thirty-four officers, just one of them a woman, will try out; 16, so far, have passed.

Only seven will join the team.

Round one took the candidates to the city's outdoor rifle range, where they needed to strike a man's silhouette target 21 out of 25 times.

"If you fail firearms, you're out," Officer Stephen Mescan told them. On this day, that was two of the nine.

For the remaining seven, it was on to physical aptitude in a weight room at headquarters. They were to bench press 100 percent of their body weight, do 29 sit-ups in under a minute, and run 11/2 miles in less than 15 minutes under the heat of a midday sun.

Later in the day, they would hit a city pool, where they were to swim 200 yards and tread water for 10 minutes -- while wearing parts of their uniforms.

The team needs to know that new members have the physical capacity to handle any high-risk encounter on the city's streets or waterways, said Officer Mescan, one of its leaders. The tactical team is deployed to notoriously unpredictable situations. It is on hand when risky arrest warrants are executed, when suspects, often armed, barricade themselves in a home or take a hostage. They are summoned during all hours of the day or night.

So far this year, the team has been called out 117 times, Cmdr. Scott Schubert said. That number includes trainings and community events in which the team participates.

"We want the best of the best," he said.

That doesn't mean brawn alone.

"We want a guy who's humble, ego-free, willing to learn, open-minded," Officer Mescan said. "Someone who can take orders and take charge at the same time ... We're looking for someone who works well in a group. Officers commonly work alone. This is a different kind of police work."

Team members stress the importance of working together, each playing different tactical roles.

As Officer Mescan puts it: "As individuals we don't have it all together, but together we have it all. Everyone brings something to the table."

They must have three years on the force to be eligible for the team. Part of the evaluation is a written test, where officers are asked about bureau policies and principals. In oral interviews, they are asked questions about themselves: Why do you want to be part of the team? In what ways have you been a team player? A team leader?

Officer Robbie Smith, a five-year-veteran who works in the street response unit, said before his interview that he wanted to join for the "team aspect," which reminded him in some ways of the team sports he played growing up. He said he spent hours at target practice and at the gym to work up to the tryout.

"This is like the next best thing to being on a sports team," he said. "It's a good way to stay tactically sharp."

Officer Jeff Barone said joining the team would let him hone the skills he uses every day while patrolling out of the Zone 4 station. SWAT trains extensively, he said, so officers don't have a chance to become complacent.

"It's a constant challenge," he said. "You have to stay on your toes."

It will be October before the chief selects new members. Those who aren't ranked among the top seven will stay eligible for at least a year.

"Anyone who failed should not be looked upon as a failure," Officer Mescan said. "All the candidates who tried out are a credit to themselves and the department."


Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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