LMPD Shifts SWAT Presence to Visible Role
Louisville Metro Police Department SWAT’s visible approach at the Derby has been well received by event goers, who often stop officers to ask for photos with them. (Photo by Jim Robertson)
The appropriateness of a law enforcement presence in tactical gear at crowded events has been debated extensively since Ferguson, Mo. riots in 2014 led to new scrutiny and characterization as a “militarized” appearance.
However, repeated attacks against large crowds, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Las Vegas music festival shooting and multiple deadly vehicle-ramming attacks across the world, led Louisville Metro Police to initiate conversations about how to harden the target at the Kentucky Derby.
“I think it kind of happened organically,” said Lt. Paul Humphrey, commander of LMPD’s SWAT unit. “We were talking with command about increasing our presence around the same time some of these large-scale attacks happened. We were already in tune with that type of [terrorism] and making plans to have an increased presence as a deterrence.”
LMPD employs a 32-member SWAT team, including both full-time and part-time staff. In 2017, the team became dedicated as a full-time operation instead of an additional responsibility for officers. That designation provided the team an opportunity to take a more proactive approach to emergency response.
“In the past, we have been there (at the Derby) no matter what,” said Sgt. Brandon Hogan, who has served LMPD’s SWAT team for eight years. “We always had snipers on the roof, but the main part of our team was in an infield bunker. We were just in green pants and polo shirts that said SWAT. We had our duty gear on like regular police officers, we were just in different clothes. We were more focused on possible active shooters from within the infield and anything happening out to the paddock.”
In 2018, the team debuted a visible approach. The roof snipers remained, but the rest of the team was divided throughout and around Churchill Downs. Two- to four-person teams were deployed in full tactical gear, excluding helmets, to walk amongst the crowd.
“We were expecting people to say, ‘Man, what’s going on?’” Hogan said. “But actually people were receptive to it. They said, ‘Thank you for being here, we really appreciate it.’ Some people gasped and said, ‘That’s a little too much.’ But most reactions were positive. They shook our hands and said, ‘Thanks for being here, we feel safe with you guys here.’”
At the 2019 Derby, the SWAT team deployed the same approach. While walking through the crowds, many guests stopped the officers and asked if they were allowed to take photos with them, to which the officers happily obliged. The handshakes and thank yous continued as well.
“It’s a good public relations tool,” Humphrey said. “The public wants to know that they’re being kept safe. That is one of the things we have had to balance is, how visible do we want to be? Because we do want to balance that feeling of safety and security, versus not over-militarizing our response. Depending on the type of event, whether it is a concert or public-sporting event, versus a political protest, we are going to scale our response and make it appropriate for that particular event.”
Scaling is key to an effective SWAT presence at any event, Hogan and Humphrey agreed. Determining the appropriate scale requires detailed planning. To help them better prepare for the unknown, Humphrey said team members communicated with other SWAT teams around the country, such as Boston and Garland, Texas, and learned from the tragic events they have experienced in their communities.
“There is a recognition that you can only stop or prevent so much,” Humphrey said. “It’s really about mitigating the risk. The key is having a plan and understanding that managing your security isn’t just about crowd management. Your entire plan, traffic plan – everything – has to be built around public safety.”
The plan should also include details such as gear, tools and medics. For example, when LMPD’s team operated primarily out of a Derby bunker, the equipment they needed was housed there. When the team became mobile, their gear has to become portable.
The goal is for every group of SWAT members – regardless of their location on event grounds – to be fully mission capable, Humphrey said. That means they need to have immediate access to all the tools necessary to respond to any threat. The team learned from the Dallas, Texas ambush – which began as an outdoor protest and became an indoor search after the suspect fled into an office building – that breaching tools are something officers need to carry with them. If there are tools that can’t be carried, like ladders and fire extinguishers, a plan must be made for how to access them in an emergency when minutes matter.
“We have to think of the unthinkable,” Humphrey said. “We have to prepare that some of the equipment is too large, and we can’t just carry it on our person. Some items we had to alter, others we had to buy new stuff or just think outside the box to make it portable and allow us to carry it around for 12 hours on our person.”
Hogan and Humphrey are pleased with the success they have seen from deploying the team more visibly at the Derby and other events where it is appropriate. Their final advice to other departments considering the move was this:
“For a long time, our department was scared to use us in this capacity,” Hogan said, “until it was shown that stuff could happen to other departments. Just don’t be afraid to use your tactical teams, if manpower allows.”