HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — The FBI is celebrating 50 years of the SWAT team this year.
The Special Weapons and Tactics team is a group of selected agents trained to handle crisis situations.
The Norfolk FBI SWAT team is made up of about a dozen members who work to keep Hampton Roads safe.
“With SWAT, everyone thinks flash bangs running through the house all that stuff, but it’s really not anymore,” said senior team leader Jason Grabarczyk. “You’ve got to be able to problem solve and not everything is a hammer.”
Grabarczyk served in the Marine Corps then tried out for the FBI SWAT team in 2004. He’s one of more than 1,200 SWAT agents in the bureau. The team members all have the same training and equipment.
“As far as I know, there’s no other law enforcement entity with that many folks across the entire nation that have that capability to be interchangeable team wise,” Grabarczyk said.
The idea for the FBI SWAT team was born following large scale tragic events like the Munich Olympics Massacre in September 1972. Eight men in tracksuits hopped the fence at Olympic Village, carrying guns and grenades in duffel bags. They were members of the group Black September, an affiliate of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and their mission was to hold Israeli athletes hostage.
Another incident, the 1973 stand off at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, pushed the bureau to move forward.
“They decided, ‘Hey, we need agents that are trained to a higher level to work with the more challenging subjects,” Grabarczyk said.
“The way we deployed and how we deployed, big difference than what it is today,” said Norfolk Special Agent in Charge Brian Dugan.
Dugan was a SWAT team member 20 years ago in San Francisco and even deployed to help with the Olympics in Salt Lake City. He said as leadership, they have to be very decisive on when to deploy SWAT, and when not to.
“The threat to law enforcement, or the threats we are seeing, are becoming more greater and greater,” Dugan said. “We have more and more people that are armed with rifles than we do when I first started.”
That’s why the use of technology, like drones, is key.
“Depending on the threat, if it’s a high-risk warrant where our lives are the priority,” Grabarczyk said, “then we will leverage all of that technology to make sure that we are not putting the agents in harms way.”
SWAT team members come from all different backgrounds and walks of life. Some are engineers, or lawyers, others former military or law enforcement. FBI Norfolk also has two female agents on their team. They’re two of only about a dozen female swat members around the country.
“They have the exact same training, go through all the same tryouts that the males do and they’re great enablers for the team,” Grabarczyk said. “All of that cross section of different backgrounds allows us to problem solve better.”
Grabarczyk said planning ahead to determine their course of action is crucial.
“There could be two people in the house, there could be 10 people in the house, 15 people in the house, some of them may be violent,” Grabarczyk said.
And timing is essential, showing it takes a special agent to serve.
“When that door pops open you have to be able to deal with whoever is there, whether that’s grandma holding the toddler, treat grandma with the toddler like you would want your grandma treated,” Grabarczyk said, “but the very violent drug offender or whatever offender were there to arrest may be standing behind her.”
And though SWAT team members look different today than they did 50 years ago, their mission is still the same — keeping people safe.
“It’s been really great to be part of that, because we are way more capable than we were 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” Grabarczyk said.
Dugan said he worries anytime he sends any team member out to a dangerous situation, but feels better once he receives the response, “without incident.”
“What we’ll do is a search or an arrest and the response I get back is ‘without incident,’ which means nothing happened, we successfully accomplished the mission,” Dugan said. “And when I send the SWAT team out because of the additional training and those additional tools they carry, I feel better that they have those additional tools for whatever they confront, but I feel even better once I hear that ‘without incident’ when they’re done.”