For the first time in two years, about 30 officers from several local law enforcement agencies are now training at the San Diego Police Department's (SDPD) Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) academy.
The recruits are primarily SDPD officers and sergeants.
The other recruits include officers with the Harbor Police Department, La Mesa Police Department and Chula Vista Police Department.
Also in training are three firefighters/paramedics with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, who will serve on Special Trauma And Rescue (STAR), if they make it through the academy.
STAR responds to all SDPD SWAT callouts, with an ambulance.
The recruits are going through four rigorous weeks of instruction and training, under the watchful eyes of the SWAT Training Cadre, made up of SWAT ranking officers and the Special Response Team (SRT), SWAT's full-time unit.
The recruits had to pass firearms and physical fitness tests to qualify for the academy. They were also selected based on their service record and after an interview process.
At the current academy, recruits are undergoing advanced training in weapons. They are also being placed in various stressful, tactical scenarios that simulate real-life crises.
Trainers are assessing how they react to those situations.
“We want the ones who can make decisions. And to be good team players. It takes a lot of preparation," said SWAT Commanding Officer Lt. Tina Williams. "So it's a multitude of things to become a good, proficient SWAT officer."
Instructors are also taking note of how the recruits handle physical exhaustion and whether they find the inner strength to carry on.
The SWAT training cadre takes all these factors into consideration when deciding which recruits will graduate from the academy later this month.
SRT has been laying the groundwork for the academy for months.
At Naval Training Center (NTC), the unit began designing and building its own training facility last year – one indoor and one outdoor – so it would be available for the current academy.
"We sat down and designed this for a very long time," said SRT Officer Michael DeWitt. "Everyone worked hard. Everyone put it together. And without the guys on the team, this wouldn't have happened."
For years, SWAT officers have been training at sound stages at Strategic Productions in Kearny Mesa, when they're available, and at a training house at NTC that's shared by other SDPD units and outside agencies.
"Training venues are becoming harder and harder to locate," said Williams. "So this gives us something scheduling wise, we can always have access to."
"We really relied heavily on the guys who have been on the team for a long time, knowing the training deficiencies we can improve on," said DeWitt, who has a background in construction and led the project to build the training facility.
The indoor training house is built as moveable boxes, in different sizes. The furniture and doors can be moved around, so instructors can plan for a number of contingencies.
"If you continue to train on one floor plan, you get to know that floor plan very well and you start losing the benefit of that floor plan because you know which way you should go, and how to take down the problem," said DeWitt. "Real life scenarios we're faced with out in the field, every house is different. By changing the floor plan, that allows us to sharpen our skills, to be prepared for whatever we encounter in the field."
SRT serves high-risk warrants and responds to call-outs, mostly at night, so being able to train in the dark is a big advantage.
"[The indoor training house] enhances our training by allowing us to close all the doors, turn all the lights off, and make it night time hours, or nighttime movement, during the day," DeWitt explained.
SRT is almost finished building the outdoor training house. It's fixed to the ground and has a large layout. Most of the walls are up. After the academy ends, SRT will add on a catwalk.
"There will be places for instructors to observe from above to be able to watch the flow from the whole entire structure," said Williams.
Both the indoor and outdoor training houses are being used during the current academy.
And for the recruits who do graduate later this month, the testing isn't over.
Every six months, all SDPD SWAT officers must re-qualify, by meeting physical and firearms standards.
The department's SWAT officers all work in patrol, and go through regular, specialized training under the guidance of SRT at least once a month, to stay proficient on their skills.
Almost every SWAT callout ends without violence. A lot of that is because of all the training SWAT officers go through to make sure the public, and their fellow officers, are safe.