The SWAT of Salt Lake

April 23, 2013

Draper, Utah

By Jim Urquhart

It was four in the morning and for the second day in a row I found myself on the highway headed for a photo assignment before the sun rose. Still a bit tired and sore from the day before, I was however in a decent mood. The day before at the same hour I was trying to get to the start line of the Salt Lake City Marathon in the pouring rain, sleet and hail. On that morning I was assigned to photograph security efforts at the marathon, the first since the Boston Marathon bombing.

That day I covered prevention, this morning I was covering the team that are called in to help when the situation has already gone bad. The Salt Lake City Police Department SWAT team was going to be running candidates through an obstacle course as part of a test of physical fitness.

It was day one of the department’s SWAT school. Candidates spent the next six days participating in exercises designed to educate and test their physical abilities along with their decision-making skills in stressful situations.

I have always been intrigued by these groups. They are some of the top cops who are licensed to kick butt while decked out in impressive gear. They save hostages, bust down doors and in general make it a bad day for the less than honorable among us.

Well before dawn I was at the site visiting with my police department contact, who was the same person that hired me for my first newspaper job 16 years ago, when I had a thought from the past.

When I was a young punk I often found myself challenging authority for no other reason than a combination of limited brain cells and excess testosterone. I would often size up police officers by my perceived ability to outrun them. That behavior made no sense (see testosterone above). As I looked over the obstacle course assembled in front of me I thought I might just be able to run it with a decent time – retaining my ability to outrun an officer. Luckily I am a bit older now and realized that was a dumb idea.

Just then three vans with no side windows pulled up and unloaded their human cargo. About 30 candidates from various law enforcement agencies from around the state were hoping to make the cut in this round. Within a few minutes these men were being sent through the course that included items like climbing over a wall, crawling under barbed wire, jumping over a hung log, running through tires, crossing monkey bars and walking a balance beam to name a few.

After less than 10 minutes it set in just how hard the course was. Several of the guys at the beginning were struggling under the physical demands but they were quickly followed by a group of officers that navigated it fairly smoothly. They seemed to be aiming for times between three to four minutes. Some made it, many did not. Those that couldn’t complete a particular task on the course had to do a series of 10 modified burpees (a punishment that I could barely complete) further driving home the point that the days were gone that I could contemplate making a run for it.

Spring in Utah means it might as well be winter because it is certainly not summer. It was cool and wet and these guys were loaded down with at least 20 pounds of helmet, bullet proof vest, other body armor and guns.

As they continued to jump, climb and run I found my knees getting sore just by carrying my cameras around and bending down for a shot. At this point I was beginning to look to make images that showed just hard these guys were being pushed. Ideally a grown man pushed to tears would easily illustrate that point. But it wasn’t happening, these guys were handling the stress pretty well considering the course was designed to beat you.

But then there was hope. Way down the course, too far away for a decent shot, was one candidate that I could see had been passed by the others and was having to do the punishment exercise at virtually every station. Could he be the one officer left I might be able to elude?

As the morning progressed it became obvious that some had really prepared for this part of the school. Some were even given a little grief by the instructors. They tended to be the ones that worked for the Department of Corrections. The course was at the state prison and some of the correction officers could run it when they were off shift at the prison.

As the training segment wound down I was almost tempted to ask if I could have a go at running it. However, I chose not to because I just didn’t want to start my Sunday by humiliating myself in front of others.

In the end as I got back into my truck with leg muscles that had grown tired and tight in the cold I thought back to the one officer I saw struggling on the course. I had a slight inkling there might just be one officer out there that I could still outrun. The problem was he had about 30 of his cop buddies with him and I was, for sure, going to lose this race to every single one of them.

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