Reluctant 'rambos' Of Swos

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday May 5, 1989


THEY are the force in "black pyjamas", the front line of the NSW police force displaying no badges of rank or identification, kitted out with a range of weapons including gas guns, 12-gauge shotguns .223 rifles and .38 calibre revolvers. Their marksmen have rifles with telescopic sights. They are formidable when dressed for battle in soft-body armour, helmets and dark overalls, (or pyjamas as the members affectionately refer to them). Their overalls have pockets for ammunition and field dressings.

The 19 permanent and 400 part-time members of the NSW Special Weapons Operations Squad are trained for "high-risk response situations". Their best men are often poached into corporate security areas. Some call them "Rambos"and as one former SWOS member puts it, their raids are "unfortunately spectacular".

Spectacular they may be but the reputation of SWOS has copped a severe beating after the botched raid on a Marrickville house last week where one of their permanent members shot dead David Gundy, a 30-year-old Aboriginal, while searching the house for John Porter, the man arrested following the shooting of two policemen.

Some of the other six raids performed by SWOS that morning did little to instil public confidence. Two pensioners became hapless victims in two of the raids. One, a 57-year-old woman, had just recovered from a heart attack three weeks previously. (At least detectives later made her a cup of coffee, after her door was kicked in.) The other, three doors up, lost his artificial eye when SWOS members booted in the door. He was grappling for it on the floor as the officers barged in with rifles yelling: "Stand back, stand back."

"A SWOS man is a formidable-looking person," says Superintendent Paul McKinnon who was promoted from senior constable to his present rank, a remarkable promotion in any police officer's books. He is now South-West Command Intelligence Officer, but was a pioneering member of SWOS in the early 70s when it was then known as the emergency squad (dubbed the Riot Squad by the media of the day). According to McKinnon, the whole equation of SWOS is rescue - nothing else.

"The squad makes excellent news and it's not intended to do so," he said.

SWOS officers, like all police, says McKinnon, are confined by the statutes. The guidelines are contained in police rules and instructions. SWOS members are "jealousy targets" among their peers because of their high profile, he said.

But SWOS, says McKinnon, makes use of the tough image and the formidable appearance, which he says is probably responsible for most of the peaceful resolutions.

"Even the hardest crook takes one look at a SWOS officer properly kitted up and thinks maybe this isn't such a wise thing to take this person on. So he's inclined to surrender peacefully."

But does that image breed a cowboy approach in the mind of the SWOS officer, an idea that he is beyond the law?

McKinnon admits this can happen. "Sometimes you get it in your head that you're indestructible by the nature of the feats that you perform. But that's usually when you get a rude jolt of reality and come crashing back to earth.

"Most fellows try out for the counter-terrorist element because it's a bit more hazardous than the normal stuff. Then they can branch out into marksmanship, roping and repelling, or chemical agents operations," he said.

According to one of the two psychiatrists used as a private consultant by SWOS since its inception 10 years ago, its members join it for the excitement

"They are a small elite group and there is kudos in being in it. They all compete to get in. There's plenty of action, good competition. It is very demanding and has very demanding training which they enjoy.

"They are men who value one another's company very much. Friendships are intense and long-lasting. They are fairly ordinary sorts of fellow who like to be friends with someone in the group. They train with all sort of weapons, in all sorts of circumstances - roping down, going down a cliff or side of a building at the same time as using an automatic weapon."

They play practical jokes on each other all the time, he says, sometimes with "tear gas and so on". He adds: "The authorities wouldn't like to know about (that).

"They are energetic and driving sorts of people. If they don't play up and get some fun out of it, they are less effective people. They are in it for enjoyment and out to get enjoyment out of it. They are inventive and creative not dull old pen-pushers."

However, the psychiatrist said that he never came across any cowboy types -"they wouldn't survive" - or "trained killers". Applicants who wish to join SWOS are subject to interview and assessment of experience, capacities, intellectual skills, psychological background. Not many of them are headhunted, but if there is a particular officer who is considered suitable, he or she may be approached with an offer to apply to join. "You can understand why people get frightened of them ... the public want people who are effective but if they are effective they don't want them. The alternative is to turn over SWOS to the Neighbourhood Watch or the girl guides."

Only one of their members has been killed since the squad began. Detective Chief Inspector John Burke, recently nominated head of SWOS, said that he was unable to say how many members of the public have been killed in raids.

According to Assistant Commissioner Lance Sturton, SWOS, (although it was not then known by that name) began after World War II when returned servicemen brought back Thompson submachine-guns, revolvers and pistols as souvenirs and these lethal weapons filtered through to "members of the criminal class".

In the old days the attitude was to "storm them" and ask questions later. A man called Frank Bolz in the 70s working in the New York police force started what became known as "negotiation tactics".

This cut costs incurred by damage done to houses when tear gas was used in a raid. Often carpets, furnishings and curtains had to be replaced and the whole place repainted. Firing one round of tear gas can cost $20,000. "When you pull the trigger on a gas gun you're looking at heaps of paper work, enormous cost, and inconvenience to the householder," said McKinnon.

Negotiating was the more civilised way to behave. The psychiatrist who has been called out to about a dozen sieges in the past decade teaches the negotiators that force is a last resort.

"People who want to use force are "death and glory people". If you use force you've failed," he says.

The psychiatrist's role is to make a quick precise personality assessment of the person in the siege, although he is not called to every siege. "It is a bit different to treating a patient in your practice. You don't have time to be wrong.

"The idea is to get him (or her) to come out with dignity. Sometimes they need a woman's voice or sometimes a man who can joke with them and be friendly." Five of the 22 negotiators are women. They are known amongst SWOS as "electric lips".

Most of the SWOS members the psychiatrist has worked closely with are"people with families who lead ordinary lives. They only stay in SWOS five years and go back to general duties. There are a lot of promotions out of SWOS.

"The media has this idea it's a gang of toughs that go around and bash up Abos. It's a very professional organisation that considers everything very carefully before they move in," he said.

And what of the families behind these men who are the frontline of the NSW police force?

Paul McKinnon had his teeth kicked out shortly after he married his wife, Jann, 25 years ago. They have four children.

She soon learned that if he phoned home to say he would be late, this meant that "he was waiting for the swelling to go down before he showed his bruises."

"I had an absolute fear of him being shot," says Jann McKinnon. "If the doorbell rang while he was away on a job, I would always race to answer it before the kids did - my heart would be in my mouth."

In 1968, McKinnon was involved in a siege in Katoomba when three bandits tried to abduct a bank manager. SWOS supervisor Ross Nixon was shot in the face. In another incident he dragged his workmate, who had been shot in the stomach, out of a house in Newtown.

"That was the first time I became really scared. That's when the danger is brought home to you," said Jann.

But McKinnon is philosophical about the danger. "It's no use whingeing about getting hurt because you know the risks when you sign the contract," he said.

Wives learnt never to ring up to find out how their husbands were. They formed a network and when one wife heard from her husband, she would ring the other anxious wives to let them know.

Jann said: "It was particularly hard on the older two kids as Paul could never commit himself or guarantee he would be there for things they wanted him to attend when they were little."

At a dinner party attended by the McKinnons and a fellow SWOS member and his wife, a phone call led to them leaving the table in the middle of the main course. "That left us wives staring at each other. We couldn't tell the other dinner guests why they left so abruptly."

© 1989 Sydney Morning Herald

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