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      Shaking Up DEA

      The Agency's First SWAT Team
      Bob Pilgrim

    Like many federal agencies, DEA requires that seasoned street agents eventually take an assignment at headquarters to theoretically, broaden their knowledge and experience to enhance their career development. After sixteen years on the street and over a decade as a Group Leader, Frank White's number finally came up.

    He was ambivalent about the seat of government tour, because of the close comradeship he had developed with his teammates, but at the same time he desired added responsibility and wanted to make things better for street agents. Many headquarters Suits think the field exists to please them, when in reality their only real purpose in life is to grease the skids for the hump agent in the field. That potentially disastrous attitude also prevailed among some of the FBI hierarchy and when an astute field agent's memo regarding strange flight training was ignored 9-11 occurred. He was assigned to the Cocaine Section and placed in charge of cocaine cases in Florida. He made a solemn, personal commitment to move heaven and earth to support the field agent.

    DEA had just had a dramatic change of administration and its new Administrator, Francis "Bud" Mullen was seconded from the FBI. With him he brought not only some able executives, but solid leaders as well. Marion Ramey went to the inspection division joined by Woddy Johnson. Johnson, a former Marine was successful at everything he touched and would become the commander of the FBI's HRT at a later date. In addition to streamlining headquarters and shaking up the phonies and strap-hangers, Mullen instituted a much needed physical fitness program for a generally soft and out of shape agency. It didn't take long for the field agents to completely embrace these "outsiders."

    While in head shed residence, Frank learned what made a Suit. Because the street can be so dangerous, the fledgling Suit decides early in his career to use whatever means possible to exit field operations (the gutter) as soon as possible. Expensive conservative suits and cologne often replace his/her sidearm. This almost obsessive pursuit is frequently at the expense of the nobler aspirations of the field agents. The Suit shuns high risk-high gain cases and engages in activities with currying the favor of a potential professional benefactor solely in mind. Suits know that they can obtain promotion by avoiding mistakes that make the hierarchy look bad and often are involved in frivolous crap that garners good personal PR. Knee pads become as essential part of a Suit's equipment.

    Frank quietly watched the Suits in action, so he could recognize their modus operandi. It wasn't long before he caught on to the Suit's personal survival code. Whenever a report came across their desk that required a decision that could pose a risk to their careers, they would either lock the paper in their safe and hope that the problem would solve itself, be "overtaken by events" or that someone with more cajones would make the decision. Sometimes they would play a shell game and staff the paper out for collective review and comment. This was the death knell for any correspondence and Frank thought it was like a BB being fired into a watermelon. The watermelon simply sucks in the BB and it disappears or it is simply treated like a pit. The other bit of subterfuge was never let the Suit's name appear on the paper by delegating it to a subordinate. Obviously the Suit can feign ignorance, point an accusing finger at junior Suit and avoid the fallout. Deniability is thy mantra! .

    About this time the new team also revised DEA's promotional system, which was based mostly on the Suit's subjectivity rather than merit. Lionel Stewart, a highly productive street agent was wisely tapped to implement the new program. This was a critical turning point for the agency and Stewart created a strict achievement paradigm based on individual performance. In addition, agents applying for promotion to supervisory positions had to articulate in writing exactly what they accomplished, cite the cases and identify reports or records that corroborated their claims. Frank worked assiduously with Stewart reviewing all the applications and case files. They were highly impressed with the great jobs a number of agents were doing and it was readily apparent who the hard chargers and future leaders of DEA were. Then we had the sloths, I mean Suits. No matter how deeply they probed their files trying to find a scintilla of evidence to support their petitions, they were still empty! Suits. Frank reckoned that about 20 per cent of the agents were actually doing the work and carried the other four fifths of the organization. And most of the Suits came from that unproductive majority. Marion Ramey's program brought to fruition by Stewart literally cut the legs out from under agency's human flotsam. For a while, DEA recognized achievement and promoted capable and proven leaders. However, when the likes of Lawn, Ramey and Johnson left or retired, the Suits returned with a vengeance, retrenched and dismantled this meritorious and equitable system.

    Two years of fighting the good fight and Frank was selected as Assistant Special Agent In Charge of the Oakland, California Field Division and the home to the NFL's black and silver Raiders. Marion Ramey had also identified a number of deficiencies in DEA firearms training and arranged to have the FBI Firearms Training Unit work with DEA instructors. Eighteen years prior, Frank had been a member of the FBN's New York City pistol team and at the time the old FBN agency had a marvelous firearms program. True to from, when FBN was reorganized as BNDD in 1968, the Suits gravitated toward management positions and abolished the team and firearms program. Frank's new grade precluded him from attending the FBI school at Quantico, but he prevailed upon Marion Ramey and he accommodated his request by adjusting his reporting date to the field to coincide with the last day of training at the FBI Academy.

    Frank, a hard-core shooter, loved the school. It was terrific, lots of stress and tons of range time. One day in the chow line Frank met an FBI agent who was dedicated to tactical teams and special operations. He had a great deal of professional knowledge and lots of interesting ideas in this area and his passion for hot dogs were the only things that exceeded his love for these subjects. Frank liked what he heard, but he never anticipated that Bob Pilgrim would be working with him someday and that the merger would have a positive impact on not only on each agency, but also on their respective lives as well.

    The Oakland office had the lowest crime fighting statistics of any of the DEA field divisions and it had been like this for several years. It seemed that many of the senior agents were past caring and had retreated into a retirement mode mentality. Frequently, aggressive young agents were co-opted into this professional lethargy, but Frank knew that his arrival would definitely result in lots of heartburn for these Slugs. During the "honeymoon period," he observed the office culture and spoke to as many agents as possible. There was a definite need to attitude adjustments and while sitting in one of the enforcement groups he was amazed to hear a young agent brazenly tell a savvy street wise Task Force police officer to forget what he had learned in the city and that she was going to teach him the DEA way of making paper cases. Frank exploded, "This officer is here to teach you the street and you will handle the paper work-not him." She frowned, but the officer smil! ed. In another incredulous incident he overheard an agent taking a call in from a citizen that wanted to provide drug information. As the agent was ending the conversation, Frank heard him tell the caller to call back Monday. Again, the wrath of righteousness descended on the clueless. Here was an agent that had no informants, no cases and no desires. He blasted him for not getting a phone number and immediately going out and meeting the potential source. He told the Slug that some of the best cases he had ever seen materialized started out with "walk ins" or calls like this one. And the most productive ones were women scorned. Lamely the agent offered, "Maybe she'll call back Monday?" From these and other frustrating incidents Frank determined that many of the agents lacked personal commitment and feared taking risks and making hard decisions. Starting out in FBN, it was accepted that it was an inherently dangerous job and if that bothered you, then go somewhere ! else. The unsympathetic attitude stemmed from the fact that many of th e FBN agents were WW2 and Korean Vets or knowledgeable street cops that had seen their share of combat at home and abroad. These men were tough and audacious, but only took calculated risks. The scum on the street viscerally feared them and killing a Narc usually incurred a death sentence. The difference between now and then was the partnering of experienced agents with new enforcement personnel. In addition to academy instruction, on the job training was overwhelmingly more important in the area of survival and learning how to handle people. Senior agents established a work ethic and a baseline for what would be considered risky behavior in various circumstances, As the "Rookie" became more comfortable with increased levels of risk, his mentor would shift the baseline as his confidence and knowledge grew. Frank's first reform was to re-institute the FBN partner concept.

    However, risk taking had to be balanced by sound decisions and solid tactics. To spark some enthusiasm and aggressiveness Frank had to provide them with special training. He ran his ideas past SAC Joe Krueger, his boss and without hesitation, he ordered, "do it." The San Francisco FBI office had a long tradition of training assistance to brother law enforcement agencies that was established by former pro football player-Agent Charles "Chuck" Latting. Chuck was an early SWAT pioneer in the Bay area and former Marine and US Navy SEAL. Agents Ben Tisa and Mike Baxter respectively, carried on his highly valued traditions. Frank met with them, explained his problem and arranged to have them train twelve of the office's best, most capable agents. The word can't was not in Baxter's or Tisa's vocabulary. True warriors, training commenced the following week.

    This was to be a volunteer outfit and Frank was looking for quality, desire and commitment rather than numbers. Frank and each prospect were subjected to the FBI SWAT physical fitness test followed by a stressful interview conducted by Saul, an agent's agent. Saul was not imposing physically, but had the heart of a lion and was an unrivaled interrogator, because he was an excellent judge of people. Saul passed the names of those selected to Frank and naturally both of their monikers were on it. Leading from the front, Frank and his "deputy" fell in with the candidates and sweated their sweat hoping to make the grade.

    SWAT teams and their esprit can be great motivators for all personnel. Everyone wants to be on a wining team and there was the added benefit of having a nucleus of tactically sound agents in each of the resident offices and enforcement groups. They now became the new role models for their peers. The baseline of risk avoidance now transitioned to the prudent risk-benefit estimate prior to approving plans and operations. With the help of Bureau and specifically its San Francisco Division, Frank invested several days a month into SWAT training and it produced a definite trickle down benefit for street agents throughout the Oakland Division. California law enforcement was noted for its progressive thinking outside the box. Frank tapped into this state-wide resource by going to the noted Los Angeles, County Sheriff's Office Special Enforcement Bureau for additional SWAT training.

    After three months the concept appeared to be working. Arrest and seizure statistics in the division had increased 70 percent and remained at a high level in ensuing years. Normally the statistic hungry headquarters Suits would be thrilled, but they considered Frank's methods and means too radical. Throughout this petty internecine warfare Joe Krueger made it all possible by remaining a staunch supporter. What really stymied the Suits was the groundswell by agents from other field divisions clamoring for similar training. The Suits couldn't contend with heightened agent morale, dramatically improved relations with the FBI and local law enforcement agencies and the office's phenomenal increase in enforcement achievements. However, the record Frank was most personally proud of was that not one agent under his command received as much as a scratch working the Bay Area's contested streets.

    Frank had concluded that realistically, every time agents went undercover they became potential hostages and DEA agents had to be prepared to not only rescue them through armed intervention, but engage in hostage negotiations as well. Years before, he and his partner Gene had rescued two hostage informants being tortured and held by three heavily armed thugs, but knew that luck combined with agent initiative, followed by aggressive action had saved that day. Consistent success in this art required more thorough preparation and Frank endeavored to train agents in the verbal tactics of negotiations to enable them to calm the situation, buy time for tactical teams to arrive and plan hopefully to resolve the confrontation without further violence. As to be expected, this unorthodox way of approaching undercover operations was anathema to the Suits in Washington, who thought that a bunch of paramilitary cowboys with a Vietnam mentality had taken over the office.

    While holding tenure on Oakland, DEA in general was being plagued by a rash of shootings and rip offs. DEA was literally bleeding badly and Administrator Jack Lawn, himself a former Marine deduced that the agency's training content and methods no longer reflected the realities of the field. He responded by reassigning Frank to DEA's training facility that was collocated with the FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia. One of the first FBI instructors he contacted was Bob Pilgrim, already seconded to his agency's fledgling training cell.


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