Training for the tough job
A man hoists himself over a wooden barrier that forms part of a gruelling obstacle course faced by candidates taking part in Salt Lake City Police Department's SWAT School.
He is one of several officers from law enforcement agencies across the state being put through their paces during six days of exercises. Their abilities are being trained and tested as they hope to qualify to tackle the most dangerous and volatile crime-fighting scenarios.
"These are top cops, fully licensed to kick your butt while decked out in awesome-looking gear."
It is four in the morning, and for the second day in a row I find myself on the highway travelling to cover an assignment before the sun rises.
At this hour the day before, I was trying to get to the starting line of the Salt Lake City Marathon in pouring rain, sleet and hail. I had been assigned to do a story about security efforts at the race - the first major marathon since the Boston Marathon bombing.
The next morning, rather than prevention, I was on my way to cover the guys who get called in to help when the situation has already gone bad. I was going to shoot pictures as the Salt Lake City Police Department SWAT team ran candidates through an obstacle course as part of a physical fitness test.
It was day one of the department's SWAT school, and candidates would spend the next six days participating in exercises meant to train and test their physical abilities and decision-making skills in stressful situations.
I have always been intrigued by groups like this: these are top cops, fully licensed to kick your butt while decked out in awesome-looking gear. They save hostages, bust down doors and generally make it a bad day for the less than honourable among us.
Well before dawn, I arrive at the site of the course with my contact in the police department. While I’m there, a thought from the past creeps in: when I was a young punk, I often found myself challenging authority for no better reason than a combination of limited brain cells and excess testosterone. At the time, I would often size up police officers according to my perceived ability to outrun them.
That behaviour made no sense (did I mention the testosterone?) but as I look over the course now I think to myself - I might just be able to run it in decent time and prove that I can still outpace an officer. Luckily, though, I have grown up a bit and I realise this is a dumb idea.
Just then, three vans with no side windows pull up and unload their human cargo. There are about 30 candidates from various law enforcement agencies around the state who are hoping to make the cut in this round.
Within a few minutes, these guys are being sent through a course that includes challenges like climbing over a wall, crawling under barbed wire, jumping over a hung log, running though tires, doing the monkey bars and walking a balance beam. And that’s to name just a few.
After less than 10 minutes, it becomes clear just how hard the course is. Several of the guys at the beginning are struggling under the physical demands. But they are quickly followed by a group of officers who navigate it fairly smoothly.
The candidates seem to be going for times in the three-to-four-minute range. Some are making it, many are not. Those that cannot complete a particular task on the course have to do a series of 10 modified “burpees” – a push-up-to-jumping-jack exercise.
The weather is cool and wet, and these candidates are loaded down with at least 20 pounds of gear, including a helmet, bullet-proof vest, other body armour and guns. As they continue to jump, climb and run I find that my knees are getting sore just from packing my cameras around and bending down to get a shot.
At this point, I am beginning to want to make images showing just how hard these guys are being pushed: a grown man brought to tears or puking up his breakfast would easily illustrate the point. But it isn’t happening – they are handling the stress pretty well considering the course was designed to beat them.
But then there is hope. Way down course, too far away for a decent shot, I see one candidate who has just been passed by others and is 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 training segment winds down, I am almost tempted to ask if I can have a go at running it, but I choose not to because I just don’t want to start my Sunday by humiliating myself in front of others.
Afterwards, as I get back into my truck with leg muscles that have grown tired and tight in the cold, I think back to the one officer I saw struggling on the course. I have a slight inkling there might just be one guy out there who I could still outrun. Except the problem is, he has about 30 of his cop buddies with him, and for sure I am going to lose this race to every one of them.