April 4, 2008— -- Changes to the demanding admissions tests for the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team that could make the elite unit more accessible to women have caused an uproar among some current officers — and their wives.
L.A.P.D. Chief William Bratton recently told reporters that he would like to see women "in every part" of the department, including the famed Special Weapons and Tactics Team, which has never had a woman in its ranks.
But a review panel's proposal to do so by making some of the SWAT testing less physically demanding angers wives like Tracy Melchior, who is married to a veteran officer, and has prompted criticism that the department has lowered the standards for getting into SWAT.
"This is somebody's father, somebody's husband did not come home one night….This isn't a game. It's not where it's about being fair, everybody gets a turn. This is real life," she told ABC News' Senior Law & Justice Correspondent Jim Avila.
Watch Tracy Melchior Friday on "Good Morning America."
In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, Capt. Jeffrey Greer, the commanding officer of the LAPD's Metropolitan Division, and Mike Albanese, the lieutenant in charge of SWAT, disputed that the changes were brought about by the review panel recommendations.
The new selection process, which does away with some rigorous testing, such as a Camp Pendelton obstacle course, was already being designed by SWAT supervisors, they said.
"SWAT is dedicated to selecting only men and women who have the physical, tactical and intellectual prowess the job demands," they wrote. "No one is lowering the standards. In fact, we're raising the bar."
But, Melchior says she and other wives of SWAT officers are still reeling from the recent death of Randy Simmons, the first member of the SWAT team to be killed in the line of duty in the unit's nearly 40-year history.
Simmons' death shattered what once seemed to be an air of invincibility around the 43-man team, and Melchior fears that the proposed changes, some of which have been implemented, could put her husband and other members in danger.
"A red flag went up. Is this making them safer or less safe at this time? Shouldn't we be looking at this incident and saying what can we do to make sure this doesn't happen again?" she said.
The controversy began when Bratton commissioned a panel of outside experts to review the SWAT team in 2005, after a member accidentally shot and killed a 19-month-old girl who was being held hostage by her father. It was the first time since the unit was created in 1971 that a SWAT team member caused the death of a hostage.
But, the report did not discuss the girl's death in detail. Instead, it criticized the Special Weapons and Tactics team, which is responsible for handling hostage situations and serving dangerous warrants, for its "insular" culture and recommended changed testing to make the team more open to women. There has never been a female SWAT officer in Los Angeles.
The old admissions tests over-emphasized "physical prowess and tactical acumen," the report said, and under-emphasized "negotiating skills, patience, empathy, and flexibility."
In their opinion piece, Greer and Albanese said the process to select SWAT officers was outdated. "Tasks were redundant, had little to do with actual police work and were needlessly hazardous," the wrote.
The review report, which has not been made public and was first disclosed in March by the L.A. Times, came at a challenging time for the SWAT Team. In February, Simmons became the first member of the team to be killed in the line of duty, after officers stormed the house of a mentally ill man. Another officer was shot during the incident but survived.
When Melchior first heard that a SWAT officer had been killed, she feared the worst. "I couldn't breathe," she said. "I was drowning, I needed a lifeline. I needed to find out if it was" her husband.
She said she decided to speak out after meeting with other SWAT wives, who were also concerned that the proposed tests could endanger their families. "It is widely believed this is an attempt to be politically correct and allow a female officer on the team," she wrote in an email to senior LAPD officials.
The proposal to change the testing regimen quickly drew criticism from members of the team. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents the 9,300 members of the LAPD, also attacked the changes as an example of political correctness run amok.
Daryl Gates, the former Los Angeles police chief, told ABC News that the new criteria are unnecessary and will hurt any women who are accepted onto the team. "I know women who have the strength and ability to do the job, so I don't think there are any barriers at all," he said.
"How many people are going to say well she never would have been there if they hadn't changed all the requirements? That puts a hat on her that she doesn't deserve."
Other law enforcement officials, though, say there's more to being a SWAT officer than brute upper body strength. Though some military special forces units do not allow women, other elite law enforcement agencies and fire departments do.
"It's not just about strength," said Margaret Moore, the former assistant special agent in charge at the Department of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms special response team, which carries out search warrants in violent parts of Washington, D.C.
"It's also about intelligence and determination, motivation, analytical skills, judgment and being physically fit. That certainly is a key component, but it is not the component," she said.
"You're not lowering your standards, you're enhancing your standards by incorporating a diverse group of people," she said.
Moore said that when she joined the New York Police Department in the 1970s, the wives of officers had a reaction similar to Melchior's. "They had so many concerns that their husbands were going to be unsafe," she said. "And certainly that proved to be not true, and I say that's certainly the case in this situation."
Melchior says she has no problem with a women serving on the team — as long as she can pass the same selection process as the rest of the unit. A female police officer was recently accepted into the SWAT team's training school, which began this week. She is not guaranteed a spot as a SWAT officer.
"It's not about women against women," Melchior said. "It needs to be equal. There's a certain standard that needs to be met and we want a woman to meet that. We will be cheering her on."