At the headquarters of the Philadelphia Police Department's SWAT team in Kensington, officer Brian Leventhal sits at a long wooden table with a group of similarly large men sporting close-cropped haircuts, and wearing cargo pants and combat boots. They chow down on meaty hoagies and engage in conversation ranging from international politics to local crime to Philadelphia sports teams. The group sits just a few feet away from a closet filled with sniper rifles, automatic shotguns, and M-16 and M-4 machine guns.
And Leventhal and his crew are just a phone call away from using them.
All it takes is for a commanding officer to say, "Suit up," and Leventhal would immediately don a bulletproof vest and helmet, then climb aboard a truck loaded with machine guns, ammunition, riot gear, radiation detectors and "the key to any door in the city" — a 40-pound metal battering ram.
"It gets your adrenaline going," said Leventhal, a stout, round-faced 38-year-old. "Everybody on this floor wants to have a job. We wait for that phone to ring. We want to get out there."
The Philadelphia SWAT team mostly handles high-risk drug and homicide suspects or instances of dangerous crime in which a suspect brandishes a weapon. On some jobs, Leventhal performs negotiations, trying to convince people to surrender after they've taken a hostage or barricaded themselves inside a building or residence. Other times, Leventhal helps establish containment on the outside of a building, while on other jobs, he's the first to smash through the front door and to attempt to make an arrest.
Whatever the specifics of a crime, one constant is Leventhal's routine as he and the team race to a crime scene.
"I pray for myself, and ask that myself and my team come back safely," he said. "No injuries and, above all, get the guy we're going after."
"That's kind of a special time for SWAT guys," he continued. "It's a quiet time. We're sitting. We're thinking to ourselves. Everybody's quiet, getting ready, getting psyched up for the job."
Fitness: Crucial to the Job
As he was growing up in the Northeast, Leventhal always wanted to be a police officer.
"On my father's side, in the 1930s and '40s, they were all cops," he explained. "It kind of skipped my dad's generation and picked up with me."
He officially became a police officer at 21, spent time patrolling the streets of Fishtown, and then worked in a plain-clothes unit. Eight years ago, he made it onto the SWAT team after a tryout, which included a physical exam and an extensive shooting test.
As a member of the SWAT team, Leventhal is expected to weight-train for two hours every day, so that he has the strength to work while wearing his vest and helmet — equipment that can total 50 extra pounds. "This is not a job you're going to do if you're not fit," he said.
Leventhal also had to take a hit with tear gas and pepper spray.
"Pepper spray is worse than tear gas because it comes back to haunt you later on," he noted. "You get in the shower after you're dried off from that stuff, and it just picks right up again and goes down in your eyes, but they want us to be prepared."
In his personal life, Leventhal enjoys spending time with his wife Michal and their two small children. The family attends services at Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham.
With the dangerous nature of his job, Leventhal admitted that his wife can't help but worry.
"She's scared to death. I mean, she thinks about it and she's concerned," said Leventhal, "but she knows I'm really good at what I do and she believes in the guys I work with. She knows I'm going to try my best to come home every night."
Leventhal has never been shot, and though he draws his gun on most raids, he's never been forced to shoot a suspect.
With the murder rate in Philadelphia escalating past even last year's frightening numbers — 270 murders thus far in 2006, as of Tuesday morning, according to the Philadelphia police department — Leventhal believes that the problem lies in people's unwillingness to come forward with information about a crime.
"People who live in this city have to get involved," said the officer. "When they see a crime, they should want to call the police and give up some of these people who do these things."
Loves Going to Work
"This 'Stop Snitchin' ' thing that's out there — that's hurting big time," he said of a pop-culture trend that includes people wearing T-shirts with the words "Stop Snitchin' " printed on them. "People are getting killed under people's noses, and they're just not coming forward."
Aside from the chance to do some good by arresting criminals, Leventhal genuinely likes the day-to-day duties of the job.
"I love coming to work every day," he says.
"I work with a great bunch of guys. I come to work, I shoot guns, and I train with SWAT stuff. What kid in the world wouldn't want to do this — and they pay me for it!"