The LAPD Metropolitan Division’s “D” Platoon is one of the world’s most prominent SWAT units and was the second SWAT team established in the United States, after that of the Philadelphia Police Department in 1964.
According to the Historical Dictionary of Law Enforcement, the term “SWAT” was used as an acronym for the “Special Weapons and Tactics” established as a 100-man specialized unit in 1964 by the Philadelphia Police Department in response to an alarming increase in bank robberies. The purpose of this unit was to react quickly and decisively to bank robberies while they were in progress, by utilizing a large number of specially trained officers who had at their disposal a great amount of firepower. The tactic worked and was later soon to resolve other types of incidents involving heavily armed criminals. Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Inspector Daryl Gates has said that he first envisioned “SWAT” as an acronym for “Special Weapons Attack Team” in 1967, but later accepted “Special Weapons and Tactics” on the advice of his deputy chief, Edward M. Davis.
The LAPD promoted what became known as SWAT teams for a variety of reasons. After the racially charged Watts riots in Los Angeles in August 1965, the LAPD began considering tactics it could use when faced with urban unrest, rioting, or widespread violence. Daryl Gates, who led the LAPD response to the riots, would later write that police at the time didn’t face a single mob, but rather “people attacking from all directions.” New York University professor Christian Parenti has written that SWAT teams were originally conceived of as an “urban counterinsurgency bulwark.”
Another reason for the creation of SWAT teams was the fear of lone or barricaded gunman who might outperform police in a shootout, as happened in Austin with Charles Whitman.
After the LAPD’s establishment of its own SWAT team, many law enforcement agencies across the United States established their own specialized units under various names. Gates explained in his autobiography Chief: My Life in the LAPD that he neither developed SWAT tactics nor the associated and often distinctive equipment; but that he supported the underlying concept, tried to empower his people to develop it, and generally lent them moral support.
While the public image of SWAT first became known through the LAPD, perhaps because of its proximity to the mass media and the size and professionalism of the Department itself, the first actual SWAT-type operations were conducted north of Los Angeles in the farming community of Delano, California on the border between Kern and Tulare Counties in the San Joaquin Valley. At the time, the United Farm Workers union led by César Chavez was staging numerous protests in Delano in a strike that would last over five years. Though the strike never turned violent, the Delano Police Department responded by forming ad-hoc SWAT-type units involving crowd and riot control, sniper skills and surveillance. Television news stations and print media carried live and delayed reportage of these events across the United States. Personnel from the LAPD, having seen these broadcasts, contacted Delano and inquired about the program. One officer then obtained permission to observe the Delano Police Department’s special weapons and tactics units in action, and afterwards, he took what he had learned back to Los Angeles, where his knowledge was used and expanded on to form the LAPD’s own first SWAT unit.
John Nelson was the officer who conceived the idea to form a specially trained and equipped unit in the LAPD, intended to respond to and manage critical situations involving shootings while minimizing police casualties. Inspector Gates approved this idea, and he formed a small select group of volunteer officers. This first SWAT unit initially consisted of fifteen teams of four men each, making a total staff of sixty. These officers were given special status and benefits, and were required to attend special monthly training sessions. The unit also served as a security unit for police facilities during civil unrest. The LAPD SWAT units were organized as “D Platoon” in the Metro division.
Early police powers and tactics used by SWAT teams were aided by legislation passed in 1967-8 with the help of Republican House representative Donald Santarelli. The legislation was promoted within the context of fears over the Civil Rights Movement, race riots, the Black Panther Party, and the emerging War on Drugs.
The first significant deployment of the LAPD’s SWAT unit was on December 9, 1969, in a four-hour confrontation with members of the Black Panthers in a densely populated area of Los Angeles. The raid was problematic from the start, leading to a shootout in which Daryl Gates phoned the Department of Defense, requesting and receiving permission to use a grenade launcher. The Panthers eventually surrendered, with four Panthers and four officers being injured. All six arrested Panthers were acquitted of the most serious charges brought against them, including conspiracy to murder police officers, because it was ruled that they acted in self-defense.
By 1974, there was a general acceptance of SWAT as a resource for the city and county of Los Angeles.
On the afternoon of May 17, 1974, elements of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a group of heavily armed left-wing guerrillas, barricaded themselves in a residence on East 54th Street at Compton Avenue in Los Angeles. Coverage of the siege was broadcast to millions via television and radio and featured in the world press for days afterwards. SWAT teams engaged in a several-hour gun battle with the SLA; no police were wounded, but the six SLA members died in the conflict, which ended when the house caught fire and burned to the ground.
By the time of the SLA shootout, SWAT teams had reorganized into six 10-man teams, each team being divided further into two five-man units, called elements. An element consisted of an element leader, two assaulters, a scout, and a rear-guard. The normal complement of weapons was a sniper rifle (a .243-caliber bolt-action, based on the ordnance expended by officers at the shootout), two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles, and two shotguns. SWAT officers also carried their service revolvers in shoulder holsters. Standard gear included a first aid kit, gloves, and a gas mask. At a time when officers were usually issued six-shot revolvers and shotguns, it was a significant change to have police armed with semi-automatic rifles. The encounter with the heavily armed Symbionese Liberation Army, however, sparked a trend towards SWAT teams being issued body armor and automatic weapons of various types.
A report issued by the LAPD after the SLA shootout offers one of the few firsthand accounts by the department regarding SWAT history, operations, and organization. On page 100 of the report, the Department cites four trends which prompted the development of SWAT. These included riots such as the Watts riots, which in the 1960s forced the LAPD and other police departments into tactical situations for which they were ill-prepared; the emergence of snipers as a challenge to civil order; political assassinations; and the threat of urban guerrilla warfare by militant groups. “The unpredictability of the sniper and his anticipation of normal police response increase the chances of death or injury to officers. To commit conventionally trained officers to a confrontation with a guerrilla-trained militant group would likely result in a high number of casualties among the officers and the escape of the guerrillas.” To deal with these under conditions of urban violence, the LAPD formed SWAT, notes the report. The report states on page 109, “The purpose of SWAT is to provide protection, support, security, firepower, and rescue to police operations in high personal risk situations where specialized tactics are necessary to minimize casualties.”
U.S. Air Force 37th Training Wing’s Emergency Services Team use a team lift technique to enter a target building during training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas on April 24, 2007.
The “War on Drugs:” 1980s and 1990s
In 1981 U.S. Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, giving police access to military intelligence, infrastructure, and weaponry in the fight against drugs. Reagan subsequently declared drugs to be a threat to U.S. national security. In 1988 the Reagan administration encouraged Congress to create the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Program. The program modified existing federal aid structures to local police, making it easier to transfer money and equipment to fight the War on Drugs. Police forces also received increased assistance from the DEA. The money resulted in the creation of many narcotics task forces, and SWAT teams became an important part of these forces.
In 1972, paramilitary police units launched a few hundred drug raids annually within the United States. In the early 1980s, SWAT drug raid numbers increased to 3000 annually, and by 1996, 30,000 raids annually. During the 1990s, according to The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, weapons donations from the Pentagon greatly bolstered the number of SWAT teams and the extent of their operations. The paper reported that the military transferred nearly 100,000 pieces of military equipment to Wisconsin police departments in the 1990s.
Criminal justice professors Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler, in their study Militarizing American Police: The Rise and Normalization of Paramilitary Units, surveyed police departments nationwide and found that their deployment of paramilitary units had grown tenfold between the early 1980s and late 1990s.
The Columbine High School massacre in Colorado on April 20, 1999 was another seminal event in SWAT tactics and police response. As noted in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, “Instead of being taught to wait for the SWAT team to arrive, street officers are receiving the training and weaponry to take immediate action during incidents that clearly involve suspects’ use of deadly force.” The article further reported that street officers were increasingly being armed with rifles, and issued heavy body armor and ballistic helmets, items traditionally associated with SWAT units. The idea was to train and equip street officers to make a rapid response to so-called active shooter situations. In these situations, it was no longer acceptable to simply set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT. As an example, in the policy and procedure manual of the Minneapolis Police Department, it is stated, “MPD personnel shall remain cognizant of the fact that in many active shooter incidents, innocent lives are lost within the first few minutes of the incident. In some situations, this dictates the need to rapidly assess the situation and act quickly in order to save lives.”
According to criminal justice professor Cyndi Banks, the War on Terror, like the War on Drugs, became the context of a significant expansion of SWAT policing. Whereas some have attributed this expansion to “mission creep” and the militarization of police, other scholars argue that increased SWAT policing is a response to real or perceived moral panics associated with fear of crime and terrorism. Banks writes that SWAT team employment of military veterans has influenced their tactics and perspective.
Countering the view that post-9/11 SWAT policing represents the militarization of police forces, scholar den Heyer writes that SWAT policing is part of a natural progression towards police professionalization. Den Heyer also argues that while SWAT teams continue to be deployed to executing large numbers of drug warrants, this is a rational use of available police resources. Other defenders of SWAT raids state that police departments have every reason to minimize risks to themselves during raids.
By 2005, the number of yearly SWAT deployments in the United States had increased to 50,000, most often to serve drug-related warrants in private homes. According to a study by the ACLU, just under 80% of SWAT deployments were used to serve arrest warrants.
Officers have cited safety as the main reason for use of SWAT teams, stating that SWAT units would frequently be called if there were a possibility a suspect might be armed. For instance in 2006, only two police officers were killed in the arrest of 2 million drug suspects, a low casualty rate possibly stemming from the military equipment and tactics used in the raids.
On February 7, 2008, a siege and subsequent firefight with a shooter in the Winnetka neighborhood of Los Angeles led to the first line-of-duty death of a member of the LAPD’s SWAT team in its 41 years of existence.
Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko, in his book Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, argues that increased SWAT raids have made no-knock raids, and danger to innocents and suspects, far greater. Another study, Warrior Cops: The Ominous Growth of Para-militarism in American Police Departments by Diane Cecilia Weber, also of the Cato Institute, raises concern about the increasing use of SWAT teams for ordinary policing tasks.