Thesis: SWAT History and Operations

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SWAT History And Operations

Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were created in the mid-1960s as violence in America grew to previously unknown levels and frequency. The Kennedy assassination in Dallas in 1963, the Watts riots in Los Angeles with 34 dead, and the University of Texas sniper who killed 14 people from his perch atop the clock tower at the university, were, in all probability, the primary motivations.

A highly trained police force of some sort was necessary to combat violence from crazy people capable of doing crazy things in very violent ways. Tactics were necessary in order to save lives of civilians and police officers in situations like these that had not been confronted before (Goranson, 2003, pp. 9-10).

The initial idea for a special police team was presented to the Los Angeles Police Department by one of its officers, John Nelson, though, over the years, his superior, and eventual chief of the LAPD, Darryl Gates, received credit for it. So, a small group of the best officers on LAPD began to train in a fashion of the Army special forces teams for a job that no one really knew the specifics of yet (Critchfield, n.d., p. 1).

Initially, in the LAPD, there were fifteen four-man teams in order to cover all the shifts, and they were known as SDT, or Station Defense Teams, (according to one story) meant initially to protect police stations or other installations or buildings in time of crisis. It wasn't until the early 1970s that these teams were assigned as full-time SWAT officers to the central division of the LAPD. This was at a time when radical groups were becoming increasingly violent and the need for quick response with deadly force became necessary.

By 1974, the LAPD SWAT teams had two violent confrontations with these subversive groups -- the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) -- in two separate incidents. Both were long-duration shoot-outs with multiple shooters that required the special skills and training of SWAT. In both situations, the SWAT teams managed to overcome and subdue the resisters. The SLA confrontation ended up with all SLA terrorists dead and none of the SWAT members injured. In the Black Panther battle, three SWAT members were injured as well as three of the captured terrorists.

Taking after the Los Angeles example, other major cities around the U.S. began to create SWAT teams as well. Since most of them followed the LA example as far as concept, training, tactics, and deployment, we will generalize our discussions as much as possible to cover them all.

Terrorist activities, as of the 1980s, began to rise around the globe. The 1984 Olympics became the prime target and focus for the employment of SWAT teams to protect buildings, venues, athletes, and the public. This event caused police departments to think about what skills their SWAT teams might need. Anti-terrorism and hostage rescue became two new items on the agendas of SWAT teams all around the country. Fortunately, during the LA Olympics, none of these situations became problems, but in the years since, numerous such rescues and terrorist situations have become almost commonplace for many big-city SWAT teams (O'Brien, 2007):

1974: East Cleveland Ohio Hostage Situation/Shootout. 5 police, 1 hostage wounded, 2 more police injured. Armored Rescue Vehicle used for rescues. 3 heavily armed suspects arrested.

1988: Detroit PD Hostage Incident. 2 police (including SRT Officer) killed. Suspect killed. Command interfered with SRT tactics.

1993: ATF Branch Davidian Raid/Shootout in Waco, Texas. 4 ATF SRT agents killed, many more wounded. A number of Davidians killed. Turned into one of the longest, deadliest barricade sieges in law enforcement history."

1997: North Hollywood Bank Robbery Shootout in Los Angeles. In 44 minute firefight 2 heavily armed suspects wearing body armor killed, 11 police wounded. SWAT killed one of the robbers as he tried to escape.

1999: Columbine High School Massacre in Littleton, Colo. 15 students/teachers killed. 2 suspects committed suicide. Changed law enforcement/SWAT active shooter tactics nationwide to rapid deployment, immediate intervention.

2003: Case Western Reserve University Active Shooter in Cleveland, Ohio. 1 student killed. SWAT on scene in 10 minutes, engaged suspect in 7-hour "cat and mouse" running gun battle, finally wounding and arresting suspect.

2007: Virginia Tech University Active Shooter. Shooter killed 32 students before committing suicide as police/SWAT closed in. Police responded in 9 minutes.

(O'Brien, 2007)

SWAT Operations Today (SOC, 2000)

Since its inception over forty years ago, SWAT has adapted to an ever-broadening array of special operations situations and has developed special tactics to deal with each of them. Several of them have been created and trained for over the past decade or so. Anti-terrorism or counter-terrorism and hostage rescue remain two of the main hostile and violent situations SWAT deals with, as these elite teams have for decades. Others are not so well-known and publicized.

Surveillance operations has been added to their list of specialties though one would normally think police detectives might handle such an activity. However, SWAT is trained in both active and passive surveillance. They may stake out a hostage/barricade situation where hostages are taken and the terrorists barricade themselves in a particular location. This would be an active surveillance where the SWAT team is fully armed and equipped but is set up to monitor only, unless they need to take action to save lives. Or a SWAT team can monitor a location where a significant level of narcotics traffic has been noted and possible action might be necessary.

Passively, SWAT could be on surveillance dressed in appropriate civilian clothes for the location simply to watch a suspected criminal activity to gather evidence and identify the suspected criminals. In this situation the SWAT team might have their weapons stowed nearby in case they are needed. SWAT sniper/observer teams are also utilized by different state and federal agencies for covert surveillance because they are more familiar with the local geography, roads, etc. And can get in and out without being detected (SOC, 2000).

Dignitary Protection

The capability to protect dignitaries is more a matter of planning, preparation and anticipation than it is a show of strength usually. The reason SWAT has been called upon for this activity is because those three activities are a part of all of its missions no matter how simple or complex. On some occasions protection does call for full battle gear, but on many occasions, plain clothes allow them to blend in. SWAT may either provide direct security for a dignitary, provide support for the person's own security team, provide armed cover for transportation or some combination of the above.

Tactical Support for Undercover Operations

SWAT training and discipline make the team members ideal candidates for undercover support. Their capability to remain isolated, in-place, and focused allow them to provide other active SWAT undercover operations or those of other agencies with arrest teams, surveillance, or to be on tactical stand-by. Then, if a SWAT or other deployment is compromised, they can take swift and deadly response before harm comes to the active operation (SOC, 2000).

High-Risk Warrant Service

Arrest warrants, forced-entry, and mental health warrants all pre-suppose a high-level risk of violence to police officers. Because of the highly specialized skills it takes to deliver these warrants, sometimes SWAT is called upon under specific circumstances to accomplish that task. If a suspect has a known violent history, or reportedly is armed and dangerous, or has an inclination toward violence, SWAT can step into those situations. Whether or not this is done in full combat gear or not, depends on the intelligence gathered about the potential for violent activity.

Training, though not thought of as an "operation" of SWAT, is the lifeblood of any SWAT unit to the point that, in order for it be operational in any… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Thesis:

APA Format

SWAT History and Operations.  (2009, December 1).  Retrieved December 8, 2019, from

MLA Format

"SWAT History and Operations."  1 December 2009.  Web.  8 December 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"SWAT History and Operations."  December 1, 2009.  Accessed December 8, 2019.