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Friday, April 15, 2016

The Birth of SWAT Policing

     In 1967, amid a period of civil unrest in the form of anti-Vietman War protests and race riots, the Los Angeles Police Department formed 15 four-man paramilitary units to protect the department's facilities. Members of these Station Defense Teams possessed street-patrol backgrounds and prior military service. These were not, however, full-time assignments. The concept of combat-trained paramilitary police units came from an officer named John Nelson who passed the idea on to Inspector Darryl Gates who in turn presented the idea to the top brass. Gates wanted to call these units Special Weapons and Attack Teams, but this was considered a bit too militaristic for a civilian agency. In 1969, these units became known as Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) teams.

     On December 9, 1969, when police officers tried to serve search warrants for illegal weapons at the Black Panther headquarters at 41st Street and Central in Los Angeles, the occupants fired on the officers with shotguns and automatic rifles. SWAT teams from around the city were called to the scene. Following a four-hour gun battle between six Black Panthers and 200 officers, the shooters in the house surrendered. Three SWAT team members and three Black Panthers had been wounded.

     Following the Black Panther shoot-out, police administrators concluded that SWAT team response times would be improved by reassigning the 15 teams dispersed throughout the county to police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. In 1971, SWAT team assignments became full-time positions. The Los Angeles Police Department, for several years, was the only law enforcement agency in the country with a paramilitary capability.

     Four years after the Black Panther violence, the Los Angeles SWAT force consisted of six, ten-man teams. Each team had two five-man units called "elements," with a leader, two "assaulters," a scout, and a rearguard officer. SWAT weapons included a .245-caliber, bolt-action sniper rifle, two .223-caliber semiautomatic rifles, and a pair of shotguns. Officers were also equipped with service revolvers and gas masks. Dressed in their helmets, gloves, and body armor, they could not be distinguished from combat troops.

     On May 17, 1974, six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) barricaded themselves inside a house on East 54th Street at Compton Avenue, and ignored orders from the police to surrender peacefully. The domestic terrorists responded to tear gas canisters lobbed into the premises by opening fire on three SWAT teams and hundreds of regular police officers who had gathered at the scene. The police returned fire, eventually wounding all six occupants.

     When the smoke cleared, 3,772 shots had been fired by SLA members. Thousands of bullets had been fired by the police. The shoot-out ended when a fire broke out inside the house, burning the dwelling to the ground. The occupants either died from bullet wounds or from the blaze. Investigators speculated that the fire started when a bullet hit a Molotov cocktail or a tear gas grenade. Millions of people across the country watched as the gun battle unfolded on live television.

     Although there was little sympathy for the terrorists who had fired on the police, the Los Angeles Police Department was criticized for allowing the situation to evolve into a scene of urban warfare. The department responded by tightening SWAT unit admission standards and upgrading the paramilitary training to reduce the occurrence of such spectacular violence.

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