Police History: How SWAT got its start

SWAT has no mother and no born-on date, but Daryl Gates has rightly been given the sobriquet “The Father of SWAT” for his forward-thinking about problem solving and saving lives in high-risk incidents


Officer Daryl Gates was a rising star within the Los Angeles Police Department when a disturbance erupted at the scene of the arrest of an intoxicated driver. It was August 1965, and the incident sparked an orgy of violence known as the Watts Riot. The rioting led to 45 million dollars in damage, destroyed nearly 1,000 buildings and ended 34 lives.

Although police and 4,000 National Guard members poured into the area in an attempt to control the situation, the after-action report sharply criticized the response. Gates observed that adding numbers was of little help when the personnel possessed neither the training nor equipment to make a significant impact.

Gates saw a need for a special team of highly-trained officers who could be called out for extremely dangerous circumstances. He proposed that this team be called “SWAT,” which originally stood for “Special Weapons Attack Team.” Later, while describing the moment he first brought the idea of SWAT to his superiors, Gates said, “I was almost disowned.” He changed the name to “Special Weapons and Tactics” and sold the idea to higher-ups. 

The first members of SWAT were veterans of the Vietnam and Korean Wars. They were issued a variety of weapons confiscated from criminals. Their first transport van was a refurbished red delivery truck. Like the team’s equipment, their tactics would start rough and evolve.

The Black Panthers
In 1969, a standoff occurred at the headquarters of the Black Panthers after they ran a police captain out of the building with a pistol to his head. The first attempt to arrest the perpetrators  led to a sharp exchange of gun fire, which wounded three officers. 

Negotiations were accomplished with bullhorns. 17 unsuccessful attempts were made to convince the Panthers to surrender. A plan that would have ended the conflict was formulated, but would have resulted in devastating consequences. SWAT commanders suggested attempting negotiations a final time.

That final attempt resulted in the exit of a man waving a white handkerchief with his hands up. The incredibly volatile situation was resolved with no lives lost. 

The tactic of “Control, Contain, and Negotiate” — which proved successful in this case — then became the model for early SWAT operations.

Negotiations Added
In 1972, Harvey Schlossberg of the NYPD helped start the first Hostage Negotiation Unit. On the heels of this development, the FBI began teaching the following process for successful negotiations:

1.    Active Listening
2.    Empathy
3.    Rapport
4.    Influence
5.    Behavior Change

Skilled negotiators instantly became a crucial element of SWAT as teams were instituted nation-wide.

The SLA Gunfight
In 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) made the headlines with their high-profile kidnapping of 19-year-old heiress Patricia Hearst. These “revolutionaries” committed a number of other crimes as well, including robberies and the assassination of beloved educational leader Marcus Foster. Foster was shot with a hollow point bullet dipped in cyanide.

In May, LAPD investigators discovered the SLA safe house in South Central Los Angeles after a parking ticket was found in an abandoned getaway vehicle used by SLA members during a robbery. SWAT was called, the home was sealed off and the neighborhood was evacuated. The SLA barricaded themselves and opened fire.

SWAT was able to save a child and two others, but a hail of gunfire continued to suppress the team.. SWAT answered with tear gas, hoping to encourage a surrender.

Even as a fire started, the SLA kept up their incessant firing. They all chose to die in an inferno of infamy rather than surrender. The SLA fired 3,700 rounds of ammo, but in spite of their best efforts to kill, there were no other casualties.

In the wake of this incident, SWAT was here to stay.

SWAT Tactics Evolve and the Concept Spreads
More than 1,000 SWAT teams exist nationwide. Tactics have changed with the times. The nearly exclusive use of dynamic entries has given way to the utilization of other options like the breach and hold. Negotiations have gone from an investigator in a trench coat yelling through a bull horn to the use of high-tech communications with a highly skilled team of negotiators.

Because of the rise of the active shooter, the “Control, Contain, and Negotiate” model will most likely be pre-empted by an immediate aggressive response implemented by the initial responding officers, because precious seconds delayed will be measured by lives taken.

SWAT equipment has progressed from mirrors to robots. The bygone days of painting a donated delivery truck black are over. Today’s teams will probably arrive in a rescue vehicle that is specifically designed to stop bullets.

One life-saving tactic advanced by SWAT has been the use of less lethal options that are now also available to patrol officers. Every team has under-reported stories of suspects who are alive today because of the use of a non-lethal impact munition. 

There are many cases of near-death interrupted by a SWAT team’s effective negotiations, sudden surprise tactical take-downs and warrants effectively served.

Despite an evolution in tactics, one thing never changes: SWAT saves lives. They are called upon to solve the worst problems imaginable and in some cases unimaginable. When conditions are at their worst, SWAT is at its best.

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