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First developed in the 1960s by local law enforcement agencies, Special Weapons and Tactics units, or SWAT teams, have become common in police departments throughout the United States. These teams generally consist of small numbers of highly trained officers who use specialized weapons and tactics to handle high-risk situations. Although SWAT teams have been used successfully during countless numbers of altercations since their development, some critics charge that their use exceeds the traditional Police Power given to the states.
SWAT teams began during the turbulent 1960s. In August 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman climbed a tower on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin and shot 47 people, killing 15. The incident took place during a 90-minute span, and police officers were ill-equipped to handle the situation. Officers eventually climbed the tower and reached Whitman's position, killing him after he tried to shoot the officers.
Police departments recognized that their forces needed officers trained to handle these types of incidents. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had struggled to contend with rioters during the 1966 Watts riots. Officers found that traditional police and riot-control tactics were ineffective against the disorganized nature of the mobs they faced. During the same year, LAPD officers were ambushed by Jack Ray Hoxsie, who began a shooting spree from within his home. Officers failed in their attempts to shoot back at Hoxsie. The officers were successful in subduing the situation only after they threw tear gas through a broken window and then stormed the house.
Former LAPD Police Chief Daryl Gates is credited with developing the first SWAT team in 1966. Gates was then a patrol area commander in charge of the Metro Division of the LAPD. The division was a floating police unit responsible for handling unusual criminal activity within the city of Los Angeles. Gates and others in the LAPD studied guerrilla warfare tactics of the U.S. military, determining that new teams trained to handle these dangerous situations needed to be smaller, with each member of the team given a specific purpose.
The LAPD SWAT teams gained notoriety in 1969 when one of the teams was used to serve an arrest warrant on two members of the black panthers, a radical and armed activist group known nationally for espousing revolutionary politics. The mission was successful. Five years later, the LAPD SWAT force, in conjunction with federal SWAT teams, engaged in an altercation with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), best known for its Kidnapping of publishing heiress Patty Hearst. During the altercation between the SWAT team members and the SLA, the house in which the SLA members were hiding caught fire, eventually killing the six members.
The number of SWAT teams in police departments began to rise during the 1970s and has risen steadily ever since. An estimated 89 percent of police departments in cities with populations of more than 50,000 maintain SWAT teams. The vast majority of federal law enforcement agencies have also established specialized response units. SWAT is among a number of names given to such units by federal and local agencies. Others include Special Response Team (SRT), Emergency Response Team (ERT), Special Emergency Response Team (SERT), and Emergency Services Unit (ESU).
SWAT teams are designed to work only in extraordinary circumstances, such as those involving hostages, hijackers, and suspects who have barricaded themselves. The most common use of SWAT teams is to assist other officers in serving arrest warrants when the subject of the warrant is considered a high risk. SWAT teams generally enter and secure the premises where the subject is located so that officers charged with serving the warrant can do so. The use of SWAT teams is rather common in the apprehension of suspected drug dealers, who are often armed and considered dangerous.
In 1981, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Officials Act, which allows the U.S. military to provide equipment and facilities for civilian police in the war on drugs. As a result, SWAT teams could be armed with military-style, high-tech arms and other equipment to carry out their functions. Moreover, many members of SWAT teams receive their training from military units. The result is that some SWAT teams now resemble paramilitary units more than they represent a division of a civilian police force.
The widespread use of SWAT teams has been criticized as the militarization of civilian law enforcement. Critics note that some SWAT teams are now used in routine police matters and that the paramilitary approach adopted by the SWAT teams is not appropriate for enforcement of the law. Law enforcement supporters often respond that criminals are much more dangerous than they were in the past and that traditional civilian policing methods are ineffective against many types of criminals.
Mijares, Tomas C., Ronald M. McCarthy, and David B. Perkins. 2000. The Management of Police Specialized Tactical Units. Springfield, Ill.: C.C. Thomas.
Singh, Karan R. 2001. "Treading the Thin Blue Line: Military Special-Operations Trained Police SWAT Teams and the Constitution." William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 9 (April).
Weber, Diane Cecilia. 1999. "Warrior Cops: The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments." The CATO Institute. Available online at <www.cato.org/pubs/briefs/bp50.pdf> (accessed August 13, 2003).