A SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team is an elite tactical unit in American and some international police departments. They are trained to perform high-risk operations that fall outside of the abilities of regular officers, including serving high-risk arrest warrants, barricaded suspects, hostage rescue, counter-terrorism, and engaging heavily-armed criminals. A SWAT team is often equipped with specialized firearms including assault rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, carbines, riot control agents, stun grenades, and high-powered rifles for snipers. They have specialized equipment including heavy body armor, entry tools, armored vehicles, advanced night vision optics, and motion detectors for covertly determining the positions of hostages or hostage takers inside of an enclosed structure.
The first SWAT team was established in the Los Angeles Police Department in 1968. Since then, many American police departments, especially in major cities and at the federal and state-levels of government, have established their own elite units under various names; these units, despite their official name, are referred to collectively as SWAT teams in colloquial usage.
The development of SWAT in its modern incarnation is usually given as beginning with reference in particular to then-inspector Daryl Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
As far as the LAPD SWAT team’s beginning, Gates’ explained in his autobiography Chief: My Life in the LAPD, that he neither developed SWAT tactics nor its distinctive equipment. Gates wrote that he supported the concept, tried to empower his people to develop the concept, and lent them moral support.
Gates originally named the platoon “Special Weapons Assault Team”, however, due to unpopular protest this name was turned down by his boss, then-deputy police chief Ed Davis for sounding too much like a military organization. Wanting to keep the acronym “SWAT”, Gates changed its expansion (“explanation”) to “special weapons and tactics”.
While the public face of SWAT was made known through the LAPD, perhaps because of its proximity to the mass media and the size and professionalism of the Department itself, the first SWAT operations were conducted far north of Los Angeles in the farming community of Delano, California on the border between Kern and Tulare Counties in the great San Joaquin Valley. César Chavez’ United Farm Workers were staging numerous protests in Delano, both at cold storage facilities and in front of non-supportive farm workers’ homes on the city streets. Delano Police Department answered the issues that arose by forming the first-ever units using special weapons and tactics. Television news stations and print media carried live and delayed reportage of these events across the nation. Personnel from the LAPD, having seen these broadcasts, contacted Delano PD and inquired about the program. One officer then obtained permission to observe Delano Police Department’s special weapons and tactics in action, and afterwards took what he’d learned back to Los Angeles where his knowledge was used and expanded on to form their first SWAT unit.
John Nelson was the officer who came up with 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, for a total staff of sixty. These officers were given special status and benefits. They were required to attend special monthly training. This 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.
A report issued by the Los Angeles Police Department, following a shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, 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 police departments into tactical situations for which they were ill-prepared, the emergence of snipers as a challenge to civil order, the appearance of the political assassin, 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.”
On February 7, 2008 a siege and subsequent fire fight with a gunman in Winnetka, California led to the first line-of-duty death in the 41 years of a member of the LAPD’s SWAT team.
SWAT duties include:
- Hostage rescue.
- Crime suppression.
- Perimeter security against snipers for visiting dignitaries.
- Providing superior assault firepower in certain situations, e.g. barricaded suspects.
- Rescuing officers and citizens captured or endangered by gunfire.
- Countering terrorist operations in U.S. cities.
- Resolve high-risk situations with a minimum loss of life, injury or property damage.
- Resolve situations involving barricaded subjects, (specifically covered by a Hostage Barricade Team).
- Stabilize situations involving high-risk suicidal subjects.
- Provide assistance on drug raids, arrest warrant and search warrant service.
- Provide additional security at special events.
- Stabilizing dangerous situations dealing with violent criminals (such as rapists, serial killers or gangs).
The first significant deployment of LAPD’s SWAT unit was on December 9, 1969, in a four-hour confrontation with members of the Black Panthers. The Panthers eventually surrendered, with three Panthers and three officers being injured. 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 a group which called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a group of heavily-armed Left-Wing Activists, 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 after. Negotiations were opened with the barricaded suspects on numerous occasions, both prior to and after the introduction of tear gas. Police units did not fire until the SLA had fired several volleys of semi-automatic and automatic gunfire at them. In spite of the 3,772 rounds fired by the SLA, no uninvolved citizens or police officers sustained injury from gunfire.
During the gun battle, a fire erupted inside the residence. The cause of the fire is officially unknown, although police sources speculated that an errant round ignited one of the suspects’ Molotov cocktails. Others suspect that the repeated use of tear gas grenades, which function by burning chemicals at high temperatures, started the structure fire. All six of the suspects suffered multiple gunshot wounds and perished in the ensuing blaze.
By the time of the SLA shoot-out, SWAT teams had reorganized into six 10-man teams, each team consisting of 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 (apparently a .243-caliber bolt-action, judging from 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. The normal gear issued them included a first aid kit, gloves, and a gas mask. In fact it was a change just to have police armed with semi-automatic rifles, at a time when officers were usually issued six-shot revolvers and shotguns. 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.
The Columbine High School massacre 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 is 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, Minnesota, 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.”
With this shift in police response, SWAT units remain in demand for their traditional roles as hostage rescue, counter-terrorist operations, and serving high-risk warrants.
The relative infrequency of SWAT call-outs means these expensively-trained and equipped officers cannot be left to sit around, waiting for an emergency. In many departments the officers are normally deployed to regular duties, but are available for SWAT calls via pagers, mobile phones or radio transceivers. Even in the larger police agencies, such as the Los Angeles PD, SWAT personnel would normally be seen in crime suppression roles—specialized and more dangerous than regular patrol, perhaps, but the officers wouldn’t be carrying their distinctive armor and weapons.
By illustration, the LAPD’s website shows that in 2003, their SWAT units were activated 255 times, for 133 SWAT calls and 122 times to serve high-risk warrants.
The New York Police Department’s Emergency Service Unit is one of the few civilian police special-response units that operate autonomously 24 hours a day. However, this unit also provides a wide range of services, including search and rescue functions, and vehicle extraction, normally handled by fire departments or other agencies.
The need to summon widely-dispersed personnel, then equip and brief them, makes for a long lag between the initial emergency and actual SWAT deployment on the ground. The problems of delayed police response at the 1999 Columbine High School shooting has led to changes in police response, mainly rapid deployment of line officers to deal with an active shooter, rather than setting up a perimeter and waiting for SWAT to arrive.
SWAT officers are selected from volunteers within their law enforcement organization. Depending on the department’s policy, officers generally have to serve a minimum tenure within the department before being able to apply for a specialist section such as SWAT. This tenure requirement is based on the fact that SWAT officers are still law enforcement officers and must have a thorough knowledge of department policies and procedures.
SWAT applicants undergo rigorous selection and training, similar to the training some special operations units in the military receive. Applicants must pass stringent physical agility, written, oral, and psychological testing to ensure they are not only fit enough but also psychologically suited for tactical operations.
In addition, applicants must successfully pass a stringent background investigation and job performance review. Emphasis is placed on physical fitness so an officer will be able to withstand the rigors of tactical operations. After an officer has been selected, the potential member must undertake and pass numerous specialist courses that will make him or her a fully qualified SWAT operator. Officers are trained in marksmanship for the development of accurate shooting skills. Other training that could be given to potential members includes training in explosives, sniper-training, defensive tactics, first-aid, negotiation, handling K9 units, rappelling and roping techniques and the use of specialized weapons and equipment. They may also be trained specifically in the handling and use of special ammunition such as bean bags, flash bang grenades, tasers, and the use of crowd control methods, and special less-than-lethal munitions. Of primary importance is close-quarters defensive tactics training, as this will be the primary mission upon becoming a full-fledged SWAT officer.
While a wide variety of weapons are used by SWAT teams, the most common weapons include submachine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles.
Tactical aids include K9 Units, flash bang, Stinger and tear gas grenades.
Semi-automatic pistols are the most popular sidearms. Examples may include, but are not limited to: M1911 pistol series, Sig Sauer series (especially the Sig P226 and Sig P229) Beretta 92 series, Glock pistols and H&K USP series.
Popular submachine guns used by SWAT teams include the 9 mm and 10 mm Heckler & Koch MP5. The H&K UMP has begun to replace the MP5 due to its lower cost and larger caliber, though albeit at the cost of a somewhat shorter effective range and more recoil.
Popular shotguns used by SWAT units include the Benelli M1 Benelli M1014, Remington 870 and 1100, Mossberg 500 and 590.
Common carbines include the Colt CAR-15 & M4 and H&K G36 & HK416. While affording SWAT teams increased penetration and accuracy at longer ranges, the compact size of these weapons is essential as SWAT units frequently operate in CQB environments. The Colt M16A2 can be found used by marksmen or SWAT officers when a longer ranged weapon is needed. The Heckler & Koch G3 series is also common among marksmen or snipers, as well as the M14 rifle and the Remington 700P. Many different variants of bolt action rifles are used by SWAT, including limited use of .50 caliber sniper rifles.
To breach doors quickly, battering rams, shotguns, or explosive charges can be used to break the lock or hinges, or even demolish the door frame itself. SWAT teams also use many less-lethal munitions and weapons. These include Tasers, pepper spray canisters, shotguns loaded with bean bag rounds, and PepperBall guns. PepperBall guns are essentially paint ball markers loaded with balls containing Oleoresin Capsicum (“pepper spray”).
SWAT units may also employ ARVs, (Armored Rescue Vehicle) for insertion, maneuvering, or during tactical operations such as the rescue of civilians/officers pinned down by gunfire. Helicopters may be used to provide aerial reconnaissance or even insertion via rappelling or fast-roping. To avoid detection by suspects during insertion in urban environments, SWAT units may also use modified buses, vans, trucks, or other seemingly normal vehicles.
Units such as the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Special Response Team (SRT) used a vehicle called a B.E.A.R., made by Lenco Engineering which is a very large armored vehicle with a ladder on top to make entry into the second and third floors of buildings. Numerous other agencies such as the LAPD, LASD, and NYPD use both the B.E.A.R. and the smaller BearCat variant.
The Tulsa Police Department’s SOT (Special Operations Team) uses an Alvis Saracen, a British-built armoured personnel carrier. The Saracen was modified to accommodate the needs of the SOT. A Night Sun was mounted on top and a ram was mounted to the front. The Saracen has been used from warrant service to emergency response. It has enabled team members to move from one point to another safely.
The police departments of Killeen and Austin, Texas and Washington, D.C. use the Cadillac Gage Ranger, as does the Florida Highway Patrol.
The Beijing SWAT Team of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) uses a specially designed Hummer in addition to other armored vehicles.
SWAT and Similar Tactical Units in the United States
Though initially confined to metropolitan cities, today virtually every city with a police force in excess of a handful of officers has a paramilitary tactical unit. A variety of abbreviations and acronyms are used for these organizations, which operate at federal, state, and local levels. Most known examples are:
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Special Response Teams (SRT)
- Drug Enforcement Administration Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Teams (FAST).
- Federal Bureau of Investigation Hostage Rescue Team (HRT)
- FBI Special Weapons and Tactics Teams
- United States Secret Service Uniformed Division Emergency Response Team (ERT)
- United States Secret Service Counter Assault Team (CAT)
- Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations and Response Teams (SORT)
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Special Response Teams
- United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Special Response Teams
- United States Department of Energy Office of Safety and Security (OSS) Special Response Teams (SRT)
- United States Department of Energy Special Response Force (SRF)
- United States Marshals Service Special Operations Group (SOG)
- Felony Investigative Assistance Team SWAT Unit, DuPage County, IL
- United States Army Military Police Corps Military Police Special Reaction Team (SRT)
- United States Marine Corps Military Police Special Reaction Team (SRT)
- United States Air Force Security Forces Emergency Services Team (EST)
- United States Border Patrol Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC)
- United States Coast Guard Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT)