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Performance and Effectiveness of Special Weapons and Tactical Teams


          Special Weapons and Tactical Teams are a relatively new form of law enforcement, and it is safe to say, that all of the rough spots have not been smoothed over. There is considerable discourse on all fronts, on all aspects of the concept. Much of this questionable debate comes from the general public, with only limited discussions being held within the law enforcement community, and almost none of the discourse is emanating from the government. In the minds eye of  most government officials the Special Weapons and Tactical Teams, is the mitigator they have long sought to curb crime. Actually this attitude runs counter to the original purpose and scope of the organizations creation. This concept was originally conceived, and its duties stipulated that they were to be deployed in emergency and crisis situations, which were beyond the scope and capabilities of the regular police force. In short, in that emergency hostage situations, nor barricaded suspects etc., did not surface on a daily basis, the Special Weapons and tactical teams, on an ad hoc basis, would operate. The concept and practice has engendered what can only be described as the militarisation of police forces. It is perceived and even encouraged that the police’s job should be to serve and defense, and murder is the job of soldiers. This presents serious misgivings for many Americans when we think of recent legislation like the Patriot Act, and how it encroaches upon our fourth amendment guarantees.

Of course, there is the fight against terrorism and we need a force which is equipped to handle the constant threat. The SWAT teams are totally equipped to deal with this scurge, and for this we can all feel a bit safer. However, SWAT teams are now being called on to serve a number of tasks, which were previously done by regular police forces. It is not so much that SWAT does these tasks, it is the (full military dress and armor) staging, and the (absolute submission) tactics which are employed,( to merely serve a warrant) that causes apprehension, and should be of serious concern to all.

Performance and Effectiveness of Special Weapons and Tactical Teams

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Origin and History of SWAT
  • Municipal SWAT Training
  • SWAT Equipment and Clothing
  • SWAT Duties
  • Municipal SWAT and Gender Diversity
  • FBI SWAT and Gender Diversity
  • Controversies Surrounding SWAT
  • SWAT and the War on Drugs
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited


Law Enforcement agencies are constantly plagued with the dilemma of how do they maximize their protection of the public which they have sworn to serve, while minimizing the criminals ability to prey upon, or even harm the innocent victim. Criminal acts and criminality seems to be an evolving process; as soon as the law is fashioned to circumvent the activity, the criminals devise ways and means to continue to perpetuate there devious perpetrations. There are elements of crime which have long been a part of the human existence, and many aspects of these age old deviations will probably always be among us. It is not to suggest here that this writer is in any way acquiescing in any way to the existence or perpetration of criminal activity. But it is to submit, by way of reality, that crime in and of itself can not be eradicated. The best that we can hope for, is the suppression thereof.

The presence of SWAT teams in some cities across America, have been attributed to the suppression of crime, particularly in high crime neighborhoods. But the ethical question arises, whether it is prudent to deploy these military style, combat ready forces in neighborhoods where women go about their routines and children go about their routine play. Are police chiefs across the country placing innocent lives in danger, while they allegedly patrol to keep the danger away?

Literature Review

Origin and History of SWAT 

          It is commonly held by many that as a response to the urban violence of the 1960’s, the concept and practice of paramilitary units established credence and justification.

The Los Angeles Police Department was the first in the country to adopt the tactical team concept. The individual who became the first commander of the pioneering Los Angeles Police Department SWAT, (Daryl Gates), states in his autobiography, “Chief My Life in the LAPD”, “I neither developed SWAT tactics nor did I develop any of its uncharacteristic equipment” (Gates). He wrote that he was in favor of the concept, and he supported his people to put their collective energies together in developing the operation, and he provided as much moral support as he felt it needed. Gates offered the originally chosen name (Special Weapons Assault Team), however, it met strongly disapproval from his commanding officer at the time – Chief Ed Davis.

The idea for the unit was conceived by officer John Nelson, who was contemplating a means in which police officers who were then compelled to respond to highly volatile situations, might be provided with the necessary tools to mitigate the volatility, while minimizing injuries and loss of lives among the ranks. Inspector Gates was in complete accord with this concept and he moved to form a small contingent of volunteers.

The first SWAT unit organized within the Los Angeles Police Department was composed of 60 officers; divided into fifteen teams, comprising four men in each team.

The training for these special volunteer teams was conducted on a monthly basis, and were initially given the moniker of “D Platoon” in the metro division”(SWAT LAPD)

During the month of August 1965, the riots in Watt’s lasted for seven days and carried a toll of 34 deaths, and the estimate in accordance with hospital records, count more than 1,000 injured. This 10 days of urban warfare served as one of the wakeup calls, for the LAPD. The department became glaring aware that they were not equipped to cope with this type of unrest, and the decision was made that something had to be done, to provide the police with the advantage. Subsequent to the Surrey Street shootings, things came to a head. Gates laments in his autobiography, “I analyzed how we responded face to face with the suspects, and I understood we had to create a new method to neutralize isolated or barricaded suspects”(Gates)

Gates and a selected group of his officers embarked upon the study of military tactics and augmented it with an analyses of guerilla warfare, and they decided to hire a highly qualified sniper. Now that the developing concept was in place, it was time to sell the idea and seek a budget. Unfortunately, money was described as tight, so with the budgetary constraints in hand, Gates and his select group of officers were compelled to dog deep into their collective imaginations, and drawing upon their years of police experience, they became very creative in their quest to acquire and fashion the material and equipment they needed; they modified weapons, fabricated tools, and soon became a makeshift, low budget unit, ready to be deployed.

The SWAT coming out encounter took place on 8, December 1969 in a serious gunfight with the Black Panther Party at 41st and Central Streets”(Wikipedia). “The police attempted to serve a warrant, and arrest some member of the Black Panther Party for the possession of illegal weapons”(Ibid). Of course, the Black Panthers resisted the police contingent of 40 officers who were attempting to serve the warrant, and the resulting firefight ensued for 4 hours. During which time, more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition was fired. When the firing stopped and the smoke cleared, three Black Panthers and three police officers had been wounded. The Panthers eventually surrendered to the SWAT officers, and the first SWAT mission, was deemed a success.

In 1974, after a shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army, the LAPD issued a report, which provided a first hand account of the history, organization and operations of SWAT. In the report which consisted of more than 100 pages, the department offered its justifications to the public for the founding of SWAT. It stated,

“riots such as the Watt’s riots which in the 1960’sforced police departments into tactical situations for which they were ill-prepared to, the emergence of snipers as a challenge to civil order, political assassin’s presence and the threat of urban guerilla warfare by militant groups”. The unpredictability of the sniper and his expecting normal police action increases the chance of death or injury officers. To commit conventionally trained officers to a confrontation with a guerilla trained militant groups are likely to result in a high number of deaths amongst the officers and the escape of the guerillas” (LAPD SWAT Report).

The report goes on to state that, “SWAT is designed to provide protection, support, security, firepower, and rescue to police operations in high risk situations where to minimize casualties, advanced tactics are needed “(SWAT Report 1974 p.109).

SWAT faced its next major challenge on 1984, when the tram was called upon to provide its range of services during the nineteen days of the Summer Olympic Games. The SWAT team was alerted in time to allow  them to become absolutely abreast of the growing plaque which was proliferating around the world, in the form of international terrorism. Unfortunately for the LAPD SWAT team, the skill to circumvent, guard or even fight this plaque was not yet a part of their repertoire. Moreover, neither the knowledge nor skill was in place with any SWAT team anywhere in the country. As a consequence, each LAPD SWAT officer received more than 2,000 hours of training, to equip themselves and protect the Olympic community and the public-at-large from this vile enemy.

“The members of the LAPD SWAT team rose to the occasion and accepted the grueling mission of working shifts which represented 24 hours on, and 24 hours off, in their effort  to be ready to serve and protect”(LAPD Report). As the reader is well aware the 1984 Simmer Olympic Games went off without one major hitch, and the new counter-terrorism skills acquired by members of the LAPD SWAT, elevated them to new heights. The funds which Chief Gates found so difficult to secure prior to 1984, were now abundant during the training for the 1984 Olympics, and have now found a justifiably permanent position in the budget henceforth.

Municipal SWAT Training

          Officers who ultimately become SWAT team members are selected from those who volunteer for the duty from within their various Law Enforcement organizations. Before an officer can qualify in most jurisdictions, a minimum term of service requirement has been established. The previous experience requirement works out to be a bona’ fide’ occupational qualification, as those who are chosen possess a thorough knowledge of their departments procedures and policies. The applicants must prove their physical fitness, because the rigor of training has been established to only take those individuals who can endure a training routine which is as demanding as classic military training. All applicants must be prepared to pass very strict physical agility, oral, psychological, and written tests. In that these people come from the ranks of their various departments, they must be capable of withstanding a  thorough job review and a comprehensive background check. Major emphasis is placed on physical fitness, because the nature of the tactics unit is that they will oftentimes be engaged in crisis encounters, the officers must be capable of enduring physical stamina.

After selection, the officer must then pass a series of special courses before they can become a certified SWAT operator. Other types of training which the officers receive and are critical to their ability to successfully assist in accomplishing a mission include: they must qualify in explosives, negotiation, sniper training, abseling (rappelling) and roping techniques, handling K-9 units, and the use of special weapons and equipment.

Additionally, these officers must have a thorough working knowledge in the handling and use of special ammunition, i.e., flash bang grenades, bean bags, tasers, and be skillful in the use of crowd control methods which involve all of the previously mentioned less- lethal munitions. The officers must, prove that they have a working knowledge of, and the innate ability to perform close quarters defensive tactics. This is one of the hallmarks of the SWAT unit, wherein the element of surprise in converging upon a target and the ability to capture absolute control of the environment. This tactic is of primaryimportance, and one which each officer must possess a high level of proficiency.

SWAT Equipment and Clothing

          The equipment a SWAT unit uses will depend solely on the encounter which they are engaging.

“As a general rule the usual equipment and clothing will consist of body armor vest, fire-resistant nomex / teijinconex coveralls or flight suits (with Armid or HMPE, an outer tactical load bearing vest for carrying ammunition and specialist gear and equipment. Nomex or other tactical gloves, balaclara or protective face covering, protective face goggles, Twaron / Keular and / or gas mask, flashlight (usually a surefire or similar brand), combat boots, flexi-cuffs, and thigh-high ammo / utility pouches. While a wide variety of weapons are used by SWAT teams, the mist common weapons include submachine guns, carbines, assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles. Tactical aids include flash bang, stinger and tear gas grenades. Semi-automatic handguns are the most popular side arms. Popular submachine guns are used by SWAT teams include 8mm Heckler & Koch MP5 and 10mm MP5/10, with orwithout suppressors. Common rifles include the MA carbine. The colt M16A2 is rarely used because it is much longer than the more compact M4, although it still finds favor with some teams for rural and long range operations. 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 may also use less-lethal munitions and weapons, as those previously mentioned”(SWAT manual)

“Well funded SWAT units may also employ armored cars 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. For tactical reconnaissance purposes, a team may be equipped with binoculars, fiber optic cameras (known by brand names such as the Viper, as used by the Los Angeles Police Department), thermographic cameras, or a variety of audio or video surveillance equipment. In night time or low light operations, SWAT units might be equipped with night vision goggles. Mirrors or extension poles, for looking around corners, while not putting an officer directly in the line of fire, are amongst some of the more unusual devices used by teams to deal with unique situations”(SWAT Manual).

SWAT Duties

          The duties officially listed by most police departments across the country include:

“Non-violent apprehension of desperate barricaded suspects, protecting emergency personnel against snipers, providing high ground and perimeter security against snipers for visiting dignitaries, providing controlled assault fire power in certain non-riot situations, i.e., barricaded suspects. Rescuing officers and citizens captured or endangered by gunfire, and neutralizing guerilla or terrorists operations”(Wikipedia)

It is not frequent that any of the above-mentioned occurrences tend to surface in any city in the US with any degree of frequency, as a consequence, police departments are faced with the idle presence of these highly trained, and expensively equipped officers being paid for literally sitting on the job. As a result in many police departments across the country, these highly trained, expensively equipped SWAT specialists, are relegated to performing regular patrol duties. Even in the larger cities, which have a high incidence of street crime, these officers are used frequently in crime suppression. While this activity is usually more involved and more dangerous than regular patrol officer duties, when the SWAT officer is performing in a suppression capacity, they will not be adorned in full body armor and fatigues, or carrying their heavy armor. The Los Angeles Police Department website shows that in 2003, “their SWAT units were activated 255 times, for 133 SWAT calls, and 122 times to serve high-risk warrants”.(LAPD) the math would suggest that the SWAT unit received approximately 1 call per day. However, when one factors in the availability variable of 24/7- as is the nature of police work, the result is we have a considerable number of officers with a huge amount of idle time.


     “FBI SWAT operatives must complete a minimum of 50 hours of core training to be awarded SWAT certification. Operators must also attend a 40 hour WMD / HAZMAT tactical operations course. Each team has three FBI certified rapple masters to conduct rope operations and three FBI certified tactical air operations officers or tactical crew chiefs (TAO / TEC), to conduct helicopter operations. There are also certified emergency technicians (EMT). Normal training scenarios include firearms training (to include qualification), close Quarter Battle (CQB) live fire, dynamic (hostage rescue) entries, slow methodical (law enforcement) entries, simulations training, high risk vehicle stops to include hostage rescue and pursuit interruption technique (PIT) maneuvers, patrolling and land navigation ( including rough terrain operations i.e., climbing and rappelling). Additionally, the team conducts training two to three times per month and participates once a year in a one week FBI SWAT regional training”(FBI)

“The FBI SWAT tactical center is staffed by approximately five non-operator special agents and five support employees which provide command and control support for the team. According to the FBI information page, “In the last several years the FBI SWAT team has gained experience in major national crisis situations to include the Los Angeles Riots-1992, Branch Davidian operation at Waco, Texas-1993, evidence recovery at Kingman, Arizona in support of the Oklahoma City bombing investigation-1995, Freeman operation at Jordan, Montana-1996, Republic of Texas operation at Ft. Davis, Texas-1997, the Eric Rudolph fugitive operation in Andrews, North Carolina-1999, the Winter Olympic Games, Salt Lake City, Utah-2002, and superbowl XXXVIII at Houston, Texas-2004”(FBI info) The advantage which FBI SWAT teams have over municipal SWAT teams is they are capable of being dispatched to any city in the union and also have on occasion been deployed overseas. The FBI has 56 different SWAT locations across the country. “FBI SWAT teams are generally utilized in high risk situations”(Carlisle). Carlisle goes on to remember that, “Within the groups, domestic terrorism is what we see here position”(Carlisle). This overview of the SWAT teams is given by special agent Carlisle existence:

“For FBI SWAT members, it all begins with an intensive training program. It is a fairly grueling ordeal. We test their shooting ability, the physical fitness ability, The process of decision making and their ability to reason in the context of a crisis”(Carlisle). He she goes on to point out, “The first rule for SWAT is a surprise element. We try to remain undetected, but once they enter a situation, they go in with a bang, literally”(Carlisle). “The next rule is speed. Once we do enter a building, speed becomes paramount, because it will be a diversion and a distraction, and disorient the people inside, and then it is time to take charge”(Ibid).  “Our attempt is to flood thebuilding, just dominate the area as quickly as possible. In a hostage situation everyone is treated the same, just in case the suspects pretend to be victims. The bad guys will try to mingle in with the hostages and slip away undetected”(Carlisle). “The gear weighs between 30 to 40 pounds, and each SWAT team member will carry at least 2 weapons. We want to be better armed than we think the subject will be”(Ibid).

“SWAT vehicles have skids running along the bottom so special agents can jump on or off very easily. But with all its high-tech gear and flashy entrances, the ultimate goal is to get in and make the arrest without anyone getting hurt”(Carlisle)

Municipal SWAT and Gender Diversity 

In an article by Deborah Prussel, “Women Where?”, she chronicles the history of women as police persons, and the barriers which were placed in front of them, she states:

“In 1910 Alice Stebbins Wells, a social worker, convinced the Los Angeles Police Department to hire her as their first full fledged police woman. For decades, few women listed police officer as their occupation. They trained separately from the men and performed limited roles. Secretarial duties topped the list in their job descriptions. In the 1960’s and the 1970’s, the lucky ones investigated sex crimes or offenses where the suspect was under ten years of age”( Prussel). According to Prussel, in the Detroit police department, the sex discrimination during the 60’s and the 70’s was extremely overt.

“Women were required to have a minimum of two years of higher education since their work required investigations and interviews, interrogations and detailed reports for criminal prosecution purposes. Men only had to have a high school diploma or GED certificate. No one considered physical or weapons training for women”(Prussel) Then in 1972, everything changed with the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act by Congress, the  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was compelled to take the necessary legal actions in court to have Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enforced. The outcome was that women began to train next to men at all of the nations police academies. According to Gaithersburg, Maryland Chief of Police, Mary Ann Viverette, “Women today make up 14.3% of all sworn law enforcement positions across the nation”(Viverette) Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, are categorized by women officers as the last of the existing male bastions. According to Prussel, “Women in policing is unique enough, let alone women on SWAT teams”(Prussel). According to Larry Glick, executive Director of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), which is a non-profit organization with the stated mission of, ‘advancing the SWAT profession worldwide, with its membership restricted to certified tactical officers, states that, “of its 40,000 members, only 17 are women”(NTOA). Albeit women now have legislation on their sides and the law dictates that they be provided equal access, and as some women have attempted and a few have been successful, it has not been a journey full of handshakes and welcomes. Some of the accounts provided by some of the 17 female certified female SWAR team members, points to how arduous the climb was:

“A weeks training at a military facility focused on repelling and team work exercises including a six mile walk with a telephone pole, generator, TV and a shovel that was required to be periodically set up along the way. One of the females noted that one of the real challenges was showering”(Prussel)

“Janice Easterling was a police officer at age 27, with the Dallas Police Department, now a lieutenant, she joined the SWAT team in 1988”(Prussel). Janice reflected on her experience and offered, “there weren’t many women, I was motivated by the challenge.”(Easterling). Easterling was a former college athlete who played volleyball on a scholarship, and she liked the idea of working out and was not intimidated by the physical challenges. “Most of the men had a positive attitude, but there were a few on the tactical side who did not want me there”(Easterling) She goes on to say, “Initially, some subtle hints suggested that she was not entirely welcome, i.e., during MP5 training the men just stood and watched. Curiosity was a factor, but Easterling whose sister is on a Georgia SWAT team just showed them, she could do the job. Eventually promoted she left after two years, returning in 1994 as a sergeant when there was an opening”(Prussel). She said, “they never had a female sergeant before, or since”(Easterling) According to Donna Milgram, executive director of Women in Policing Institute of El Paso , Texas, “SWAT openings are not plentiful, and women are not always welcome. Many times they are ostracized. The more elite and prestigious the unit, the tougher it is for women. SWAT is the elite part of law enforcement”(Milgram)

“Percentages are small for women in policing and are smaller yet for women on SWAT and other specialty teams. To their credit, according to the women interviewed, their male team members have, for the most part been supportive. The problem seems to come from men in lateral positions and higher up in police management”(Prussel). A law suit was filed against the LAPD for continually changing their SWAT team requirements. The woman filing the sex discrimination suit won and was eventually offered a position. She turned it down, and this leaves the department who started it all, without any show of diversity.

FBI SWAT and Gender Diversity

           According to FBI special agent Samantha Mikeska, of the FBI’s El Paso, Texas bureau, women have an Achilles heel when it comes to qualifying for the FBI SWAT team, she says;

“Historically women fail police or SWAT qualifications in the physical agility testing, particularly upper body strength. Mikeska was a college athlete, she had been running, and lifting, but she could not do pull-ups wearing 35 pounds of required gear. She said, I just hung there with 18 guys watching. I swore this would never happen again”(Mikeska).

Mikeska worked in accounting, her major, for six years after graduation, but always wanted to be a police officer. Completing the academy, she went to Bryant, Texas, police department. In the interim, she applied for the special agent position with the FBI. With 2000 applicants for every job, she was not optimistic. When the call came in 1996, she left for four months of training at Quantico”(Prussel) Mikeska ranked third of eight who wanted SWAT team membership. The FBI SWAT team has 1500  members in 56 offices and only 4 women nationwide.

Controversies Surrounding SWAT

          Albeit, there are many proponents of the presence and viable nature of SWAT across the country and around the world, there are also the detractors who point to a heavy hand, and a presence which places the civil liberties of the average American in jeopardy. The writer will hereon attempt to present both sides of the arguments, albeit with the full knowledge that SWAT as a concept has locked itself into an existence, and it is not prone to go away.

Even within the law enforcement community, there is continuing discourse surrounding SWAT teams and how they should be deployed. This controversy among the ranks has spilled over into the world of academe and the scholars attest that the results of numerous surveys suggest that SWAT teams are no longer engaging themselves with those situations which it was originally created.; hostages or barricaded subjects, but are now concentrating more of their efforts on things like street gang suppression ans the serving of high risk warrants.

The discourse among academics is that the presence of specialty units could skew the public’s perception of who the police realistically are; the physical appearance of the SWAT teams, buzz hair cuts, body armor, and the wearing of fatigues, prompts the public to see the (public servant) policeman move as an occupying army. This argument is met with the street reality that the police are now being confronted by criminals who are heavily armed. On the street, gang members, and drug dealers are now outfitted with automatic military weapons. This type of firepower in the possession of the bad guys must be countered by the police, if they are going to have a chance in combating the criminal element, and if the general public is entitled to appreciate some semblance of peace and well-being for their loved ones, themselves and their property.

Captain Robert L. Snow in his book, SWAT Teams Explosive Face-off with America’s Deadliest Criminals”, describes the techniques used by  SWAT teams when they are serving a high risk warrant, he says;

“The overwhelming display of brute force is routine in SWAT raids. Particularly in narcotics warrants service, to make their entry as dynamic and overwhelming as possible. SWAT teams often use the saturation method, this technique involves the immediate flooding of the inside of a location with police officers. Doing this gives officers immediate control of the inside of a location, discourages thought of resistance, and prevents the destruction of any evidence. The idea behind the technique is to immediately dominate the site with officers and firepower”(Snow)

According to Peter Kraska, a professor at Western Kentucky University, a new study has documented the explosive growth in police SWAT teams. In a nationwide survey of 690  law enforcement agencies serving cities with populations of 50,000 or more, it was found that 90 percent of the departments now have an active SWAR team. This is compared with 60 percent in the late 1980’s”(Kraska) Kraska goes on to say, “where SWAT teams were once deployed a few times a year, they are now used for all kinds of police work—dozens of calls, hundreds of calls a year. In SWAT units formed since 1980, their use has increased by 538 percent.”(Kraska)

In an article published in the BBC, quoting the National Tactical Officers Association, Dr. Kraska’s figures were disputed by the NTOA saying that, “the actual number of deployments is far lower, but they go on to say, there is a need for national training standards”(BBC). “When criminology professor David Klinger looked at 12 years of data on SWAT teams in 1998, he found the most common reason for calling out teams was serving warrants, but that the units used deadly force during warrant service in only 0.4 percent of the time”(BBC). One of those 0.4 percent times was chronicled by Tom Jackman of the Washington Post, who provides this account;

“A SWAT team attempted to serve a warrant on Salvatore Culosi, a 37 year old fair Oaks optometrist in Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D. C., who was accused of gambling for sport, ended the attempted arrest with the accidental death of Culosi”(Jackman). The officer who was responsible, Deval V. Bullock, was suspended for three weeks, without pay”(Jackman). Dr. Kraska makes a point on the profile of the type of individual who might volunteer to become a certified SWAT team member, he says, “These elite units are highly culturally appealing to certain sections of the police community. They like it, they enjoy it”(Kraska-BBC). In Fresno, California the incidence of crime has increased substantially; the city has a population of approximately 400,000 people. After the city witnessed 55 shootings over a period of five months, which culminated in the death of 13 people, Fresno’s SWAT team was commissioned to engage in full police patrol. Albeit, this activity presents the image of a full-scale military operation, “the police chief credits the unit for partly reducing violent crime in Fresno by 8.7 percent in 1995, and 3.5 percent in “(Macko) 1996.” Today, this unit patrols the streets 24/7 and is backed by a helicopter and an armored personnel carrier. The commentary on the Fresno police department is by no means an aberration. This practice or tactical approach is said to be a growing trend within law enforcement agencies across the US. Given the unusually heavy saturation of these units on the streets on regular patrol, the attitudes of the SWAT team members is one of, the streets belong to us, which prompts officers, who by some accounts, tend to be overly aggressive towards the public. Joseph McNamara is the former police Chief of San Jose California, and Kansas City, Missouri, he is now a part of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. He makes mention of a growing trend which in the long run, does not run a parallel course with enduring public safety, he says, “it is a very dangerous thing when you’re telling the cops they’re soldiers and there’s an enemy out there. I don’t like it at all”(McNamara).

“The Fresno Violent Crime Suppression Unit has 30 members. They patrol high crime neighborhoods, serve warrants, stop vehicles, interrogate gang bangers, and essentially, show a presence – which is very important in police work. The officers of the Fresno unit wear what is called subdued gray-and-black urban camouflage and body armor” (Macko) The Chief of the Fresno police department offers justification for the presence of the SWAT unit on the streets as he said, “given the nature of the criminal element, an extreme response is highly justified”. The chief recounted an incident which occurred in his city prior to the establishment of the SWAT team:

“There was a bank robbery where a suspect fired on and killed an officer” (Winchester). He described the response of the police as being “chaotic, where hundreds of rounds of ammunition were fired by the police” (Ibid). He said,” it was very difficult, so we borrowed an armored car and fired tear gas into the structure” (Ibid), he “this was not a good idea,” he says, “the gas killed innocent people who were injured were trapped in the building and the fumes spread to the adjacent neighborhood” (Ibid). The chief went on to characterize the incident as a “fiasco” (Ibid). The consequences led to the city fathers deciding that the most appropriate and feasible thing to do at the time, was to think in terms of a more highly trained unit to cope with a reoccurrence of these types of situations.

The LAPD SWAT team had been operating at this time for more than ten years, when Fresno decided that it would benefit from a similar unit. For the first 21 years of its existence (1973-1994), the Fresno SWAT team responded only to specific incidents, i.e., barricaded subjects etc., However, subsequent to 1995, the units have been full time on the streets which the chief correlated with the reduction in the incidence of crime, he says, “the criminals aren’t stupid. They see eight guys surrounding them, all carrying automatic weapons and wearing black fatigues, they don’t want to get murder”(Winchester). Winchester then poses the rhetorical question, “There’s a downside? Sure there is. It’s a sad commentary – sad when crime is so bad, you got to put a SWAT team on the street”(Winchester).

SWAT and the War on Drugs

          According to Paul C. Roberts, “The militarisation of local police forces has had a big impact boosting the “war on drugs” by Attorney General Ed Meese, during the Reagan management. It released a National Security Decision declaring drugs to be a threat to United States National security. In 1988 Congress ordered the National Guard into the domestic drug war. In 1994 the Department of defense issued a memorandum approving the transfer of military and technical resources to the State and local police and Congress set up a program to make it easier to handle military equipment civilian police agencies”(Roberts). There are approximately 17,000 local police forces equipped with such military equipment as Blackhawk helicopters, machine guns, grenade launchers, bombs, battering rams body armor, night vision, armored vehicles and rappelling gear. In 1999 the New York Times reported that a retired Chief of Police in New Haven, Conn., told the newspaper, “I was offered bazookas, tanks, anything I wanted”(NYT). Balko reported that in 1997, local police departments received 1.2 million pieces of military equipment. According to Dr. Kraska, “We now find ourselves in a situation in which even small units, more than 70 percent have a fully functioning SWAT team, the question is what are they going to do with them? “”These small town services are very unlikely to be going to run into a legitimate hostage or barricade situation, so the department have to figure out a way to use the SWAT teams”(Kraska) Jack Cole is a retired detective Lieutenant and a 26 year veteran of the New Jersey State police, who is now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, hereon he provides his assessment of the present day use of SWAT teams, he says, “SWAT tactics are appropriate when you have a life and death situation, but they are being used when they simply are not necessary. When I was a detective, one partner and I would go and arrest people, when now they are calling in a whole SWAT team. Back then we did it better and did it quietly, without people getting hurt. I worked narcotics for 14 years, and we never used a SWAT team”(Cole). “SWAT deployments received enormous boost from the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program, which gives states federal money for drug enforcement” (Roberts). Balko offers, “the states then distribute the money to local police departments based on the number of drug arrests per agency “(Balko) The incentives from federal and local governments, coupled with the downturn of hostage and other dangerous occurrences, the now idle SWAT units became reinvented as the local police chiefs put their SWAT units on the front line of defense against drug abuse. The result has culminated in SWAT units serving warrants on drug users and pushers. According to Paul Craig Roberts, “SWAT teams serve warrants by breaking into homes and apartments at night when people are sleeping, often using stun grenades and other devices to disorient the occupants. As much of the information comes from professional informants known as “snitches” have dropped off police for cash rewards charges and shorter sentences, names and addresses are often taken out of the hat”(Roberts)

“In 1995 the Boston Globe profiled people who lived entirely off of the fees that they were paid as police informants. Snitches create suspects by selling small amounts of marijuana to a person who they subsequently report to the police as having medicines”(Roberts). Balko says, “an overwhelming number of erroneous raids take Place because police had relied on confidential informant information”(Balko). The National Law Journal concluded:“Criminals have been turned into instruments of law enforcement, while law enforcement officers have become co-conspirators”(NLJ) ‘Very few people understand the magnitude of what it means to have police go from impose drug laws on a paramilitary by conventional undercover operations approach where they gather together in heavy-armored squads and conduct crude investigations using search warrants to get inside people’s homes, this has not it happened before in the history of America, except when the military looked back for contraband” (Kraska).


Special weapons and Tactical teams started with the idea of protecting the well- being of police officers, as they carried out their duties of “serving and protecting” the public. The idea of being able to extract bad guys efficiently without mass mayhem and creating collateral damage, was the hallmark for the creation of the teams. Whether one is a promoter or detractor of the SWAT teams ‘ life, they will reach the same cord when confronted with the issue of the relevance of the teams continued existence. SWAT teams have done some questionable things, and they have accomplished many good things. Before we throw out the baby with the bath water, we must objectively assess the situation and ask the question.. Are we better off today with SWAT teams, than we were without them? This writer believes that we are definitely better off, and what’s needed is for considerable thought to be directed at how, these teams can be used easier when waiting for the day when they are on hold they’ll need to serve in the role they were originally designed for. It is commonly held that a good offense is better than a good defense, and we know that municipal police departments are left to their traditional philosophy and arsenal, are not equipped to handle the some of types of confrontations which the bad guys can concoct.

Works Cited
  • Balko, Robert, Boston Globe, 1995
  • Carlisle, T., Inside FBI SWAR, KTVU, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Civil Rights Act 1964
  • Cole, Jack, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
  • Development of SWAR, Wikipedia
  • Easterling Janice, SWAT Team Training
  • Equal Employment Opportunities Commission
  • Equal Employment Opportunities Act
  • Faxton, Denise, SWAT Team Training
  • Gates, Daryl, Chief My Life in the LAPD, Bantam Books, 1992
  • Jackman, Tom, A Tragedy of Errors, Washington Post, Novbember 25, 2006
  • Klinger, David, 12 year study of SWAT deployment, BBC
  • Kraska, Peter, Is It Being Used Too Much, Emergency News Service July 15, 1997, Vol 1 – 196
  • Los Angeles Police Department SWAT Report 1974
  • Macko, Steve, Is It Being Used Too Much?, Emergency News Service, July 15, 1997, Vol.1 – 96
  • Mikeska, Samantha, El Paso, Texas FBI SWAT
  • McNamara, Joseph, Hoover Institute Stanford University
  • National Law Journal
  • Robert, Paul, C., The Empire Turns It’s Guns on the Citizenry
  • Prussel, R., SWAT teams deployment
  • Snow, Robert, L., SWAT Team Explosive Face-off with Americas Deadliest Criminals
  • Viverette, Mary, National Tactics Officers Association
  • Winchester, Chief of Police, Fresno, California SWAT Team

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