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Police: Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Teams


Until the late 1960s police agencies throughout the United States responded to crisis or special threat situations—such as those involving barricaded gunmen and hostages—on an ad hoc basis, simply deploying as many officers as seemed appropriate to handle the situation in whatever way seemed appropriate at the time. This practice proved (tragically) ineffective several times during the tumultuous 1960s—such as when sniper Charles Whitman launched a murderous rampage in Austin, Texas, claiming forty-five victims in 1966—and police agencies began to develop specialized units to handle crisis situations in a systematic fashion. These specially equipped units were trained to employ tactics that would not typically be used in other realms of police work. Carrying armaments such as rifles and tear gas, and trained to work as a team to contain, control, and de-escalate the various crises they would be called to encounter, these units were christened Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Teams. Over the years, police agencies have assigned a variety of appellations—such as TAG (Tactical Action Group) and ERT (Emergency Response Team)—to their crisis response units, but the title commonly associated with these specialized units is SWAT.

Since their inception, SWAT teams across the United States have taken a variety of forms, have been organized in a variety of ways, and have been called upon to handle a variety of types of crisis and special threat situations. Some agencies employ full-time teams, while others structure their SWAT units as part-time entities wherein team members have a primary assignment in some other detail (e.g., patrol) and come together for training and crisis response, while still other agencies have teams that include both full- and part-time SWAT officers. Many larger agencies have their own SWAT team, while many smaller ones participate in multi-jurisdictional teams that include officers from several different agencies. SWAT teams may handle a myriad of assignments apart from hostage and barricaded subject situations. These chores include dignitary protection, responding to civil disturbances, stakeouts, and the service of search and arrest warrants in situations that pose a greater than normal risk of injury to the police. Indeed, the first major shootout involving a SWAT team in the United States occurred when a group of Los Angeles Police Department SWAT officers attempted to serve a warrant on the local headquarters of the Black Panther Party in December 1969.

Since the advent of SWAT in the late 1960s, the inventory of SWAT equipment has increased dramatically. Today the accouterments kept by these teams range from simple tools such as ladders and ropes to highly sophisticated surveillance and listening devices. In recent years, SWAT teams have added to their stores an array of nonlethal weapons, such as impact munitions (e.g., bean bags) that can be fired from shotguns and tear gas launchers, in order to capture combative subjects without severely injuring or killing them. In a related vein, the available evidence indicates that although contemporary SWAT teams are equipped with a variety of deadly weapons—including sniper rifles, submachine guns, and assault rifles—they rarely fire them outside of training. A recent study of forty SWAT units from agencies serving 250,000 or more people disclosed that these teams discharged firearms only in sixty-four of the several thousand incidents they handled from 1990 through 1996. Because the only shots fired in many of these sixty-four incidents were directed at nonhuman targets (such as vehicles and street-lights), it is apparent that the shooting of a citizen by a SWAT team is an extremely rare event.

This low rate of deadly force use may be at least partly attributable to the fact that early in the evolution of SWAT, verbal tactics emerged as a vital part of how the police sought to manage special threat situations. Rooted in the fundamental precept that most crises can be resolved by de-escalation, police agencies developed training programs to teach officers how to negotiate with hostile individuals, in hopes of talking them into surrender. Some agencies use SWAT team members as negotiators; others have separate negotiation units. Whatever the structuring of the tactical and negotiation components in a given agency, SWAT teams rely heavily on negotiations to help resolve special threat situations.

Despite the emphasis on trying to resolve crises peacefully, SWAT teams were involved in some mishaps during the 1990s. The two most notable cases both involved the F.B.I.'s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). In one instance, an HRT sniper mistakenly killed the wife of a fugitive at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. In the other, scores of citizens died within the walls of a religious compound near Waco, Texas, when the building caught fire as HRT agents in armored vehicles moved to insert tear gas into it.

Episodes such as these—coupled with a recent upswing in SWAT activity aimed at enforcing drug laws (primarily by serving search warrants)—have led to calls from some quarters to reform SWAT teams and operations. Critics charge that SWAT teams have become "militarized," affecting a combat footing that flows from the "war on drugs" rhetoric that has animated U.S. drug policy in recent years, and also from other cultural forces that foster military posturing. The critics further argue that there are simply too many SWAT teams, singling out those from smaller jurisdictions, which rarely experience the sorts of crises that SWAT was created to handle.

This critical clamor reflects the basic tension about police powers that has existed in the United States since the first urban police departments were instituted on the east coast during the middle of the nineteenth century. Americans have always feared that tyranny could arise from the government agencies they devised to protect them from criminal assault. One hundred fifty years ago this was fear of ill-equipped, poorly trained individual policemen. Today it is fear of well-trained teams of officers who possess the latest in social control technology. Thus, although SWAT teams possess special weapons and employ specialized tactics, they operate in the same culture of ambivalence as the rest of American law enforcement.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law