Former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, who died today at the age of 83, was a law enforcement leader with a special place of honor among tactical units.
Some mythology exists around the origins of LAPD SWAT. In one unconfirmed account, the department recruited its 20 top marksmen.
Gates' role in organizing and fostering one of the nation's first specialty tactical units can't be argued.
He may not have invented SWAT. Yet Gates was intricately involved in its creation, and like all great leaders in organizations who are presented with a great idea, he provided the push needed to get it implemented.
If anyone could be labeled as the "founder" of LAPD's SWAT unit, it would be John Nelson, a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran who joined the LAPD as a patrol officer. The LAPD's less-than-effective initial response to the racial tensions and rioting in Watts during the summer of 1965 led to the belief within the department that a special tactics team should be created, according to Glynn Martin, a former LAPD officer and executive director of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society.
"After the Watts riots in 1965, Chief Parker was looking at a more meaningful way to deal with crowd control and the civil unrest in that period," Martin tells POLICE Magazine. "The department looked at ways of doing this."
Nelson's military training helped, as did his visit to the Delano (Calif.) Police Department, which had created a specialist tactical unit to respond to the farm-worker protests led by Cesar Chavez at the time. The small town between Bakersfield and Fresno was using the unit effectively for crowd control.
The LAPD's savviest tactical officers would be recruited, yet Nelson's idea needed support within the chain of command. Gates, an inspector (a job title now known as commander) who had supervised patrol officers in Watts in 1965, jumped on the idea.
"This was the brainchild of John Nelson, but it took somebody with some rank and some chutzpah to champion it," said Martin. "And that's where Daryl Gates came in."
SWAT may have been conceived as a crowd-control unit; however, its early deployments began expanding its role to dignitary protection, barricaded suspects and hostage situations.
This evolution is also credited to Gates, Martin said.
The LAPD's first use of SWAT came with Operation Century '67, as tactical officers protected President Lyndon Johnson from protesters during a visit to the Century Plaza Hotel.
On Dec. 8, 1969, the department called on SWAT to help serve a warrant for illegal weapons at the Black Panther headquarters.
The heavily armed Black Panthers resisted and attempted to shoot it out with 40 SWAT officers. Thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired during a four-hour siege, resulting in the wounding of three Panthers and three officers. The Panthers eventually surrendered.
In 1971, SWAT officers are assigned to the Metro divison, bringing the unit from ancillary to full-time status.
The public became aware of SWAT in May of 1974, when a shoplifting incident at an Inglewood sporting goods store led investigators to a South Los Angeles home on 54th Street.
The Symbionese Liberation Army and heiress Patty Hearst, who were barricaded inside, exchanged gunfire with tactical officers for two hours before surrendering. Six SLA members were killed, as thousands of rounds of ammunition was used.
The incident, which unfolded on live television, brought home the usefulness of SWAT to Gates, who was the field commander of that incident, Martin said.
Greg Meyer, an LAPD officer from 1976 to 2006 who retired as captain of the police academy, said Gates was a personable leader whose embrace of SWAT and other innovations has secured his place among national law enforcement figures.
"He had this public persona as a tough guy," said Meyer, now the chairman of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society. "In person, he's a very warm and friendly guy. The LAPD under Gates was considered a leader in many law enforcement issues that were emulated in other areas."