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The Birth and Evolution of the SWAT Unit

Over the past 30 years, SWAT has evolved from an unheard- of concept to being an integral part of every police department.

April 01, 1997  |  by Robert L. Snow

On June 30, 1954, Janie Ellis, the wife of a former mental patient, called the police in Indianapolis. She said she needed help right away at her house on Elder Avenue.

Between heavy gasps for breath, she told the dispatcher that she had come home and found her husband, Howard, beating one of their five foster children. When she attempted to stop him, she said he went crazy and tried to kill her with a knife.

In excited tones, she described how she had fought with her husband as he attempted to stab her, and how, after biting him hard enough to make him drop the knife, she had managed to escape out the back door and flee to a neighbor's house. After listening to Ellis' story and finding that Howard was still in the house and possibly holding several of the foster children hostage, the police dispatcher sent two officers to the scene.

Arriving a few minutes later at the neighbor's house, Officers Chris Greenwood and Robert Bates listened to Ellis' story and assured her that everything would be OK. They then walked with her back to her house to speak with her husband. As they approached the house, however, Howard fired a shotgun out the window at them, striking his wife in the leg. The officers, stunned for a moment, grabbed her and raced for cover. While on officer attended to the woman's wounds and the other called police headquarters for more help, Howard began barricading himself inside his house.

Within minutes, dozens of police officers began arriving, but because of the possibility that some of the foster children were hostages, they held their fire, even though Howard shot repeatedly at them. When it was discovered, however, that all of the children had escaped and the gunman was in the house alone, the officers began returning fire. Over the next 2 ½ hours, more than 200 officers responded to the scene and fired more than 10,000 rounds into the rickety, wood- frame house where the former mental patient, armed only with a rifle and shotgun, was holed up. During this period, Howard shot at and hit any officer foolish enough to expose himself.

Although common today, this type of incident was rare in 1954. Consequently, the police had no plan for handling it. No one at the scene, including a number of high- ranking officials who answered the call, seemed to know what to do other than continue to fire at the house. Several times during the standoff, the officers thought they had finally hit the gunman, but more shots came from inside and another officer would fall.

Finally, several officers decided to go in after Howard. Using an armored car as cover, the officers forced their way into the rear of the house where they found the gunman completely untouched by the thousands of rounds. He leaped out from behind a heavy bookcase and fired at the officer, but luckily, he missed. The officers returned fire and hit him with shots from a Thompson submachine gun, a shotgun and a revolver. Refusing to fall, though struck by a dozen bullets, he ducked back behind the bookcase, reloaded his shotgun, and jumped out again. The officers escaped being killed only because his shotgun jammed when he pulled the trigger. The officers fired 26 bullets into Howard, who feel dead to the floor.

The heavy human toll of this incident and the enormous expense in manpower and equipment, sent a message to some people in government that the police department was presently ill- equipped to handle such a high- risk incidents. Requiring 200 officers and over 10,000 rounds of ammunition to neutralize one man demonstrated a significant weakness in police preparedness.

The headline of the Indianapolis Star on July 2, 1954 read: "Big Gun Battle Prompts Plans For Riot Squad." The article told of the city's plans, in the aftermath of the Elder Avenue shoot- out, to form a team of specially trained and equipped officers to deal with situations like this. Board of Public Safety President Paul J. Schick says: "There were too many police at the scene and they were not deployed to the best advantage. Our police force has neither the equipment nor the training to handle effectively such a situation."

However, the special team never materialized. In 1954, events such as the shoot-out on Elder Avenue simply didn't occur often enough to justify the expense of creating and maintaining a special unit. And true to what the critics said of the idea, nothing of this scale occurred again for some time. It would be more than a decade later before a similar incident finally forced America's police departments to recognize their vulnerability and unpreparedness.

Tags: Police History


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