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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 Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman took up a position on the observation deck of the clock tower building at the University of Texas in Austin. He had with him a trunk full of weapons and ammunition. For 90 minutes, from his perch atop the 32-story tower, he randomly shot 46 people, killing 15 of them.

The Austin police in 1966, however, like the Indianapolis police in 1954, had no plan for handling such an incident. So for 90 minutes, they responded to his deadly attack with ineffective gunfire from the ground. Finally, after watching person after person fall from Whitman's bullets, several officers came up with a plan to use a tunnel system that ran under the campus to slip undetected into the clock tower building. Putting this plan into action, four men managed to get into the clock tower building and up to the observation deck unnoticed by Whitman. Once on the observation deck, two officers engaged ina gun battle and killed him.

While the police in Austin eventually succeeded in neutralizing Whitman, the toll he extracted in human lives and suffering, like the toll in Indianapolis, was unacceptably high. For 90 minutes the police did not know what to do and consequently, were unable to stop the slaughter. In addition, the plan that finally did succeed in stopping Whitman was developed on the scene and depended too much on luck. This highly publicized incident finally convinced America's police chiefs that they could no longer depend on seat-of-the-pants planning.

"Special weapons and tactics teams moved into a new era after Charles Whitman climbed into a tower on the first day of August 1966," says Lt. Sid Heal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in an article in The Tactical Edge. "This marked the birthday of the modern police SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams concept."

Agreeing in his book, "A Guide to the Development of Special Weapons and Tactics Teams," retired Captain John A. Kolman, who is also of the Los Angeles sheriff's department, says, "Prior to 1966, few, if any, law enforcement agencies staffed specialized teams to deal with armed, barricaded suspects. Generally speaking, these assignments were left to the uniformed patrol officer who may or may not have been prepared or equipped to resolve the matter."

It wasn't the tower sniper incident alone, however, that finally convinced America's police departments that SWAT teams were needed. Other events occuring across the country also had their breath. In 1966, America's inner cities were seething with racial tension and many were poised to explode into mindless violence. In addition, the anitwar movement had recently grown in such numbers and restlessness that America seemed on the verge of plunging into chaos with violence coming from any direction. The incident in Austin was the final impetus America's police chiefs needed. They knew the violence that had wracked other communities could explode in theirs at any moment. They needed to be ready.

They needed SWAT teams.

Early SWAT

One of the first police departments to form a SWAT team, the Los Angeles Police Department, is also believed to be the first police department in the United States to use the acronym SWAT. This unit, formed soon after the Texas tower sniper incident, met with several early successes, including operations against the Black Panthers in 1969 and the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973. The demonstration of what a specially trained and equipped unit could accomplish, encouraged police departments that had been hesitant, to embrace this new concept and form their own SWAT teams. It didn't take long for these police departments to discover the worth of their investments because they quickly found that the high- profile criminal acts, which had previously been occurring in someone else's community, now suddenly began spreading to theirs.

While previous to the 1960s, events such as the Elder Avenue shoot-out occurred only once a decade or so in a community, the Texas tower sniper incident became a watershed in the history of American crime. Suddenly, any highly publicized crime in one part of the country resulted in copycat crimes in other parts. For example, during the 10 years or so following the 1971 hijacking of Northwest Orient Flight 305 out of Portland, Ore., aircraft hijacking became an almost daily occurrence. Then, once police departments learned how to respond successfully to hijackings and they faded in number, hostage- taking became the high-profile crime of choice, which, in turn, was followed by mass killings at post offices and fast food restaurants, and heavily armed criminals shooting it out with police. All of these high- risk events and their copycat offshoots called for more and more use of SWAT teams.

Growing Need for SWAT

This rapid increase in the number of high- risk crimes naturally had an effect on police SWAT teams. Many of the early teams, formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, began as small units serving only in an on-call status. These teams carried equipment just a little better than the average street cop carried, and their mission often consisted of simply using brute force to overpower criminal opposition. However, the rapid growth in the number and scope of spectacular and high- risk crimes soon changed this. In the 1980s and 1990s, police SWAT teams began growing in size and many became permanent, full- time units.

"Our team is half again as large today as it was in the 1980s," said Lt. Stephen Robertson, tactical commander for the Indianapolis Police Department SWAT team. "And we've now had to go to full-time status because our call outs have increased so dramatically."

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