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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

Police SWAT teams, when coming up against barricaded and dangerous criminals, also quickly learned that the better the equipment and technology they used, the better the results of their mission. The more intelligence they could gather, and the better their armament, the more likely their chances of success. Successful SWAT teams, therefore, began acquiring not just high- tech automatic weapons with laser sights and sound suppressors, but also the best in high-tech surveillance and intelligence gathering equipment, and the newest in nonlethal weaponry. SWAT teams began acquiring and using devices and equipment such as Laser Bugs that pick up sounds inside a site through a laser beam bounced off of a window, pinhole cameras, flashbangs, rubber impact cartridges, ballistic shields and dozens of other pieces of high- tech equipment.

"The equipment SWAT teams use today is many times more sophisticated than it was when I began in SWAT in the 1970s," Cal Black, former FBI SWAT commander and now security manager for the National Bank of Detroit. "Because of this high- tech equipment, the ability of SWAT teams has increased dramatically."

Along with ever- improving equipment, the evolution of police SWAT teams over the last 30 years has also seen a change in how the teams operate. After a number of early missions, police SWAT teams began learning that, if enough time passed, they could often persuade barricaded criminals and hostages takers to surrender peacefully. The firmest resolve, they discovered, would buckle after enough hours passed, and if presented with an honorable way to surrender, the barricaded criminal or hostage taker would often do so. This led to more and more use of hostage negotiators by SWAT teams.

Police commanders know that hostage negotiators and SWAT tactical officers require individuals with traits and talents that are dramatically different. Hostage negotiators must be able to sit and listen patently for hours, and must have the ability to verbally convince a perpetrator that surrender is in his best interest. Tactical officers, on the other hand, depend on speed, surprise and violence of action to resolve an incident. Because of this difference, in the first years of police SWAT teams, the hostage negotiators were often a unit separate from the SWAT team and called in only when needed. This, however, has changed. Today, in most SWAT teams, the hostage negotiators are an integral part of the team.

Hostage negotiators and tactical officers are now all part of one team because SWAT commanders have found through many incidents that, in order to achieve success, each one needs the other. Hostage negotiators need the tactical officers to contain and stabilize and incident before they can go to work, and the tactical officers need the hostage negotiators to peacefully resolve the incident once they have contained it.

Since their success so often depends on each other, hostage negotiators and tactical SWAT officers are not only part of one team, but today, many times they train together in order for each side to see how the other side works. In this way, they can complement and assist each other.

"By training together, you develop an appreciation of each other's mission," said Indianapolis Deputy Chief Jerry Barker, head of the department's hostage negotiators. "By training together, you also tend to gain a lot of insight into how each other operate," he says.

All of these changes and improvements over the last 30 years have changed police SWAT teams from being the loosely bound units they once were where their primary function was to charge in and forcibly overpower their opposition. Now they are teams of highly trained, well- equipped specialists who have a continuum of choices to use when confronting a high- risk incident. The scene on Elder Avenue, of 200 officers firing thousands of rounds with no plan, has become just a memory. While these types of crimes haven't gone away, the police now have proven and tested plans for handling them. In just a few decades, the dedicated men and women of SWAT have become one of law enforcement's greatest assets.

Robert L. Snow is a 20-year member of the Indianapolis Police Department and is the author of several books, including his latest, "SWAT Teams."

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