The concept of a police tactical unit inspired by military special forces units makes some people uncomfortable. Newspaper and magazine columnists use SWAT as an example of how American law enforcement has become too violent, too paramilitary in nature. Activists like to paint SWAT as storm troopers. And in TV programs and movies, SWAT is portrayed as a group of cowboys who shoot first and ask questions later or ninjas who kill without mercy.
This disdain for SWAT is nothing new.
When Daryl Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department started championing the idea of an elite police unit based on elite military units back in the late 1960s, his superiors were less than enthused. They were especially unhappy about what Gates wanted to call the new unit: "Special Weapons and Assault Team." They didn't like the idea of a police "assault" team, so they compromised on the name, hence "Special Weapons and Tactics."
Not much has changed. LAPD brass is still trying to mold SWAT into a softer, gentler special unit that won't offend the politically correct sensibilities of community activists. But now for one of the few times in its distinguished history, SWAT is actually vulnerable to such pressure.
LAPD SWAT is probably the nation's most storied municipal police unit. This is the unit that slugged it out with the Black Panther Party, that ended the crime spree of the Symbionese Liberation Army in a fiery shootout, that inspired a hit TV show in the mid-1970s. It is made up of arguably the toughest, most athletic, most tactically savvy officers on the LAPD. It is also the law enforcement tactical team that serves as the model for most of the nation's other law enforcement teams.
Therefore, if you want to assess the state of SWAT nationwide, you have to begin with LAPD SWAT. And LAPD SWAT is currently a unit under fire.
LAPD SWAT was, until recently, in the eyes of many people, a unit composed of invincible heroes. After all, the team had never accidentally killed a hostage during a rescue and had never had an officer killed in action. But even heroes have bad days when fortune doesn't shine on them, and no human being is truly invincible.
LAPD SWAT has had some really bad days in the last three years and it now has killed a hostage and lost a team member—Officer Randall Simmons—in action. Consequently, the unit is vulnerable to the whims of the department's brass, starting with Chief William Bratton.
Board of Inquiry
SWAT's trouble began on a summer Sunday in 2005. On that day auto body shop owner Jose Raul Pena snorted a load of cocaine and barricaded himself into his south Los Angeles business with a 9mm Glock and his 19-month-old daughter, Suzie Marie. Shots were fired, SWAT was called, and a standoff began. It ended when a SWAT entry team attempted a daring rescue of the little girl under withering fire from her father, who was using her body as a shield. During the intense gunfight Suzie Marie Pena was shot and killed by a SWAT officer. One of the officers was also seriously wounded in the battle. It was a bad day.
And as often happens with bad days involving the Los Angeles Police Department, community activists got up in arms claiming that SWAT's "aggressive tactics" had resulted in the toddler's death. Oh, and the girl's mother sued the city.
Shortly after this incident, Chief Bratton convened a board of inquiry, reportedly composed mostly of lawyers, to review SWAT's operation. The board's report has yet to be released in any official capacity, except as an executive summary. And when you read the complete version that leaked to the Los Angeles Times and to local radio station KFI last fall, the reason that it was never released is quite apparent: It's explosive.
Bratton empanelled a board that was clearly uncomfortable with the very concept of SWAT, its "elitism," its "insularity," and its "military mindset" with one motive: to remake the team.
On page three of the report, Bratton gives the board its marching orders. "I'm looking to create change in SWAT." So at that point the board had already reached a conclusion, something is wrong with SWAT. Let's overhaul it.
That's a strange conclusion when you consider that SWAT is arguably the most successful unit in LAPD history. Between its founding in 1971 and 2005 (the last year of complete statistics), the unit has been involved in 3,371 incidents; 83 percent of these were resolved without "untoward incident." The statistics show that LAPD SWAT is clearly not broken, so why is Bratton so fired up about fixing it?
Retired Cleveland SWAT commander and PoliceMag.com SWAT columnist Robert J. O'Brien believes that Bratton wants to remake LAPD SWAT in the image of the NYPD's tactical teams. "Bratton [former commissioner of the NYPD] brings with him an East Coast mentality about how fundamentally things should be done. I believe he held off taking on SWAT until something happened and the Pena incident created the opportunity for him to do this."
The Good Stuff
The report is way too complex to address every one of its recommendations in this article. And some parts of it are fair criticism and suggest policy changes that some of the SWAT experts we contacted say are long overdue.
For example, retired LAPD SWAT sergeant Ron McCarthy applauded its recommendation that the team prohibit the use of full-automatic fire during operations. McCarthy says there's really no reason he can think of for a SWAT entry team to engage in fully automatic fire.
Other recommendations thought of as generally acceptable ideas by one or more of the SWAT experts that we contacted included:
- Establishing a program to train designated critical incident commanders
- Improved digital record keeping with integration into Compstat reports
- More training in how to negotiate with the mentally ill
- Placing sergeants in command of entry teams rather than senior officers
- And using SWAT on more crime suppression details