During the approximately 160 years before SWAT, searches and raids were routinely conducted by “regular” police, either uniformed and/or detectives.

SWAT was created in the late 1960s to deal with the new deadly threat of snipers. However, it quickly became obvious that SWAT was ideally suited to conduct high-risk searches and raids, where the potential for violence was deemed high.

One of the earliest major SWAT raids was the 1969 LAPD SWAT raid on the Black Panther Party headquarters, which resulted in 3 SWAT officers shot and wounded before the Panthers surrendered. Around the same time in 1970, Chicago Police raided a Black Panther apartment and in the ensuing shootout, a Panther was killed. In Ohio, a Cleveland Police Tactical Unit raid on another Black Panther location resulted in a shootout that left a Tac Unit officer critically wounded.

From the start, one of SWAT’s primary functions has been high (and unknown) risk raids and searches. While many SWAT/Tactical teams have been conducting drug raids for decades, others began doing so in the 1980s with the nationwide explosion of crack cocaine and fortified “crack houses,” often guarded by armed individuals.

It could be said that a raid is a raid and a search is a search. However, that would be entirely wrong. The raid and search techniques and tactics of patrol officers differ from those of detectives. And the techniques and tactics of SWAT raids and searches are substantially different from those of both patrol officers and detectives.

Let’s look at the anatomy of a raid or search and let’s start at the beginning. Obtaining the arrest and/or search warrant is usually done by detectives, not SWAT. Detectives then determine whether to have SWAT conduct the warrant entry. When detectives handle their own warrants, they normally request a “uniform” presence as backup, to ensure the location occupants know it’s the police. One tactic common to detectives is the “foot in the door,” when an occupant opens the door slightly to talk, a detective discreetly places his/her foot as a door wedge to prevent it being closed.

When SWAT conducts raids and searches, SWAT is primary and conducts the entry, with detectives and uniforms as containment or standby. In essence, the warrant execution is turned over to SWAT, which turns the scene back over to detectives once it’s been secured. This is an arrangement not all non-SWAT officers are comfortable with.

In many agencies, SWAT rarely handles drug raids, except for the highest risk warrants. This is usually by design, and often by mutual agreement, particularly in agencies with “Tactical” Narcotic Teams (TNT).

I know of one large city SWAT team where half the team transferred to the newly formed TNT to continue doing drug raids. Meanwhile, the SWAT team was happy at no longer being burdened with nightly drug warrants, despite losing a number of their team members to TNT.

Sometimes, SWAT is only requested after a “close call”. Like the drug raid detectives in one city conducted. When they hit the door, they saw and chased the occupants, who were running up the stairs (to ditch drugs and guns). It wasn’t until the last detective was inside that he noticed a suspect behind the door holding an Uzi, trying to work the mechanism and shoot the detectives. The next search these detectives had, they requested SWAT to do the entry.

Different agencies and SWAT teams have very different ideas about who handles which warrants. Take high-risk warrants. What constitutes high-risk to one agency may not to the next. The definition and decision is left to individual agencies and SWAT teams.

There’s another category of raids and searches that is rarely talked about, but may actually constitute the majority of warrant services. And that is unknown risk, where intel is sketchy beyond the basic warrant information. Guns? Unknown. Fortifications? Unknown. Vicious dogs? Unknown. You get the picture, and you have likely encountered far more unknown risk searches and raids than ones with known risks.

In my opinion, SWAT needs to weigh all the known factors, along with previous intel regarding not only the specific location, but also the surrounding area. In Cleveland, we had any number of areas, including projects, that were “hostile” to police and had solid steel on steel doors and/or casings with multiple locking mechanisms. These were locations where despite specific intel, the area itself was a known danger to police, where shots fired, criminal drug activity, and lookouts were present 24/7.

In Part Two of our look at SWAT raids, we’ll look at how teams should prepare for such raids and searches.

Related Articles:

Prove SWAT's Necessity to Your Agency

The SWAT Approach to Searches and Raids

Searches and Raids in the Days Before SWAT


Robert O'Brien
Robert O'Brien

Robert O'Brien

A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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