It's Our Duty to Study and Preserve SWAT History

Compared to military history's thousands of years, law enforcement's 200 years and SWAT's 40 years are a mere blink of the eye in time. Perhaps this accounts for the stark contrast between how the military and police view their respective histories.

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Compared to military history's thousands of years, law enforcement's 200 years and SWAT's 40 years are a mere blink of the eye in time. Perhaps this accounts for the stark contrast between how the military and police view their respective histories.

Today, even Military history is widely studied. Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," which was written more than 2,000 years ago is still held in great regard by students of warfare. In contrast law enforcement takes the attitude that if it happened yesterday, it's already "old news." And if it happened 40 years ago, it's "ancient history," and doesn't pertain to today's fast-paced, changing world.

But I ask this of every cop who reads this treatise: How can we learn from our history if we don't study it in the first place?

The military learns from history, while law enforcement has no time for such trivial pursuits. There are numerous respected law enforcement academies in the U.S. that teach "almost" everything under the sun related to police work. Everything except the history of law enforcement operations.

However, I see SWAT as a beacon of light when it comes to learning from history. I believe that we in SWAT because of our concerns about strategy and tactics are interested in the history of tactical police team operations.

The following is a brief topical overview of a few SWAT/Tactical incidents of the past 40 years. Each of these incidents had a major impact on their respective agencies, regions, and, in some cases, the entire nation. I would recommend that you study them.

1966: University of Texas Tower Sniper in Austin. 14 killed (including 1 officer), many wounded. Suspect killed by police. The catalyst for the LAPD creating the first SWAT team.

1968: Glenville Shootout/Riot in Cleveland, Ohio. 7 killed (3 police, 1 civilian assisting police, 3 Black Nationalists). Numerous police wounded,  4th officer died years later from wound sustained during the action. Major riot erupted after the shootout.

1969: LAPD SWAT Black Panther Headquarter Raid/Shootout. 3 SWAT officers wounded. First major LAPD SWAT engagement against heavily fortified/armed suspects.

1973: Howard Johnson Hotel Sniper in New Orleans. 3 police killed (Another officer killed by gunman prior to incident). Sniper eventually killed by police who shot him from a helicopter gunship.

1974: LAPD SWAT SLA Shootout. 6 heavily armed SLA killed. No police killed.

1974: East Cleveland Ohio Hostage Situation/Shootout. 5 police, 1 hostage wounded, 2 more police injured. Armored Rescue Vehicle used for rescues. 3 heavily armed suspects arrested.

1988: Detroit PD Hostage Incident. 2 police (including SRT Officer) killed. Suspect killed. Command interfered with SRT tactics.

1993: ATF Branch Davidian Raid/Shootout in Waco, Texas. 4 ATF SRT agents killed, many more wounded. A number of Davidians killed. Turned into one of the longest, deadliest barricade sieges in law enforcement history.

1997: North Hollywood Bank Robbery Shootout in Los Angeles. In 44 minute firefight 2 heavily armed suspects wearing body armor killed, 11 police wounded. SWAT killed one of the robbers as he tried to escape.

1999: Columbine High School Massacre in Littleton, Colo. 15 students/teachers killed. 2 suspects committed suicide. Changed law enforcement/SWAT active shooter tactics nationwide to rapid deployment, immediate intervention.

2003: Case Western Reserve University Active Shooter in Cleveland, Ohio. 1 student killed. SWAT on scene in 10 minutes, engaged suspect in 7 hour "cat and mouse" running gun battle, finally wounding and arresting suspect.

2007: Virginia Tech University Active Shooter. Shooter killed 32 students before committing suicide as police/SWAT closed in. Police responded in 9 minutes.

Although there is no formal "SWAT University," SWAT is far ahead of the curve when it comes to learning lessons from past incidents. This is because debriefs and critiques are standard procedure throughout SWAT. In essence we are learning from our own history as it happens.

As for our early history, we are in the fortunate position of having access to the participants. Modern military historians can't talk to Greek soldiers who lived in 460 B.C. and fought in the Peloponnesian War.  But most of the officers involved in even the earliest SWAT situations are still around to tell their stories. A prime example is the outstanding special I recently saw on the Military Channel about the 1974 LAPD SWAT SLA Shootout, complete with insightful commentary from highly respected retired LAPD SWAT Sergeants/team leader participants Ron McCarthy and Al Preciado.

We in SWAT need to become students of our own history and learn as we go. And maybe over time, the lessons we learn and share with each other will be passed down to future generations of SWAT who will study them the same as the military studies its history. Maybe someday the SLA, Waco, Glenville, and other SWAT shootouts will be required study for future SWAT officers.

We also need to remember that we are living the history of SWAT as it happens and be as thorough in our debriefs and critiques as possible. The lessons we learn today may save the lives of SWAT officers generations from now.

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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