In 1967 the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) became the nations first law enforcement agency to form a elite tactical unit within its ranks. Since its inception the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) Team has stood ready to respond to situations that were beyond the capabilities of normally equipped and trained Department personnel.
The special weapons and tactics concept originated during the late 1960s. At this time the US was in a state of turmoil with violent antiwar, antigovernment protests, and race riots occurring on an almost daily basis. Racial tension was at an all time high, and subversive organizations and criminals were striking at the government facilities, injuring innocent civilians, and committing crimes with what some considered impunity. During many of these incidents local law enforcement officers found themselves the targets of sniper attacks. With many of these incidents occurring in Los Angeles, the LAPD leadership decided to study the problem, and hopefully come up with a viable solution.After conducting an examination of how each incident was handled by law enforcement, the LAPD leadership realized that an effective response to these situations was virtually nonexistent. Realizing that a new approach to these dangerous situations was needed, Officer John Nelson conceived and presented the special weapons and tactics concept to an inspector named Darryl F. Gates. Gates, a rising star within the LAPD, recognized the need for a force of highly disciplined officers utilizing special weapons and tactics, concurred and approved the concept, and ordered the formation of the new unit.
The first Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) Unit consisted of 15 four-man teams. The teams were composed of volunteers drawn from patrol and other more specialized assignments. All of the volunteers had specialized police experience and prior military service. Each unit was activated for monthly training, or when the need for special weapons personnel arose. These units, known as "station defense teams," provided security for police facilities during civil unrest. A good portion of the initial training centered on regaining control of the city in the event of a major disturbance, with officers practicing covert movement through the city's extensive network or sewers.
SWAT's first major challenge came in December of 1969. On December 9th, LAPD officers tried to serve search warrants for illegal weapons at the Black Panther Headquarters at 41st and Central Streets. The Black Panthers resisted, firing on the officers with shotguns and automatic weapons. During the course of the four hour battle, over 200 LAPD officers and six Black Panthers fired thousands of rounds of ammunition at each other. The Panthers were finally forced to surrender to SWAT officers, but only after three Panthers and three police officers were wounded.
After the shoot-out the LAPD leadership took a look at its tactical program and came to some interesting conclusions. One the main problems identified was the continued difficulty of mustering a team response in a timely manner. So in 1971, the SWAT personnel were assigned on a full-time basis to Metropolitan Division ("Metro") to help eliminate some of the problems posed by having a part time tactical team scattered throughout the various divisions of the Department. Metropolitan Division, which had a long-established reputation as the tactical unit of the Department, was organized into "A", "B" and "C" Platoons. The Special Weapons And Tactics Unit was given the designation of "D" Platoon, and at the same time formally adopted the acronym SWAT (* Note- The acronym originally stood for Special Weapons Assault Team, but the name was dropped in favor of the more familiar term as "Attack" was considered to controversial*). This was a watershed event in SWAT history, as Old SWAT became new SWAT a full fledged dedicated tactical unit operating within the Department's Metro Division.
On the afternoon of May 17, 1974, a group of heavily armed terrorists known as the Simbianese Liberation Army (SLA), barricaded themselves in a house on East 54th Street at Compton Avenue. The entire event was broadcast live via television and radio, and chronicled in the world press for days after the event. Three SWAT squads, and several hundred other officers descended on the home hoping to get the SLA members to peacefully surrender. Appeals to surrender were made on 26 separate occasions. After the initial 18 appeals were met with deaf ears, tear gas was introduced in a final effort to flush the suspects out of the house, to which the SLA responded with responded with bursts of gunfire. During the initial burst of return fire from the police, all six members of the SLA were wounded by gunfire. The police called for barricaded SLA gunmen to surrender an additional 10 time during the course of the gun battle with out success. The suspects refused to leave the house, firing 3,772 rounds at the police and anyone else who happened to be in the area. Despite the heavy volume of fire no bystanders or police officers were injured by gunfire. The suspects, however, were not so lucky. During the battle a fire had erupted inside the house. All six of the suspects eventually perished from their gunshot wounds or in the ensuing blaze. After this incident SWAT once again came under scrutiny. Admission standards were tightened and training was geared toward avoiding similar incidents inthe future. Today both the Black Panther and SLA incidents are remembered by SWAT, with the numbers 41 and 54 appearing on the team's unofficial patch.
SWAT's next major challenge was preparing for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. The games were scheduled to take place throughout the Los Angeles area, and the city was considered a prime target for terrorist activity. After a through assessment of the situation, Department and SWAT Team leaders recognized the need to develop skills that did not yet exist within the LAPD SWAT Team or any other civilian tactical unit at this that time.
As a result of this decision, in 1983, the Department sent three SWAT supervisors to Europe to evaluate and develop the training techniques employed by such famed military counter-terrorist and hostage rescue units as Germany's GSG-9, France's GIGN and the British 22nd SAS Regiment. The Department then implemented a rigorous and difficult training program with one goal in mind - to develop a hostage rescue capability within the LAPD SWAT Team.
Each SWAT officer received well over 2,000 hours of training while developing this new capability. While the Olympic Games were in progress SWAT officers worked a 24 hours on/24 hours off work scheduled, while conducting training exercise to help maintain the edge they needed in case of an incident. The 19 day event passed with out incident and helped raise SWAT's standards to a new level.
In 1992 Los Angeles once again became the center of world attention. Four LAPD officers had been found not guilty of using excessive force in the arrest of drunk driving suspect Rodney King. Once the verdict was announced by both local and national media, the city rapidly began to take on the look of a third world war zone. The sheer size of dealing with the growing level of violence and anarchy developing in the streets became overwhelming. LAPD responded, along with other area law enforcement agencies as best they could, with a massive deployment of officers. Included in this response was the SWAT platoon. SWAT acted as a mobile fire brigade rushing to assist units in trouble, and to regain control of areas that were under all-out assault by rampaging mobs of rioters.
On February 28, 1997 the LAPD SWAT team became involved in one of the most violent incidents in US law enforcement history. Two heavily armed men, both professional bank robbers and career criminals, entered a bank located in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles with the intention of robbing it. Unknown to both men was the fact that they were spotted by LAPD officers, who immediately requested assistance. As the two attempt to exit the building they discovered they were now surrounded by police. They immediately began firing on the officers and bystanders in an attempt to break out and escape. Three civilians and nine officers were shot within the first five minutes of the shoot-out, and a total of 350 officers were eventually called to the scene.
During the course of the fire-fight the suspects fired an estimated 1,110 rounds from three fully automatic AK-47s, a .223 fully automatic Bushmaster rifle, a .308 semiautomatic H&K and a semiautomatic 9mm Beretta handgun. One squad car sustained 57 hits. A sidewalk kiosk, used for cover by officers on the scene, was hit 150 times. As police bullets bounced off the suspects, it became evident that the two men werewearing body armor and had the police outgunned with their armor piercing bullets and semiautomatic weapons. Upon hearing of the ensuing battle, SWAT units from both the LAPD the LA County Sheriff's Department responded. After engaging in what had become a protracted gun battle with the police, and with SWAT units now closing in on them from all sides, it became clear to the gunmen that there was to be no escape. One of the suspects chose to commit suicide rather then be taken into custody. Members of the LAPD SWAT Team eventually shot the second suspect, who bled to death while awaiting medical attention. A total of seven civilians and eleven LAPD officers were injured during the battle.
Before a prospective applicant can volunteer for SWAT he must first gain entrance into the Metro Division. To get accepted into Metro the applicant must pass a stringent physical, through records review, and an oral interview. New Metro recruits are then placed on a six month probationary period to allow supervisors gage their performance in the field.
When operating at full strength D platoon is composed of 67 officers, commanded by a lieutenant. The platoon is broken down into six 11 man squads, with each squad being commanded by a sergeant. Each squad is divided into 2 five man elements, with each element commanded by a senior officer. Sixteen members of the team are trained as snipers. The snipers provide fire support to the team and conduct intelligence gathering during operations.
Since acquiring its initial hostage rescue capacity, the LAPD SWAT Team has been responsible the safe rescue of numerous hostages. To keep these skills sharp the team regularly conducts live fire training exercises. Abandoned buildings are used for the exercises, with fellow team members acting as hostages, and dummies simulating the hostage takers. During other training scenarios team members act as terrorist giving the team a living, breathing opponent who they must react to.
The LAPD SWAT Team regularly conducts training with a virtual who's who of both the civilian and military counter terrorist world. Some of the units they have worked with include the US Navy's DEVGRU (formally SEAL Team 6), the US Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment- Delta ("Delta Force"/ Combat Applications Group-CAG), The FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and many other elite military and tactical units from across the globe.
The LAPD SWAT Team has always been on the cutting edge technology when it comes to equipment, and it shows in the arsenal. They were the first US team to adopt the MP-5 9mm SMG, and they were also the first team attach tactical lights to their weapons. The current batch of weapons available to SWAT include the Colt .45 1911 pistol ( Note* This pistol is only carried by officers assigned to SWAT, and is also used when they are performing other duties*) , the MP-5 9mm SMG, Benelli M1 Super 90 and Benelli M1 121 12 gauge shotguns, M-16A2 and CAR-15 5.56mm assault rifles, Remington 700 .308 cal sniper rifles, HK GSG1 7.62mm sniper rifles, Robar .308 and .223 Special Marksman sniper rifles. other weapons available include diversionary/distraction devices ("Flash Bangs"), riot control/chemical agents (CN- tear gas, CS- OC "pepper gas"), 37 mm gas guns, and explosives (used only for breaching purposes).
When on a call out SWAT operators wear dark blue flame resistant uniforms, Kevlar "Fritz" style ballistic helmets, and Point-Blank Tac vests with built in throat mikes. Additional ceramic plates are available for insert into the vest (*unlike most tactical units LAPD SWAT does not use ballistic shields*). SWAT officers carry all of their assigned equipment with them in unmarked patrol cars allowing them to rapidly respond to any incident.
Each year SWAT responds to approximately 80 barricaded suspect incidents, and serves over 50 high-risk warrants arresting scores of violent suspects in the process. Today, the LAPD SWAT Team is known worldwide as one of the foremost police tactical units in law enforcement.