Special weapons and tactical units, known as SWAT teams, were first conceived in the late 1960s. Violence was escalating in the United States, and incidents such as the Watts Riots in Los Angeles and the tower shooting at the University of Texas prompted police departments to examine their responses to sniper and hostage situations. The Los Angeles Police Department decided to implement as special group of highly trained officers to form SWAT.
Los Angeles police officer John Nelson approached inspector Darryl Gates with the idea of creating a special unit to handle high-risk situations such as sniper fire. Gates approved the concept, and 15 divisions of four men each were established and collectively called Platoon D. Joining was done voluntarily, and included officers from various ranks within the force that had prior military experience.
Gates originally chose the name to be "Special Weapons Assault Team." Deputy police chief Ed Davis, who thought the name sounded too much like a military operation met this with disapproval. The name "Special Weapons and Tactics" was adopted.
The first SWAT mission occurred on Dec. 9, 1969. Tactical officers served search warrants for illegal weapons at the Black Panther Headquarters in Los Angeles. The Panthers resisted, and a four-hour battle between 40 SWAT members and the rebel group ensued. Three officers and three Panther operatives were wounded in the action.
The Symbionese Liberation Army
On May 17, 1974, six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) barricaded themselves in a Los Angeles home with a stash of weapons. Live television broadcasted the crisis on national television, as the police tried negotiation and tear gas to quell the situation. The SLA members would not back down and fired over 3,000 rounds of semi-automatic and automatic ammunition. During the battle, a fire broke out inside the home, killing the guerrillas. No officers or citizen bystanders were injured in the stand off.
After the confrontation with the SLA, the Los Angeles Police Department issued a lengthy release to the public. On page 109, the document stated SWAT's purpose: "The purpose of SWAT is to provide protection, support, security, firepower, and rescue to police operations in high personal risk situations where specialized tactics are necessary to minimize casualties."
SWAT teams have been developed all over the world, implemented on all six inhabited continents. Although many are known by different names such as Special Response Units, most are based on the LAPD's model. The scope of SWAT has increased to dealing with countering terrorism, and training patrol officers on how to handle extremely volatile situations.
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