departments have a different job today compared to thirty years ago.
Not only are police required to serve and protect, they must also now
appease, socially and politically, the American public that they
serve. In particular, when the necessity for police in crisis events
arises, departments must still be sensitive to the opinions of the
public when employing their tactics. As a result, the current role of
the special weapons and training teams, or SWAT teams, used in these
crisis events has changed. Due to certain recent events and changing
public sentiment, police and its SWAT teams across the nation have
set aside traditional tactics . Police consequently has employed more
aggressive tactics in crisis events and because of this, police has
become more militarized in their procedures. This problem can have
chilling ramifications this new aggressive approach in police and
SWAT can lead, if unchecked, to the police becoming overly
problem can be further explored, a brief history of police SWAT teams
must be provided. The first specially trained police units were set
up by the New York Police Department in 1925. Called the Emergency
Service Unit, 60 heavily armed police officers worked on cases
involving criminal gangs and worked to combat the rapidly increasing
number of murders and robberies . In the 1960 s, the Los Angeles
Police Department started the SWAT trend when future police chief
Daryl Gates formed the first official Special Weapons and Tactics
team with the purpose of providing specialized and highly trained
police officers for assisting in the increasing number of heavily
armed, gang-related crimes . Team members received special weapons
training and learned how to handle police emergencies, including how
to rescue hostages . Other police and sheriffs departments saw the
success of the Los Angeles SWAT team, and formed their own teams.
Today, special training centers in the United States, such as the
North American SWAT Training Association (NASTA) and the
Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), train and organize many of the
nation s SWAT teams .
A new phenomenon
in today s society is the main reason why police SWAT teams have
taken a more aggressive approach. In the past few years, school
shootings have become a heated topic, culminating in the 1999 tragic
shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two
students armed with homemade bombs and semi-automatic guns entered
and wandered the school, firing indiscriminately. Twelve students and
a teacher were killed, and 23 other students were wounded. The first
911 call from Columbine came at 11:19 A.M.; nearly all the victims
were shot during the next seventeen minutes, according to a
reconstruction released a year later by the Jefferson County Sheriff
s Department. The report noted that a deputy sheriff was the first to
reach the scene at 11:23, four minutes after the call. However, the
first policemen to enter the school a five-man SWAT team, moving
cautiously did not enter until 12:06 P.M., 43 minutes after the first
officers arrived. The two shooters killed themselves at 12:08; some
of the wounded were not brought out until after 3:00. The teacher
reportedly died from loss of blood before paramedics could reach him.
Fifteen families of Columbine victims have filed lawsuits against
Jefferson County, claiming that lives could have been saved had
police entered the school sooner.
authorities across the country agree that Columbine was handled by
the book but that the book should be rewritten . Traditionally, the
police in the United States had employed a standard response when
confronted with armed suspects in schools, malls, banks, post
offices, and other heavily populated buildings. The first officers to
arrive never rushed in; instead they set up perimeters and controlled
the scene. They tried to contain the suspects, and called in a
rigorously trained SWAT team to keep the suspects pinned down, and
negotiated with them until they surrendered. SWAT teams stormed
buildings only when
save lives, such as when hostages were being executed one by one.
This sweeping change in police tactics variously called rapid
response, emergency response, or first-responder is direct result of
the events in Columbine . Larry Glick, the executive director of
NTOA, says that Columbine almost immediately became a seminal event
in the history of police training and tactics most of the nation s
17,000 police agencies have instituted new rapid-response training
programs in the past couple of years . An example of the new type of
training is as follows:
His ears ringing
from gunfire, his uniform damp with sweat, his breath labored and
acrid-tasting from the gunpowder in the air, Officer Larry Layman ran
heavily down a hallway toward an insistent pop-pop-pop. A gunman was
running through a school shooting children, and Layman was chasing
him. Layman rounded a corner, holding his gun in front of him with
two stiff arms, and stopped dead. The gunman stood facing him, with
an arm around a hostage s neck and a gun held to the hostage s head.
Drop your gun or I ll blow his head off! the gunman screamed. Layman,
a police officer for than half his fifty years, had been trained
always to drop his gun at a moment like this. Now he fired.
traditionally trained to help the wounded and evacuate bystanders.
Now they are trained to step over wounded, push bystanders towards
safety, and keep pursuing the suspects. Sergeant Jeff Adams, a
longtime SWAT team leader and trainer in Peoria, Illinois, says that
gunmen are less likely to fire at innocent bystanders if they are
shooting at pursuing police officers . So far rapid response training
has encountered very little public opposition. When law enforcement
agencies create SWAT teams, they often assure the public that the
squads will be used for hostage rescue and similar activities.
Unfortunately, there are not enough actual hostage takings to keep
the SWAT teams busy; as a result, the units have a tendency to look
for other tasks . According to a statistical study conducted by
criminal justice professor Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky
University in 1997, 90 percent of departments serving populations
over 50,000 have SWAT teams, as do 70 percent of those
populations between 25,000 and 50,000. SWAT units continue to
multiply, although violent crime has been plummeting for several
years. The lack of legitimate work for SWAT teams has resulted in the
SWAT mission likewise expanding and now includes routine police work
such as serving warrants (no-knock, dynamic drug raids) and street
This lack of
action accounts for another reason why SWAT teams have become more
militarized and aggressive. The illegal drug trade has recently
become an area in which SWAT missions have become more numerous.
Starting in 1981, a series of executive and congressional actions
brought together law enforcement and the military in the drug war .
Congress in 1981 created a drug exception to the 1878 Posse Comitatus
Act, which for a hundred years had kept the military out of law
enforcement. The Military Cooperation With Law Enforcement Officials
Act invited the military to provide equipment, training, and
facilities to civilian police. In 1989, President Bush created six
regional joint task forces in the Department of Defense (DOD) to
coordinate the activities of police and the military in the drug war.
In 1993 Congress told the military to make surplus equipment
available to civilian police for use in drug enforcement, which the
military has done free of charge. Between 1995 and 1997, the DOD
dispensed 1.2 million pieces of hardware to police to police
departments nation-wide, including 73 grenade launchers and 112
armored personnel carriers. For instance, the Pentagon bestowed 23
helicopters, two C-12 aircraft, seven M-16s, an armored personnel
carrier, and a bomb robot upon the rural Marion County, Florida
police department alone . As absurd as this sounds, the troubling
fact is the 600-plus M-16 automatic rifles (a weapon of warfare)
given out to the Los Angeles police department alone, the 7 given to
the tiny police department in Jasper, Florida (population, 2,000),
and the multitude that have gone out to hundreds of other police
departments across the nation . With this kind of
firepower, it becomes obvious that police departments, and SWAT teams
in particular, are being induced into an aggressive and militaristic
firepower combined with the lack of available missions for SWAT teams
has resulted in many questionable, even outrageous, incidents of
where SWAT teams are out of control. A highly publicized incident
involved the seizing of Elian Gonzalez in Miami, Florida in the
summer of 2000. Photographer Alan Diaz will earn a Pulitzer Prize for
taking the infamous picture of the federal agent clad in black,
military dress waving a machine gun at the terrified boy. That
picture horrified many Americans, but there s something even more
shocking. Similar events in which people are assaulted in their homes
by SWAT teams waving machine guns, spewing foul language, threatening
to shoot people, and devastating the house as a tactical measure
happen every day in the United States, usually without media
- A few years
ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a depressed 33-year old man, Larry
Harper, threatened to commit suicide, his frightened family called
the police. Nine men clad in military gear armed with automatic
rifles and stun grenades arrived. They followed Harper who had
committed no crime into a nearby park and through the woods, where
they found him hiding behind a tree. The SWAT sniper shot and killed
Harper from 43 feet away. The city has since disbanded its SWAT team
and hired a new police chief.
- In April 1996
the La Plata County, Colorado, SWAT unit stormed the 46-acre ranch of
Samuel Heflin in search of evidence related to a barroom brawl: a
cowboy hat, a shirt, and a pack of cigarettes. In the process, SWAT
members forced down to the ground at gunpoint an 8-year old boy and a
14-year old playing basketball, and then followed the Heflins
screaming 4-year old daughter into the house with a laser-sighted
weapon aimed at her back. Once inside, the SWAT members ordered the
family to lie face down. When Heflin asked for a search warrant, he
was told to shut the f— up. The Heflin s civil suit is still in
Accelyne Williams was a substance abuse counselor in a poor
neighborhood in Boston. One evening in 1994, he was visited in his
apartment by a substance abuser that also happened to be an
undercover informant in the pay of the Boston police. Later, the
informant tried to direct the police SWAT team to the address of a
drug dealer in the apartment above Rev. Williams. However, the police
misread the informant s floor plan as directing them to the Reverend
s apartment. Armed with the search warrant, however, and plenty of
into Rev. Williams apartment, screamed obscenities at him, chased him
into his bedroom, shoved him to the floor, and handcuffed him while
pointing guns at his head. The Reverend promptly died of a heart
- In September
1999 in Denver, Colorado, Ismael Mena was shot dead in his home
during an invasion by a SWAT team. The officers were acting on the
basis of a search warrant claiming that $20 worth of crack cocaine
had been sold in Mena s home. In fact, the confidential informant had
given them the wrong address.
- In the 1980 s,
violent home invasions under the pretext of drug-enforcement became
routine. In 1988, Los Angeles police officers broke into four
apartments on Dalton Avenue; the apartments were suspected to be
crack dens, but in fact were not. The officers who participated in
the raid have since been promoted.
These are only
more of the extreme cases of excessive police and SWAT use of force.
However, if continued unchecked, the aggressive and militaristic
nature of the tactics and attitudes of police will only grow, and
these examples will become only a few in an ever-growing trend. A
warrior mentality has no place in law enforcement; it should instead
continue to stress the protection of constitutional rights and basic
human rights. As SWAT teams adopt the ways of the military and become
more common in law enforcement, we need to ask ourselves: to what
ends will we let the police and SWAT go before the need to regulate
Harper, pg. 1
Green, pg. 7-8
iii Dave Kopel,
pg. 1 and Green, pg. 10-11
iv Green, pg. 11
v Green, pg. 11
Harper, pg. 1-2
vii Harper, pg.
viii Harper, pg.
ix Harper, pg. 2
x Harper, pg. 1
xi Harper, pg. 4
xii Kopel, pg. 2
xiii Diane C.
Weber, pg. 2
xiv Weber, pg. 1
xv Weber, pg. 2
xvi Weber, pg. 2
xvii Kopel, pg.
xviii Weber, pg.
xix Weber, pg. 3
xx Kopel, pg. 2
xxi Kopel, pg. 2
xxii Kopel, pg.
SWAT Teams. Capstone Press: New York, NY. 1998
Shoot to Kill. The Atlantic Monthly Online: October, 2000
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