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A SWAT squad is a law enforcement organization in the United States that employs specialized or military equipment and techniques. Although SWAT teams were initially established in the 1960s to deal with riots and violent encounters with criminals, their number and use grew in the 1980s and 1990s during the War on Drugs and subsequently in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. SWAT teams were deployed 50,000 times a year in the United States in 2005, over 80% of the time to service search warrants, the majority of which were for drugs. SWAT teams are increasingly outfitted with military-style equipment and trained to respond to terrorist threats, crowd control, hostage crises, and other scenarios that are judged “high-risk” by standard law enforcement. Other countries have created paramilitary police units (PPUs) that are similar to or interchangeable with SWAT teams.
Automatic and specialized weaponry, such as submachine guns, assault rifles, riot shotguns, sniper rifles, riot guns, riot control agents, smoke, and stun grenades, are frequently used by SWAT teams. They may also utilize specialized equipment like as heavy body armor, ballistic shields, access tools, armored vehicles, thermal and night vision devices, and motion detectors to secretly locate captives or hostage takers within enclosed locations.
According to the Historical Dictionary of Law Enforcement, the word “SWAT” was coined in 1964 by the Philadelphia Police Department as an abbreviation for “Special Weapons and Tactics,” a 100-man specialist squad formed in response to an alarming surge in bank robberies. The goal of this squad was to respond swiftly and forcefully to bank robberies that were already underway, by deploying a huge number of specially trained policemen with a considerable quantity of ammunition at their disposal. The strategy succeeded, and it was quickly used to settle additional crimes involving highly armed perpetrators. In 1967, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Inspector Daryl Gates envisioned “SWAT” as an abbreviation for “Special Weapons Attack Team,” but on the recommendation of his deputy chief, Edward M. Davis, he changed it to “Special Weapons and Tactics.”
For a number of reasons, the LAPD encouraged what became known as SWAT units. The Los Angeles Police Department began studying strategies it may deploy in the event of urban unrest, rioting, or widespread violence after the racially tinged Watts riots in August 1965. The LAPD’s reaction to the riots was commanded by Daryl Gates, who subsequently said that police didn’t encounter a single crowd at the moment, but rather “people assaulting from all angles.” SWAT teams were initially envisioned as a “urban counterinsurgency bulwark,” according to Christian Parenti of New York University.
The dread of lone or barricaded attackers outperforming police in a gunfight, as happened in Austin with Charles Whitman, was another impetus for the formation of SWAT units.
Following the LAPD’s creation of its own SWAT squad, a slew of other law enforcement departments around the country created their own specialized groups under various designations. In his book, Chief: My Life in the LAPD, Gates said that he did not design SWAT tactics or the related and frequently unique equipment, but that he supported the fundamental concept, attempted to empower his personnel to develop it, and typically offered moral support to them.
In the San Joaquin Valley, north of Los Angeles, SWAT-style operations were carried out in the farming village of Delano, California, on the boundary between Kern and Tulare Counties. The United Farm Workers union, led by César Chavez, was holding several rallies in Delano at the time, as part of a five-year strike. The Delano Police Department responded by organizing ad hoc SWAT-type squads that included crowd and riot control, sniper abilities, and surveillance, despite the strike never becoming violent. Across the United States, television news stations and newspapers broadcast live and delayed coverage of the events. Following the broadcasts, members of the LAPD visited Delano and enquired about the program. One officer was then granted permission to study the Delano Police Department’s special weapons and tactics units in operation, after which he returned to Los Angeles and applied what he had learned to build the LAPD’s first SWAT squad.