Part of a continuing series, see Part I and Part II.
Special Weapons and Tactics. SWAT. A valuable tool that has been overused and misused in the police field.
SWAT began for a good reason–it was needed. On August 1, 1966, a former Marine with an undiscovered brain tumor, Charles Whitman, murdered his mother at her apartment and his wife at their home. Whitman then went to the University of Texas tower with “six guns, a shotgun, ammunition, a foot locker, knives, food, and water.” Loren Coleman, The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines 21 (2004). He killed three more on his way to the observation deck and then opened fire.
Whitman killed ten more and wounded thirty-one more from the tower. Austin police responded, but there was no planned response. Ordinary Texans with deer rifles showed up and provided suppressive fire. Officers made it into the tower and up to the observation deck, where they had to get past the barricaded door. Two officers, Ray Martinez and Houston McCoy then shot Whitman to death. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (1997); Ron Franscell, Delivered from Evil: True Stories of Ordinary People Who Faced Monstrous Mass Killers and Survived (2011).
SWAT was formed from this, and other events. Depending on who you believe, either Los Angeles or Philadelphia were the first to form the teams. The teams were initially used properly, for high risk incidents like bank robberies in progress, or other incidents involving heavily armed subjects. They were, for the most part, successful, with operations such as the 1974 Symbionese Liberation Army shootout or the 1984 McDonald’s killings (ended by a SWAT sniper). When you have a useful tool, you begin to look for other problems to use it on, and when that tool is a hammer, problems start to look like nails.
So SWAT began to be used for other things, like drug raids. “In 1972, there were just a few hundred paramilitary drug raids per year in the United States. By the early 1980s, there were three thousand . . . and by 2001 there were forty thousand.” Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness 74 (2010). Some of these are warranted and there are plenty of examples of big drug dealers using weapons to protect their drugs. SWAT is perfect for those.
But as many have begun to point out, with the increased use of SWAT, there have been increases in both idiocy and errors, some leading to unnecessary fatalities. Radley Balko, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America (2006); Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2013). Errors do not however, slow down the idiocy. In 1994, a botched Boston PD SWAT raid at the wrong address caused the death of a respected cleric by heart attack. The police commissioner personally apologized and vowed to insure that this would not happen again. Boston Official Apologizes After Cleric Dies Following SWAT Raid At Wrong Address, 85 Jet 8-9 (Apr. 11, 1994). In 2012, Boston Police have expanded the use of SWAT to include raids on prostitution parlors, in order to seize sex toys, condoms, pajamas, and cash. While I’m sure that we wouldn’t expect a respected cleric to be at a house of ill-repute, I’m also sure that expanding the use of SWAT to raid whorehouses is idiotic. It is the expansion of the mission that keeps SWAT in business.
In addition, SWAT types have a different mindset, a combat mindset. We’ll cover that in more depth next.