The Rise of the SWAT Team

This is a partial review of one the major parts of Radley Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop; the militarization of America’s police forces. You can read my first review, on the Symbolic Third Amendment, no-knock raids, and the castle doctrine here.


Training and deploying military hardware, the masked black armored SWAT uniform stands in sharp contrast to the blue uniform classically associated with police officers. SWAT Teams have long been the epitome and model of police militarization in the US, and understanding their history is vital for understanding the state of contemporary policing in the United States. Thankfully, Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop does a good job telling the story from the 1960s through September 11th. It is a story whose bones are worth retelling as a reminder that the way we think of policing, and what we allow civilian police officers to do (especially SWAT) is far from set in stone.

Since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, MI, the militarization of the US police force has entered mainstream political conversations in the United States. This is not a new trend, however. In his book Rise of the Warrior Cop Radley Balko connects many of our contemporary police issues to the birth of SWAT Teams and their subsequent spread around the nation. It is a story worth retelling as a reminder that the way we treat the police today, and what we allow them to do, is not immutable nor has it been the case for the entirety of US history.

The SWAT Team was the brain child of Daryl Gates. After the 1965 Watts Riots Gates became convinced that police training and equipment were insufficient for dealing with violent and volatile incidents. A year later, the University of Texas Tower Shooting solidified his desire for a militarized police task force, and helped him overcome opposition to the idea. Initially Gates named the program the Special Weapons Attack Teams but his superiors balked at the word “attack” in the name of a civilian police force. Compromising on the name Special Weapons and Tactics, the LAPD aimed to populate SWAT Teams with best of the police force. Screened both physically and psychologically, these officers were given extra trainings as well as military style ranks that contrasted heavily with the rest of the department despite continued opposition.

In December 1969 Daryl Gates introduced his brainchild to the world with a raid on the LA headquarters of the Black Panther Party. Balko provides a detailed account of the five raid in which over five thousands rounds were exchanged, a neighborhood was evacuated, 9 people were injured, and Gates’ received permission from the Department of Defense to use a grenade launcher in a civilian setting. The raid ended with six arrested Panthers who were all acquitted on their most serious charges including the attempted murder of police officers. Summarizing the raid and its consequences, Balko says: “Practically, logistically, and tactically, the raid was an utter disaster. But in terms of public relations, it was an enormous success.”
The last 49 years simply hammer home that point. Looking purely at the breadth gear acceptable for use by SWAT Teams, much of which is used with increasing regularity by regular beat cops the changes are remarkable. The grenade launcher, the use of which once needed to come from the highest levels of the Department of Defense, is no sold at a discount to police departments to be deployed as they see fit. More generally, police departments have embraced SWAT Teams as a regularly deployed tool. Encouraged by the War on Drugs  and decreasing influence of civil libertarians in the American political and judicial systems, between 1982 and 1997 there was a 292% increase in the number of police departments that use SWAT Teams to serve non-violent arrest warrants; today SWAT Teams engage in over 50,000 actions a year. These raids have been incentivized on the federal level by programs such as Byrne Grants which reward police departments with funding based on the number of drug arrests, warrants, and busts (regardless of size) they complete—though reducing crime will not yield any extra finances.

The legal consequences of these raids have also changed in the nearly half century since the first SWAT Team was deployed. Last month an Austin man received a fate radically different from the one received by the Black Panthers in 1969 when he was given 13.5 years in prison for shooting a police officer he thought was a burglar—the officer broke down the door at 6:00AM in a no-knock raid because they suspected the 20 year old man of dealing drugs. For the record, they found little over an ounce of marijuana—an eighth of the legal recreational limit in Oregon.  This stands in sharp contrast to the acquittal of the Panthers from the 1969 raid.

Radley Balko tracks the major components of this evolution up through September 11th, peppering in well researched, if excessively frequent, anecdotes. By the last quarter of Rise of the Warrior Cop I had gotten in the habit of skimming his descriptions of unjust and botched raids that turned up next to nothing of note and often involved serious property damage and the execution of the occasional suspect and countless dogs (seriously, no one has bothered to count the number of family pets shot by police officers in raids). Summarizing this trend in a single sentence, Balko writes: “Not surprisingly, the proliferation of heavily armed task forces that have little accountability and are rewarded for making lots of busts has resulted in some abuse” (244).

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