Turn the pages on SWAT

On Aug. 1, 1966, a married 25-year-old former U.S. Marine and college student climbed to the observation deck of the campus tower at the University of Texas at Austin and opened fire on the crowd below. Charles Whitman, a clean-cut blond engineering...


SWAT members said they saw the SLA moving furniture and appliances inside the home to block access points, indicating the occupants were preparing for a siege. Gunfire broke out after no less than 18 warnings to put down their weapons and come out. The SWAT team was outgunned from the beginning: The SLA deployed fully automatic weapons capable of firing 1,100 rounds per minute, along with a commercial Browning automatic rifle. Within minutes, many of the LAPD’s response team members ran out of ammunition.

SWAT officers requested grenades and were given the go-ahead, but seconds later that permission was reversed. Police continued to pelt the house with tear gas.

Eventually, the house caught fire. The SLA shooters lowered themselves into the crawlspace under the house, where they continued firing on police.

Two of the women broke into the clear, shooting as they ran. Both died in the gun battle. The other four also perished—two of smoke inhalation—before the siege was over. Witnesses say they believe the six intended for the stand to be their last. When the fire was out, the bodies recovered and the scene processed, investigators came to a remarkable conclusion: Police had expended a total of more than 5,000 rounds, while the SLA spent almost 4,000 rounds. The incident set a precedent for gunfire violence, yet other than the suspects, no one else was hit. Although still evolving, SWAT teams were already proving their worth.

Early training & lessons from Columbine

According to McCarthy, now retired and working for police gear manufacturer Safariland, the LAPD SWAT team owes much of its early success to the foresight of the former police chief, Darryl Gates. As a young LAPD inspector, Gates saw plenty of promise in the department’s early efforts to build an elite team of officers capable of handling situations that required both superior weaponry and training.

Candidates culled from those who recently returned from the jungle battles of Vietnam trained at Camp Pendleton alongside active duty armed forces. “It expanded not only in the United States, but all over the world; they have SWAT teams in Russia, they have SWAT teams everywhere. Basic tactics have been altered over time to the culture of crimes being committed now,” says McCarthy.

McCarthy says that while technology and equipment developed specifically for SWAT operations has improved, the equipment is only as good as the officers that use it. “It has to be operated by well-trained cops, in my opinion. That hasn’t changed,” he says.

One of the most defining incidents in SWAT history took place on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in the unincorporated area of Columbine, Colo. The assault by two students on the school, which resulted in the deaths of 12 students and one teacher with another 24 injured, forever altered the approach of law enforcement agencies to similar incidents. Prior to Columbine, responding officers formed and maintained a perimeter to contain the damage; removing the threat came secondary. Law enforcement was strongly criticized for this approach, particularly since the two Columbine shooters continued their rampage with law enforcement surrounding the school. Police now use immediate action rapid deployment tactics, which places neutralization of the shooter as the primary objective.

“Cops can’t sit around on the perimeter in these kinds of events. They have to be aggressive, they have to be willing to run into the building and face the bullets,” Borelli says.

SWAT hasn’t changed its primary focus, but it has learned to roll with the punches. Active shooters, hostage-taking and other high-risk situations are still the primary purview of SWAT teams, but police in general have had to rethink overall responses to situations like Columbine or the more recent Mumbai attacks, and adjust their approaches.

Lessons from half a world away

On Nov. 26, 2008, terrorists launched coordinated attacks on 10 Mumbai-based targets. It took Indian authorities four days to bring all the situations under control. When it was over 164 people had died and more than 300 had suffered injuries. One terrorist was captured alive.

What made Mumbai such a pivotal event in SWAT training and preparations were the multiple points of attack. Mumbai not only reinforced the lessons from Columbine, but prompted organizations like the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) to revamp its training. Among the approaches adopted by NTOA is MACTAC (Multi-Assault Counter-Terrorism Action Capabilities).

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