SWAT Teams: Militarization of Police
SWAT teams are important for many reasons, one of them being they are who we rely on to shut down an active shooter. Regular police officers do not have the proper equipment or training to quickly and efficiently protect the public against an experienced shooter. This is partly why SWAT teams came into existence. On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman barricaded himself in a tower on the University of Texas at Austin campus. He shot and killed 14 people and wounded 32 more. It took police officers just under two hours to finally stop the man because they didn’t have the proper equipment or training to know how to handle this situation.
The idea of a SWAT team was created in the 1960s by Daryl Gates. After the Watts Riot, Gates realized that large numbers meant nothing when the people fighting didn’t have the training or equipment to make an impact. Originally Gates had planned for SWAT to mean “Special Weapons Attack Team,” but he changed it to “Special Weapons and Tactics.” The first SWAT team was made up of veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The purpose of SWAT teams is to prevent casualties and to come up with quick solutions to the most dangerous situations. SWAT teams also receive more training and specialized equipment to use than regular police officers. SWAT teams are necessary to help make violent situations less violent, if possible. They are also necessary to reduce casualties of both the police officers and the public.
SWAT teams use many different kinds of equipment. Most of their equipment they get from military surplus, but sometimes they can purchase their own with federal grant money. SWAT teams use high-power binoculars, night vision goggles, and scopes. They use thermal imaging and radar systems that allow them to see people’s location even if it is completely dark or foggy. SWAT team members might also use tiny cameras and microphones to gather information about the suspects or hostages.
The body armor provides SWAT team members with protection to their head and torso, which is necessary if they are in the line of gunfire. In the beginning stages of the SWAT team, they did not use body armor. After they engaged with six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army and were met with automatic rifle fire, they realized they were not prepared for anything like that. They ended up having to throw tear gas grenades at the men once they ran out of ammunition.
Each member is provided the freedom to decide which weapon they feel most comfortable using. They can choose a handgun, a sub-machine gun, a shotgun, or an assault rifle. The M16 and the M4 are two of the most commonly used assault rifles. SWAT teams use foam, wood, rubber, and bean bag rounds to hurt suspects, but not kill them. They also use live rounds.
Some SWAT teams use armored vehicles to protect them against gunfire, but a lot of the vehicles SWAT teams use are just repurposed delivery vans or buses. If they are going to use the vehicle for tactical purposes, extra armor can be added. Large motor homes are another type of SWAT vehicle that is used. They are popular because they can provide a bathroom during long standoffs.
SWAT teams are beneficial to the public because they are trained to cause as few casualties as possible. The equipment they use helps them do just that. By using weapons with ammunition that hurts suspects, but does not kill them, they are helping reduce the possibilities of casualties. The armored vehicles can provide extra defense.
One argument for why the increased militarization of police forces is bad is people believe that it makes officers more violent. The Washington Post did a study and concluded that more-militarized law enforcement agencies had more civilians killed each year by police. They also say that when more money goes to a county, more civilians are likely to die in that county the next year. The article uses multiple examples of police violence against civilians like when Officer Roy Oliver shot and killed Jordan Edwards.
Another argument against the militarization of law enforcement is that when videos promoting SWAT teams come out, they often show the military equipment that they use. Some people are scared that the military equipment will attract people who are more excited about using the equipment, than people who want to actually help protect the public. This can prevent law enforcement from building healthy relationships with their community. It is important for law enforcement to have positive relationships with their communities because this helps law enforcement protect them more efficiently.
There are a few ways that I believe the police department can help change the perception of the SWAT team being militarized. One of them is they could change the uniforms that the SWAT team wears. They could do a solid color instead of the camouflage that they have right now. I’m in the military and at first glance, I thought they were too. I can see how that might be off-putting to a civilian who is uneducated about the military.
Another thing that the police department could do is educate people more on what exactly the weapons they use are. For example, SWAT teams wear gas masks around their thighs, and that can look scary. If they were to explain to the public that they wear them in case they use tear gas, so they don’t have to hurt anyone, that could help make a difference in how they are perceived.
The final idea I want to talk about is explaining why SWAT teams use military tactics. Sometimes shooters have military experience. It is important that SWAT teams know military tactics and how to use them so they can effectively stop an active shooter. I think that if all of these different aspects were explained more to the public, then it would be a start to helping the SWAT teams look less militarized, and more like they are trying to do their job effectively.
In conclusion researching, SWAT teams for this paper helped me to learn a lot of things. I think that if people researched more and were willing to educate themselves on SWAT teams, they would see what I do. SWAT teams are here to help protect the public and do it in a way that could help save lives.
- Grabianowski, Ed. “How SWAT Teams Work.” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 31 Jan. 2007, people.howstuffworks.com/swat-team2.htm.
- Marcou, Dan. “Police History: How SWAT Got Its Start.” PoliceOne, 10 Sept. 2015, www.policeone.com/police-history/articles/police-history-how-swat-got-its-start-A46mInV79ujHNIfW/.
- Mosteller, Jeremiah. “Militarization of Police In the United States.” Charles Koch Institute, www.charleskochinstitute.org/issue-areas/criminal-justice-policing-reform/militarization-of-police/.
- Ross, Daniel. “From WWII Rifles to BearCats: The Evolution of SWAT Team Equipment.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 4 May 2016, www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/the-evolution-of-swat-team-equipment-from-wwii-rifles-to-bearcats/.
- Roufa, Timothy. “Learn About the History and Purpose of SWAT Teams.” The Balance Careers, The Balance Careers, 6 Nov. 2019, www.thebalancecareers.com/the-history-and-purpose-of-swat-teams-974567.
- Ryan Welch, Jack Mewhirter. “Analysis | Does Military Equipment Lead Police Officers to Be More Violent? We Did the Research.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 June 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/30/does-military-equipment-lead-police-officers-to-be-more-violent-we-did-the-research/.