History of SWAT

The following article was written for PoliceOne.com and gives a brief synopsis of the incident, which many officers feel, was the catalyst for our current SW.A.T. teams.

The Birth of SWAT

It was August 1, 1966, a tragic event occurred in Austin, Texas. A man named Charles Joseph Whitman, a honor student, used a high-powered rifle to randomly kill over a dozen people and wounded over thirty more from the University of Texas Clock Tower Building in Austin. This incident is best known as the Texas Tower Sniper and is credited as being the sparking event for "The Birth of SWAT."

At approximately 11 A.M. on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman posed as a maintenance worker and used a dolly to roll a footlocker into the clock tower building on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The tower stood 308 feet tall in which Whitman could see for some distance. Whitman took an elevator to the twenty-seventh floor, killing a maintenance worker and later took up his position. Whitman had an arsenal of 3 rifles, a sawed-off shotgun, 2 handguns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a 5-gallon container of water, some sandwiches, and a can of gasoline.

Prolonged Rampage

The rampage did not start at the tower, as most people would believe. Actually, Whitman started his spree at his mother’s house, shooting her in the back of the head. He would return to his residence where he stabbed his wife to death while she lay in bed. Back at the tower, Whitman first shot a young black male riding a bicycle and later shot a young girl in the head. Whitman had no mercy on the people below him. He even shot a pregnant woman in the abdomen killing her eight-month old unborn child, and then began shooting people as they hid in doorways or looked out of windows trying to see what was happening. When rescuers attempted to aid the wounded, he would allow them to get close and then shoot the rescuers.

Police Response

While Whitman was still inside the tower shooting at innocent people, the police were notified of the incident. Upon their arrival, the officers couldn't get close enough to do anything to neutralize Whitman. They also could not attend to the wounded lying on the ground. The Police did not have any plans for incidents such as this one because situations like this rarely happened and there was no need to have a specialized unit assigned to handle situations as this. Police were able to fly over Whitman in an airplane but they quickly retreated due to gunfire.

Some officers finally came up with a plan to end the threat from the tower. The plan consisted of using an underground tunnel that connected the buildings on campus. The officers gained entry to the clock tower building, where they made it up to the twenty-seventh floor. The officers were advised of Whitman's position via walkie-talkies. As the officers were advancing on Whitman, he suddenly turned and fired his weapon at the officers. One officer didn't hesitate and returned fire, striking Whitman six times with his duty weapon. The other officer shot Whitman twice with a shotgun.

Change in Policing

This incident sparked a scare in the changing face of policing. Chiefs across the nation realized they had to have plans ready to handle incidents like this one. They also realized they needed teams of police officers equipped and trained to carry out these plans. They needed SWAT, special weapons and tactic teams.

The acronym SWAT is thought to have been used first by the Los Angeles Police Department. Shortly after the Texas Tower incident, LAPD formed their SWAT Team. Many agencies across the nation also started SWAT Teams kicking off a new trend in policing. (Snow p. 2-8) Snow, Robert L. SWAT TEAMS: Explosive Face-Offs with America's Deadliest Criminals. Plenum Press, New York and London, 1996.

The First SWAT Team

History of the Los Angeles Police Department SW.A.T.

The special weapons and tactics concept originated in the late 1960s as a result of several sniping incidents against civilians and police officers around the country. Many of these incidents occurred in Los Angeles during and after the Watts Riot. Upon critical examination of how each incident was managed by police, the leadership of the LAPD realized that an effective response to these dangerous situations was virtually non-existent.

Officer John Nelson presented the special weapons and tactics concept to a young inspector by the name of Darryl F. Gates. Inspector Gates concurred and approved the concept of a small group of highly disciplined officers utilizing special weapons and tactics to cope with these unusual and difficult attacks.

Specialized Teams

The first Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) Unit consisted of 15 four-man teams. Members of each team, who volunteered from the ranks of patrol and other police assignments, had specialized experience and prior military service. Each unit was activated for monthly training or when the need for special weapons personnel actually arose. These units, known as "station defense teams," provided security for police facilities during civil unrest.

In 1971, the SWAT personnel were assigned on a full-time basis to Metropolitan Division to respond to continuing action by subversive groups, the rising crime rate and the continuing difficulty of mustering a team response in a timely manner. Metropolitan Division, which had a long-established reputation as the tactical unit of the Department, was organized into "A," "B" and "C" Platoons. The Special Weapons And Tactics Unit was given the designation of "D" Platoon, and at the same time formally adopted the acronym SWAT.