No single federal or state entity knows exactly how many SWAT teams exist in the United States. This is largely due to the decentralization of policing in America, covered in more detail in the “Military Training” article, but is also a reflection of the lack of transparency in increasingly militarized policing units. Without good data on the use of SWAT teams, one cannot definitively assess the adverse impacts. However, history suggests that integrating paramilitary units into existing police departments harms communities more than doing so protects them.
SWAT teams began as the brainchild of Daryl Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Gates was the point man during the Watts riots in 1965, a five-day riot fueled by the history of police abuse by the LAPD and catalyzed by the unnecessarily rough arrest of Marquette Frye and his family. In his police history book Rise of the Warrior Cop, then-Inspector Gates recounts “we [the officers] were constantly ducking bottles, rocks, knives, and molotov cocktails.... We did not know how to handle guerilla warfare.” In 1966, Gates’ unit faced a similarly chaotic situation with the Surrey Street Shootout in LA, leading him to form a small tactical unit whose members received Navy Marine training despite concerns from the larger LAPD and Los Angeles community. The same year, ex-Marine Charles Whitman killed 13 people in a mass shooting event on the University of Texas - Austin campus. The combination of growing civil unrest and the Whitman shooting convinced officers across the country that their units were not prepared to handle such incidents if they were to occur in their town. To address problems like these, departments would need units trained to handle volatile situations.
At 5:30 AM on December 6, 1969, LAPD Officers launched the nation’s first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) raid. Officers had previously obtained warrants for the arrest of Black Panther Party members believed to be living in the safe house. Early tactical errors on the part of the LAPD led to a three hour shootout and the acquittal of all six Panthers given their valid claim of self defense. Despite these issues, the event also led to a widespread public relations approval of the impressive display of force against a widely feared organization.
Federally, an increased appetite for more sophisticated and tactical police forces dovetailed with President Nixon’s efforts to gain political power by pushing "law and order" policies. Nixon initiated the War on Drugs by signing the 1970 Crime Bill into law, authorizing the use of no-knock warrants and increasing funding for the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration from $75 to $500 million all in support of policing drug crime. Rather than requesting education or training, departments preferred to use the funds for police hardware. When that bill was signed into law, LAPD oversaw the only SWAT unit that existed.
Several high profile shootouts and deaths changed the tide of public opinion enough to warrant the 1974 legislative ban on no-knock warrants, which SWAT teams often used to carry out raids on the homes of suspected criminals. However, the use of SWAT teams gained cultural significance and support, especially after the LAPD SWAT shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. ABC even ran a television drama entitled S.W.A.T. By 1975, approximately 500 SWAT units existed in the U.S. Generally, President Ford neither vocally supported nor fought against the growing militarization of the police and pursuit of criminal drug users.
Like Nixon, President Ronald Reagan marshaled drug enforcement as a way to win political favor. As part of his work to advance the War on Drugs, the Reagan administration signed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act into law in 1981. The legislation directly linked the military and local police officers, giving police departments access to military training, bases, research, equipment, and drug- and terrorism-related intelligence. Legislation in 1988 created the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program to give additional funds to local law enforcement interested in purchasing supplies to fight the drug war. Departments were funded based on the number of arrests, not necessarily a reduction in crime. Additional asset forfeiture laws and equitable sharing practices (see the "Civil asset forfeiture" page) gave police departments incentives to go after land and drugs rather than people organizing criminal activity. In 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) adjusted the Byrne JAG program to use funding incentives based on crime reduction. The DOJ has yet to address the perverse incentives of civil asset forfeiture.
Clinton, in order to avoid appearing soft on crime, continued supporting police militarization. A 1993 Department of Defense memorandum authorized the transfer of military equipment and technology to local police. Clinton created the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program in 1994, which was intended to fund the hiring of more community-oriented police officers, but which inevitably created another funding source for military gear. In 1997, Congress passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with a provision to create the 1033 program (see the "1033 program" page) to accelerate the procurement of military gear. In a 2006 whitepaper entitled Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, researchers from the Cato Institute described the implications of the 1997 NDAA in detail; “drug arrests made cities and counties eligible for federal money. And federal money and equipment allowed for the creation of SWAT teams...federal policies allowed small police departments to claim surplus military equipment, which many then decided to put to use by forming a SWAT team.” (Overkill, 10 tk). By 1995, 89% of U.S. cities with populations over 50,000 had a SWAT team. 75.9% of SWAT team deployments in that year were only to serve drug warrants.
Around the same time, the American public, its police officers, and its national media began to question the utility of SWAT teams. Much of what is known about SWAT use during this time comes not from official departmental data submitted to national agencies, but from a criminology professor at the University of Eastern Kentucky who took particular interest in the subject. Professor Peter Kraska found that between 1980-1995, the number of annual SWAT deployments had jumped by 937%. This growth wasn’t limited to large cities either; by 1995, 65% of all American cities with populations between 25,000-50,000 had a SWAT team. 43% of departments used active-duty military personnel to train the SWAT team at its inception.
The militarization of SWAT teams accelerated after the 1997 NDAA and grew larger in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The newly created Department of Homeland Security offered additional police funding for anti-terror work and used media campaigns to link drug use to terrorism. Despite giving out over $2 billion in grants in 2011, reports from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the agency doesn’t closely track how the grants are spent or if the recipients face any tangible threat of terrorism.
The DHS’s lack of data collection is symptomatic of a larger federal issue; local police departments are not required to submit their use-of-force data to the federal government. The FBI runs a Uniform Crime Reporting Program, through which it aggregates data that local departments opt to submit. But in 2019, only 42% of law enforcement agencies submitted use-of-force data. Most information about SWAT team use comes from local media reporting and freedom of information act requests. In 2010, Maryland became a notable exception to the rule when its legislature passed a police accountability bill requiring agencies to report comprehensive information about SWAT deployments every six months. The law, which was passed after the mayor of a Baltimore-area suburb was accosted in a SWAT raid, expired in 2014 and was not renewed. In Utah, a similar botched raid in 2012 led the legislature to require law enforcement agencies to report SWAT team usage statistics on an annual basis. However, at this time it is unclear if this law is still in effect.
What began as an effort to prepare police departments for riot control and active shooter situations has escalated into paramilitary groups executing primarily drug-related warrants with limited success and consistent cases of injuries and fatalities. Without consistent metrics, the depth and nature of the problem remain unspecified. However, if the history of these teams and the scandals regarding their deployment are to serve as sufficient evidence, SWAT teams constitute a significant affront to constitutional rights and personal safety.
Sources (click to expand)
Balko, Radley. Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York City, New York. 2013.
“Police agencies no longer need to report race, SWAT deployments” (Baltimore Sun)
War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Police (ACLU, 2014)
Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America (Cato Institute, 2006)
“Justice Department Issues Changes to Largest Criminal Justice Grant.” (Brennan Center, 2016)
“Watts Rebellion.” The History Channel. June 24, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/1960s/watts-riots