The development of SWAT in its modern incarnation is usually given as beginning with reference in particular to then-inspector Daryl Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
As far as the LAPD SWAT team’s beginning, Gates’ explained in his autobiography Chief: My Life in the LAPD, that he neither developed SWAT tactics nor its distinctive equipment. Gates wrote that he supported the concept, tried to empower his people to develop the concept, and lent them moral support.
Gates originally named the platoon “”Special Weapons Assault Team””, however, due to popular protest this name was turned down by his boss, then-deputy police chief Ed Davis for sounding too much like a military organization. Wanting to keep the acronym “”SWAT””, Gates changed its expansion (“”explanation””) to “”special weapons and tactics””.
While the public face of SWAT was made known through the LAPD, perhaps because of its proximity to the mass media and the size and professionalism of the Department itself, the first SWAT operations were conducted far north of Los Angeles in the farming community of Delano, California on the border between Kern and Tulare Counties in the great San Joaquin Valley. CĂ©sar Chavez’ United Farm Workers was staging numerous protests in Delano, both at cold storage facilities and in front of non-supportive farm workers’ homes on the city streets. Delano Police Department answered the issues that arose by forming the first-ever units using special weapons and tactics. Television news stations and print media carried live and delayed reportage of these events across the nation. Personnel from the LAPD, having seen these broadcasts, contacted Delano PD and inquired about the program. One officer then obtained permission to observe Delano Police Department’s special weapons and tactics in action, and afterwards took what he had learned back to Los Angeles where his knowledge was used and expanded on to form their first SWAT unit.
John Nelson was the officer who came up with the idea to form a specially trained and equipped unit in the LAPD, intended to respond to and manage critical situations involving shootings while minimizing police casualties. Inspector Gates approved this idea, and he formed a small select group of volunteer officers. This first SWAT unit initially consisted of fifteen teams of four men each, for a total staff of sixty. These officers were given special status and benefits. They were required to attend special monthly training. This unit also served as a security unit for police facilities during civil unrest. The LAPD SWAT units were organized as “”D Platoon”” in the Metro division.
A report issued by the Los Angeles Police Department, following a shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, offers one of the few firsthand accounts by the department regarding SWAT history, operations, and organization.
On page 100 of the report, the Department cites four trends which prompted the development of SWAT. These included riots such as the Watts Riots, which in the 1960s forced police departments into tactical situations for which they were ill-prepared, the emergence of snipers as a challenge to civil order, the appearance of the political assassin, and the threat of urban guerrilla warfare by militant groups. “”The unpredictability of the sniper and his anticipation of normal police response increase the chances of death or injury to officers. To commit conventionally trained officers to a confrontation with a guerrilla-trained militant group would likely result in a high number of casualties among the officers and the escape of the guerrillas.”” To deal with these under conditions of urban violence, the LAPD formed SWAT, notes the report.
The report states on page 109, “”The purpose of SWAT is to provide protection, support, security, firepower, and rescue to police operations in high personal risk situations where specialized tactics are necessary to minimize casualties.””
On February 7, 2008 a siege and subsequent fire fight with a gunman in Winnetka, California led to the first line-of-duty death of a member of the LAPD’s SWAT team in its 41 years of existence.