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Lesson Plan

Watts Riots and the Militarization of Policing

About this Video
This 12-minute video shows students how the Watts riots, the Black Panthers and the racial discontent of the 1960s caused the Los Angeles Police Department to create the nation’s first SWAT team. Once established at the LAPD, and made famous by a popular TV show, the highly militarized SWAT approach to policing proliferated before being repurposed in the 1980s as a key weapon in the War on Drugs. The video provides students with an opportunity to connect a modern controversy, the debate over militarized policing, with a specific historical cause, and understand historical causation and how modern issues have historical origins. The video useful as a way to flash forward while covering the 1960s to demonstrate how the increasingly militant civil rights movement of the late 1960s created effects we are still feeling today. It could also be paired with a unit on 21st century problems with historical roots in the 1960s.
Content Advisory: This video contains audio-masked (“bleeped”) profanity and footage of violent encounters with the police.
Students will learn
  • How the 1965 riots in Los Angeles and a 1969 gun battle between police and Black Panthers contributed to a nationwide trend: the militarization of police forces, and the routine use of SWAT teams.
  • How the War on Drugs during the 1980s had the effect of altering and shifting the original purpose of SWAT teams toward an increasingly narrow focus on drug-related policing.
  • How the militarization of police departments is creating controversy in local communities across the United States.
How a Standoff with the Black Panthers Fueled the Rise of SWAT
Subjects
  • Civics & Government
  • U.S. History
Topics
  • Civil Rights
  • Race in America
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Domestic Policies
  • Lyndon Johnson
  • The Civil Rights Movement
  • 1960s America
  • 1970s America
  • 1980s America
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • War on Drugs
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

The presence of heavily armed SWAT teams in big cities and small towns has normalized the militarization of the local police force, but it wasn’t always that way.

In 1965, the Los Angeles Police Department was caught off guard by the Watts riots, which lasted six days and required thousands of National Guardsmen to end.

In response, the LAPD developed highly-trained, heavily armed five-man teams to handle extraordinary events like hostage taking, high-powered shootouts and riots. The word SWAT is derived from the teams’ mission: Special Weapons and Tactics.

The LAPD SWAT teams initially displayed their training in 1969, when they attempted to serve warrants on two Black Panthers in an early morning raid. The encounter led to gun battle, but the team accomplished its task.

In 1974, SWAT teams gained a higher profile after a dramatic shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army, which left five members of the terrorist organization dead. Soon big cities and small towns wanted their own SWAT teams too.

In the 1980s, SWAT teams were deployed to fight the War on Drugs and became a staple on the evening news, busting down doors and throwing suspects to the floor.

As their roles increased, so too did their firepower, thanks to government programs that transferred military equipment to local police departments for SWAT use.

So it came as little surprise that when SWAT teams lined up to confront protesters in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, they looked more like combat troops than peacekeepers.

Comprehension Questions
  • How did the 1965 LA riots and the rise of the Black Panthers contribute to the creation of SWAT teams?
  • How did the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs contribute to the growth of SWAT teams? What percentage of SWAT deployments are now drug-related? How does this differ from the original purpose of SWAT teams?
  • How do local police departments obtain military equipment?
  • What action did President Obama take to try to reverse the militarization of local police departments?
Discussion Questions and Writing Prompts
  • Thinking in terms of cause and effect, how did the Watts riots in 1965 lead to the current national controversy over militarized policing? Trace the causal sequence of events to explain how we arrived at the current debate over the use of militarized police tactics.
  • Do you think it’s a good idea to transfer military equipment from the U.S. armed forces to local law enforcement officers? What are the costs and benefits of doing this? Do the costs outweigh the benefits?
  • In the video, Peter Kraska argues that “our society tends to want to solve problems through a very aggressive, vigorous approach and oftentimes that’s couched in terms of waging war — the war on drugs, the war on poverty – and it’s not just a benign metaphor.” Do you think “war” is the right metaphor for the approach we should take toward drugs or crime? Why or why not?
  • What role should military tactics and equipment play in local policing in the United States? Should we get rid of SWAT teams? Expand them? Modify the way we use them?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "How a Standoff with the Black Panthers Fueled the Rise of SWAT" Retro Report
“The Rise of the SWAT Team in America” Retro Report
Audio Interview: "When SWAT Teams First Appeared on City Streets" WNYC

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate how historical events were shaped by unique circumstance of time and place, and broader historical contexts

Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical development relates to another historical development.

Theme 8: Social Structures (SOC)