ARCHIVAL (COMEDY CENTRAL, LAST WEEK TONIGHT, 8-17-14):
JOHN OLIVER: The Police are not soldiers. So why, in this photo from Ferguson, are they wearing fucking camo?
NARRATION: The media spotlight has been focused on the growing militarization of police.
ARCHIVAL (7NEWS DENVER, 6-5-15):
LEO LECH (ANGRY HOMEOWNER): This is the work of paramilitary thugs!
NARRATION: Ever since the response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 8-14-14):
REPORTER: This is not the Middle East. The police in these dark pictures are throwing tear gas at neighbors.
NARRATION: There are tens of thousands of SWAT team raids per year, but it didn’t start out that way.
PETER KRASKA (CRIMINOLOGIST, EASTERN KENTUCKY UNIVERSITY): Back in the old days, SWAT was used to only handle the most serious situations.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 12-8-69):
ANCHOR: Dynamite, tear gas, automatic rifles and hand grenades were all used today.
ARCHIVAL (ASSOCIATED PRESS):
REPORTER: The bloodiest and most massive gun battle in the history of Los Angeles.
PETER KRASKA: Now it’s being used to handle all kinds of situations.
SWAT: MISSION CREEP
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 12-8-69):
REPORTER: At dawn this morning, the police went to Black Panther headquarters with warrants for the arrest of two Panthers.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 12-8-69):
ANCHOR: The intermittent warfare between the Black Panthers and police erupted today in Los Angeles. There, a group of them barricaded themselves in their headquarters, and fought police with automatic weapons and hand grenades.
ROLAND FREEMAN (FORMER BLACK PANTHER): I go downstairs to the second floor. We heard all this noise of a helicopter and we jumped up. We grabbed the guns.
RON MCCARTHY (LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT 1960-1984): There were police officers with rifles across the street on rooftops. There were police officers in the back.
ROLAND FREEMAN: They had put a charge on the door, the door blew open, and the police came running in.
RON MCCARTHY: There was heavy gunfire and they shot three police officers.
ROLAND FREEMAN: We saw this little cloud come around the corner. When that tear gas hit you, that tear gas, it was no joke. We were like rats in a hole, and being shot at for four or five hours.
NARRATION: Freeman and five others surrendered… to a police force like they’d never seen before.
ROLAND FREEMAN: When I came out, and I looked up and saw them in their black uniforms and everything. I’m like, “Who the hell is this?” Black boots, black pants, black shirts. They did not look like police at all.
NARRATION: That’s because they were a new kind of cop – members of a special division of the Los Angeles Police Department who made their debut at the shoot out.
RON MCCARTHY: It was very similar to a military operation in the tactics and techniques we had to employ.
NARRATION: Five man “SWAT” teams – marksmen trained in special operations – were created to deal with extraordinary events, such as snipers, hostage situations and other violent confrontations. The late Daryl Gates, former chief of the LAPD, came up with the name. His first thought was to call them special weapons attack teams.
DARRYL GATES: Someone wiser than I was said no you can’t say “attack,” and when I thought about it, I thought, you’re right. So it became Special Weapons and Tactics.
NARRATION: The idea for SWAT teams was formed a few years earlier after the police were caught off guard by the Watts Riots and had to call in more than 14 thousand National Guardsmen. Ron McCarthy was there.
RON MCCARTHY: The riots in 1965 were a game changer. A good portion of south Los Angeles was burning to the ground.
ARCHIVAL (NEWSREEL, 1965):
REPORTER: Powerless against snipers, looters and arsonists operating in the dark, police and National Guardsman had tried mostly to confine the disorder to the 42 square miles of this area.
NARRATION: Police had no real strategy for how to respond… And were criticized for using excessive force. After six days, 31 civilians, two cops and a fireman were dead.
PETER KRASKA: It was a formative experience for the LAPD because they realized they needed well-trained, well-organized people that could handle that level of conflict.
NARRATION: It wasn’t until several years later that the LAPD SWAT team would cement its reputation on the national stage.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 5-17-74):
TOM PETIT: Everything happened in a frantic two hours just before sundown last night.
NARRATION: SWAT teams led the way as hundreds of cops and FBI agents moved in on a home where members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical fringe group known for kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst… were hiding out.
REPORTER: Police were receiving heavy weapons fire, which they returned.
ARCHIVAL (ASSOCIATED PRESS):
REPORTER: Five suspected members of the Symbionese Liberation Army are dead.
REPORTER: Miraculously, there were no civilian casualties.
NARRATION: Ron McCarthy was leading a SWAT team during the incident.
RON MCCARTHY: I took a lot of pride in the fact that we did a good job and no citizens were injured. A lot of requests came in to the LAPD SWAT team to go to other parts of the country and train SWAT teams. And so it began to grow.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 3-17-78):
SWAT TRAINING: Don’t miss! Don’t miss!
REPORTER: These men are members of special weapons and tactics team, a SWAT team.
PETER KRASKA: That really can be culturally intoxicating for a certain type of police officer, a wannabe soldier police officer.
NARRATION: It didn’t take long for Hollywood producers to take notice of the hometown sharpshooters. They inspired a popular TV show – with a top 40 theme song.
PETER KRASKA: The first TV series on SWAT was, I think, a real cultural turning point, because it brought the whole SWAT phenomenon into people’s living rooms and into the cultural consciousness.
NARRATION: As SWAT teams spread across the country, police were ramping up the war on drugs under President Reagan.
ARCHIVAL (SPEECH, 5-18-88):
RONALD REAGAN: When we say no to drugs, it’ll be clear that we mean absolutely none. No exceptions.
PETER KRASKA: Our society tends to want to solve problems through a very aggressive, vigorous approach. And oftentimes that’s couched in terms of waging war — a war on drugs, a war on poverty. And it’s not just a benign metaphor.
NARRATION: Police were given more authority to enter people’s homes without knocking, to search for drugs, and that increasingly became the job of SWAT teams. Peter Kraska has been studying the issue for more than 20 years. He’s found that not only has the percentage of small cities with SWAT teams grown from 13 to 80 in 24 years… But more than 80 percent of deployments are to look for drugs.
PETER KRASKA: The whole SWAT phenomenon was morphing. SWAT had gone from an entity that was all about saving lives in real dire circumstances to prosecuting the drug war inside people’s residences using SWAT teams.
NARRATION: And they’re more heavily armed, thanks to federal programs that allow the military to transfer surplus equipment to city and state police forces. The items are free or discounted….
PETER KRASKA: The same kinds of things you would see in a, in a military team, you would find in a SWAT team. They don’t have to be a particular sized police department. Basically they just need to apply for these things.
NARRATION: Proponents say a beefed up force is necessary for many drug raids because they can turn violent.
RON MCCARTHY: When we know that there’s drugs being sold and the drug offender has a history of violence and he’s armed, then we should use SWAT.
NARRATION: In addition, the threat of terrorism since 9-11 has accelerated the flow of weaponry to local police… as SWAT teams are often considered the front line of defense for national crises.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 4-20-13):
REPORTER: Plenty of appreciation here in Boston for the SWAT team that swooped in and helped in this manhunt.
NARRATION: But things don’t always go according to plan. Case in point, the home of Cheye Calvo in Berwyn Heights, Maryland, where a county SWAT team made what’s called a dynamic entry.
CHEYE CALVO: There were men dressed in black with masks and guns surrounding my house. I heard the sound of an explosion. It was the sound of my front door being blown open by a battering ram. And they came in shooting.
NARRATION: Police believed they were about to bust an elaborate marijuana delivery scheme.
CHEYE CALVO: A man immediately grabbed me, pulled my hands behind my back. My mother-in-law was laying face down on the floor with a gun to her head. My older black lab, Payton, was in between us still laying in an enormous pool of his own blood.
NARRATION: A local police officer came upon the commotion and asked the county SWAT team what was going on.
CHEYE CALVO: One of them said this guy is crazy. He thinks he’s the mayor. And Officer Johnson was… he is the mayor!
NARRATION: Mayor Calvo’s two dogs were killed in the raid and he settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.
More recently, a Wisconsin family was staying with relatives in Georgia when a SWAT team barged in, looking for a nephew who had reportedly sold drugs from the house. They were asleep at 3 am when the flashbang grenade came through the door.
ALECIA PHONESAVANH: The grenade landed right in our baby’s crib with him, where he was sleeping. It blew a big hole in his pillow. I begged the officer please, he’s scared, he’s screaming, he needs me. Let me comfort him.
NARRATION: Police rushed the baby to the hospital. It would be hours before Alecia saw him again.
ALECIA PHONESAVANH: When I walked into his room, I was so heartbroken. They had him intubated and in a medically induced coma because his left lung had collapsed, and so they had him on life support.
NARRATION: A deputy sheriff was later indicted for allegedly falsifying information to justify the raid.
Alecia’s son is recovering, but she struggles with how to explain what the police did to her toddler.
ALECIA PHONESAVANH: I do not believe it is necessary to take a SWAT team into a home, of a family, with children — they’re supposed to be the good guys.
Narration: The role of SWAT teams prompted a national dialogue… after the country watched the police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, NOW WITH ALEX WAGNER, 8-14-14):
GOVERNOR NIXON: This is is a place where people work, go to school, raise their families, go to church. But lately it’s looked a little more like a war zone.
NARRATION: Nine months after the Ferguson, President Obama banned local police from receiving some military style equipment.
ARCHIVAL (SPEECH, 5-18-15):
BARACK OBAMA: We have seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there is an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting and serving them.
NARRATION: The ban made the front page of newspapers, but critics say it falls short.
And at a time when the nation is grappling with the police’s use of force, it remains to be seen what role SWAT teams will have in future policing.
RON MCCARTHY: There has always been a debate — is SWAT too militaristic? SWAT teams are definitely a very important part of the law enforcement response.
CHEYE CALVO: I’m not saying that SWAT teams have no place in law enforcement. It’s a question of, how can we bend the curve of history so that they’re not continuing?