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SWAT teams belie their shoot-'em-up TV image

By Stephen WebbeStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 1982


The SWAT team had clamped a ring of steel around the house. Crouching behind police cruisers, lean-faced men in blue baseball caps and flak jackets trained an arsenal of weapons at it: M-16 rifles, pump-action shotguns, revolvers, and what appeared to be tear-gas launchers.

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Behind the lace curtains a gunman lurked.

Lt. Howard Hunter surveyed the standoff disapprovingly. Then with a terse, dispassionate hardness, he offered to ''blow the place away.'' The offer was declined. Later, the anguished gunman was persuaded to surrender his weapon and give himself up.m

In the popular imagination, the above situation may ring true. But in fact, Lieutenant Hunter is the commander of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team on NBC's hugely popular ''Hill Street Blues,'' and the scene is from a recent episode. Unashamedly militaristic, unabashedly cerebral, and, at times, shamelessly racist, Lieutenant Hunter views policing as something approximating urban-guerrilla warfare. For him there is a simple solution to the war on crime: deadly force.

On television, SWAT teams seem regularly to turn the meaner streets of the nation into war zones that resemble Belfast or even Beirut. Does this TV fiction approach the reality?

''I don't know how anybody could even get by with even talking that way,'' exclaims Kenneth Christian, an associate professor at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice. ''He's a caricature,'' adds George Kelling, an expert on law enforcement at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

The most important qualities a SWAT-team commander should exhibit are judgment and maturity, says Conrad Hassel, who heads the SWAT training unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. Lieutenant Hunter, he implies, is deficient in both respects.

(But if Lt. Howard Hunter offends the professional sensibilities of SWAT-team experts, his fire-eating talk can induce quite extraordinary mirth in them. Academics who have never found much to laugh about in the study of law enforcement are reduced to uncontrolled chortling at the mere mention of his name.)

SWAT-team personnel feel the public perception of their units is that of shock troops who storm into action with both barrels blazing.

Many blame the ABC-TV show ''S.W.A.T.'' - which depicted a SWAT team as a commando unit - for the misunderstanding. Starring Steve Forrest as Lt. Dan (Hondo) Harrelson, the series was set in Los Angeles and ran from 1975 to 1977. ''They probably fired more ammunition in one half-hour show than the entire FBI fires in a year,'' recalls Conrad Hassel.

Sgt. Robert Moylan, who trains the Michigan State Police's Emergency Support Section, believes the TV depiction of SWAT teams has ''given us a black eye.''

SWAT-team commanders prefer to resolve incidents without violence. ''Our first response is not running in and storming the door,'' exclaims Capt. Melvin Clark, the commanding officer of the Washington, D.C. Special Tactical Branch. ''That is the last thing we do.''

Maj. Jerry Chatelain of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Department in Gretna, La., agrees: ''We feel that if we have to fire our weapons we've failed,'' he says. ''That's our philosophy,'' stresses Chatelain, who commands the department's 12-man Re Act Team. ''I teach it, I stress it, and I insist on it.''

SWAT teams sprang up in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles.

But with little or no civil disturbance to counter today, their more dramatic activities are confined to flushing suspects from buildings they have barricaded themselves into (often with hostages) and in tackling snipers.

To do this they are equipped with a panoply of weapons: revolvers, tear-gas guns, AR-15 and M-16 automatic rifles, 12-gauge shotguns, and what they call ''long rifles'' - usually .308 caliber weapons with telescopic sights. The Washington Special Tactical Branch can even call up Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns, should it require them. Many SWAT teams are also backed up by helicopters.