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

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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

Recommended: The Malala moment: 6 Pakistani views on the girl shot by the Taliban

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.

SWAT-team personnel wear flak jackets, and some sport helmets. They make no extra money, despite the considerable danger of the job.

For all their firepower, however, SWAT teams chiefly put their faith in their negotiating skills.

At least half of Washington's 93-strong Special Tactical Branch are trained in negotiation, according to Captain Clark.

''You're supposed to assure the individual you're there to help,'' he says. ''It's more or less trying to get the person to trust and confide in you. If we can't use the telephone, then we use a bullhorn.''

If a bullhorn is inappropriate, the Special Tactical Branch even has two-way radios it can lob to suspects to keep the lines of communication open. ''Sometimes we just have to talk through the door,'' Captain Clark explains.

Of 62 incidents involving barricaded suspects and hostage-taking over the last 13 years, ''we only resorted to gunfire once,'' says the captain. ''Unfortunately, we ended up killing the particular individual.

Between Dec. 19, 1981, and Jan. 5, 1982, the Special Tactical Branch responded to seven incidents. ''All were resolved without any violence at all,'' Captain Clark reports. ''Several of them were disturbed individuals who got overdepressed.'' He adds that he can't recall the death of a single tactical branch officer in the last 10 years.

Major Chatelain's Re-Act Team has inflicted no fatalities since it was set up two years ago. ''It's there to basically save the lives of the other police officers,'' he explains. ''Years back, when you had a subject barricaded or a shoot-out situation, policemen usually got hurt.''

According to the FBI's Conrad Hassel, 98 percent of hostage incidents involving bureau SWAT teams ''are defused by the hostage negotiator.'' In fact, negotiation successfully defuses 98 to 99 percent of all hostage situations in the United States, he contends.

Kenneth Christian says several SWAT teams have never killed anybody and asserts that it is a source of pride for teams that they ''can complete a whole operation without ever having to fire a round.''

SWAT teams, he says, have made many changes since their inception. ''They're sophisticated. They have support services of psychiatrists and psychologists. For example, it used to be practice to bring in the chaplain and the person's parents when somebody barricaded himself in a room or a house. Well, there's been a 180-degree change on that because many times they find out that the problems are religiously rooted or family-rooted.''

But SWAT teams do have their problems. The larger ones, in particular, are mighty expensive to operate, say experts.

Consequently, their members do not sit around oiling their shotguns and rapping about football.

''We can't have them like firemen sitting in a firehouse waiting for something to happen,'' says the FBI's Hassel. Bureau SWAT teams, he explains, are composed of full-time agents. ''They're given training time, but they have to carry a full caseload,'' he stresses. The FBI maintains SWAT teams in all its field offices.

Agreeing that cost is a ''tremendous factor,'' Sergeant Moylan of the Michigan State Police says that ''the way we try to get around that is we get them involved in things like VIP security, chemical and radiation spills, and that kind of thing to take advantage of the team concept.''

When not dealing with an incident, members of Washington's Special Tactical Branch specialize in serving arrest warrants and backing up officers in high-crime areas.''No one sits around here,'' says Captain Clark. ''They're always out on the street serving warrants or on tactical patrol.''

George Kelling is skeptical of SWAT teams in general. Mr. Kelling, executive director of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government's criminal-justice policy and management program, believes they started as something of a fad. ''I mean there are cities that have (armored) personnel carriers . . . that they've never hauled out of the garages.''

Mary Ann Wycoff, a researcher for the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation, says in Birmingham, Ala., ''little armored tanks just sit rusting behind the station (house).'' Bruce Cameron, editorial director of Law and Order magazine in Chicago, says he is certain some SWAT teams ''are fads right now.''

Kelling claims that many police chiefs have not formed SWAT teams because they ''are very rarely used for the things that they were devised to do.'' When they are on the street, he says, ''they tend to jump calls,'' monitoring district police radios and responding to incidents themselves. ''These elite tactical units, who don't know a community and aren't under district command, muscle in - and a lot of police officers feel they rile the situation up, then leave.''

A beat officer in a car gets to know people on the street and has ''a lot of good credit built up,'' Kelling emphasizes. ''That officer can do all kinds of things in terms of street management.''

But when a SWAT team comes in, it can ''generate a lot of difficulties,'' he says. ''Those elite units in most cities . . . tend to be primarily white. Many times they're active in high-crime areas which are primarily minority areas. What happens is, you get these elite troops in situations that really don't require their services. And the resentment they can breed among citizens is potentially, I think, very dangerous.''

Kelling says threatening situations can often be resolved with ''a gentle word . . . by an officer that knows the citizens. There's more and more evidence that you can only do good neighborhood policing if you have the support of the neighborhood. And if you don't, you're in trouble.''

In a lot of smaller cities where ''they've never had an occasion to call one out,'' SWAT teams have ''died from non-use,'' says Bruce Cameron of Law and Order magazine.

According to Miss Wycoff of the Police Foundation, the Birmingham, Ala., Police Department once employed its SWAT team as a special anti-robbery unit ''because they really didn't have any need for their tactical unit.'' Ironically , the anti-robbery unit was abandoned because ''there simply weren't enough robberies to sustain it,'' she says. Miss Wycoff says she believes many police departments no longer have any need of their SWAT teams.

In her view technical units were ''something you had to have to look like an up-to-date, sophisticated police department.'' In the early '70s the Dallas Police Department received ''a large amount'' of federal money to set up a SWAT team, she says. ''Simply to be able to fill it, they had to put two entire new recruit classes straight into the tactical unit. It was totally unnecessary, and they knew it.'' But she concedes that some cities, such as Washington, have ''a lot more potential to use SWAT teams, because they simply have more problems to which they can direct their energies.'' The Special Tactical Branch in the nation's capital is frequently involved in protecting the president, the vice-president, and visiting dignitaries.

In general, SWAT teams have been highly successful, Kenneth Christian declares: ''They have alleviated a lot of problems where untrained, unsophisticated people would have blown the situation. I have not really seen a bad SWAT-team operation except on TV.''

But George Kelling maintains that ''there's very little demonstration that SWAT teams are a very high payoff in terms of their activities.'' He admits, however, that police departments need their high degree of skill in hostage and terrorist situations.

If SWAT teams tend to get mixed reviews from the experts, they get bouquets from Lt. Howard Hunter, alias TV actor James Sikking. ''I talked to members and team leaders,'' says Sikking, ''I was amazed. They're the best men on the police force. They have the best sense of humor. They have the best emotional control of themselves. They're the strongest physically.'' And, as Lietenant Hunter would certainly agree, ''most of them are the brightest,'' he says.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...