SEPTEMBER 23, 1997
Most people know SWAT teams, as a reactive type of unit that only handles the rare barricaded hostage sniper situation, but that is not necessarily true. Jeffery Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports on the role of SWAT teams.
JEFFREY KAYE: They looked like commandos on a military operation, heavily armed, dressed in combat gear. Actually, they were members of the Fresno, California SWAT unit on a recent mission to arrest parole violators.
POLICEMAN YELLING: Fresno Police Department! Come to the door.
JEFFREY KAYE: In Fresno, the SWAT team is part of the violent crimes suppression unit, the VCSU.
COMMANDER: VCSU and parole agents will be looking for wanted people and also hitting areas that have been identified by the Southwest personnel as being high gang and drug activities areas.
JEFFREY KAYE: Periodically, the Fresno SWAT unit joins other area law enforcement agencies to saturate high crime areas. The squad is assigned to high risk, as well as to routine arrest warrants. On the day we accompanied them, they stopped a homeless man who resembled a parole violator. He wasn't. And they arrested another man wanted on drug charges.
SGT. HENRY JACOBA, Fresno Police Department: We came here, searched his trailer. He was in there.
JEFFREY KAYE: Sgt. Henry Jacoba says SWAT has become a key part of Fresno policing.
SGT. HENRY JACOBA: We're just part of community-based policing. That's the way I see it. And we have a function, because in any police work you're going to have crime, violent crime. And that's for us to deal with. We have the tactics. We have--working together as a team, we have the team concept.
CHIEF ED WINCHESTER, Fresno Police Department: Crime members and crime stats sometimes mean a great deal to us--
JEFFREY KAYE: Fresno Police Chief Ed Winchester says his goal is to create a highly visible deterrent force.
CHIEF ED WINCHESTER: We do not detain a person without a reason to detain them. But when a car is stopped, or a person is detained, they are overwhelmed, not only with officers, but with weapons. Most often the gang members or the crack dealers--they're used to facing our individual patrol officers--are overwhelmed when a team of well-trained, well-equipped officers arrive at an area.
JEFFREY KAYE: Critics say Fresno should cut crime by spending less on police and more on job creation. But, by and large, there's community support for the SWAT team's operations. One appreciative Fresno resident met the team when they went to arrest her grandson. He wasn't home. But the grandmother loaned the officers a camera, so she'd have a memento of the visit. The mystique of the SWAT team has become a cultural phenomenon. TV shows and the Internet reflect the growing military approach to crime. Policing in this city of 360,000 reflects a national trend: the militarizing of American law enforcement. That's according to Peter Kraska, a police science professor and co-author of a study on the increased use of SWAT or special weapons and tactics teams.
PETER KRASKA, Eastern Kentucky University: Previously, they were seen, as most people know, as a reactive type of unit that only handled the rare barricaded hostage sniper situation. And they were peripherally part of a police organization. And what we found is that now these units are being normalized into the police organization. They're now carrying on normal, everyday police functions, such as serving search warrants, doing patrol work, serving arrest warrants.
JEFFREY KAYE: According to Kraska, 80 percent of American cities have what he calls police paramilitary units. And he says the SWAT teams are coming to resemble elite military teams. They're using military equipment, training with the military, and using military tactics. In Orlando, Florida, the SWAT team not only looks militaristic, it also has strong ties to the military, in particular to the naval air warfare training center where the team has begun to train on equipment developed by the Navy.
TRAINER: As soon as you hear the grenade, that's your cue. Kill.
JEFFREY KAYE: Commando teams shoot at screens depicting hostage dramas. The scenes change depending on the accuracy of the simulated shots. Afterwards, the trainees study their movements.
JUAN: There you go! Bingo! That's a lethal round!
JEFFREY KAYE: This equipment was developed by the Navy at a cost of one million dollars. Its shared use now with civilian law enforcement is a result of a 1994 agreement between the U.S. Departments of Defense and Justice. The $60 million partnership program is funding weaponry, much of it non-lethal, as well as high tech equipment for field us of training. Janet Weisenford is a program manager with the Naval Air Warfare Center. She and Deputy Program Manager Jeff Horey say the police and military are learning from each other.
JANET WEISENFORD, Naval Air Warfare Center: Where I see, I guess, the natural synergy is in a couple of different areas. One is in the operations other than war on the military side, as we see an increase in peacekeeping missions. I think there's a synergistic relationship there with law enforcement because you have more of a convergence of the kinds of operations.
JEFF HOREY, Naval Air Warfare Center: The military typically has been the leader in technology development. That's where the money in this country has been invested. So certainly the law enforcement community can capitalize on those investments, look at training strategies, look at training environments, and try to share in that.
JEFFREY KAYE: In addition to the new technology, hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of surplus military equipment is being transferred to local police as a result of military downsizing. Army helicopters that once did service in Vietnam are now used for surveillance in American cities. Police departments are refurbishing armored personnel carriers acquired from the military and are building their weapons inventories with military firearms.
OFFICER JUAN McDERMOTT, Orlando Police Department: These are, I guess, the M-14 that we received, and, I guess, in a package deal.
JEFFREY KAYE: Orlando police have received six M-14 rifles from the military, and Los Angeles police recently obtained 600 army surplus M-16 rifles.
VOICE: They're heavily armored.
JEFFREY KAYE: Police say the need for the heavy weaponry became apparent after a Los Angeles shootout in February. Two bank robbers wearing full body armor wounded 13 people before they were killed.
VOICE: I've been hit!
JEFFREY KAYE: The men shot armor-piercing bullets from submachine guns and Los Angeles police were literally outgunned. Commander Rick Dinse says the new M-16's will make the LAPD better prepared.
COMMANDER RICK DINSE, Los Angeles Police Department: The actual usefulness of the weapon is really in the firepower that this weapon brings. This kind of weapon will fire a round that can defeat the body armor, which was a serious problem at the scene. We didn't have that kind of weapon out there. And it appears in society today that we're seeing more and more of this kind of weaponry in the field and more and more inclination on the part of suspects to use it. And our officers need that kind of capability.
JEFFREY KAYE: In addition to law enforcement using military equipment, joint training with the military is also becoming more common.
PETER KRASKA: There's a lot of cross-training going on, training going on with the Navy Seals and the police, training going on with military special operations experts and the police. Our research showed, in fact, that almost 50 percent of police departments today are engaged in some kind of training with military special operations experts currently.
JEFFREY KAYE: Many in law enforcement and the military are reluctant to discuss joint training. But Lt. Sid Heal, a SWAT instructor with the LA Sheriff's Department, says military training for police has arisen out need.
LT. SID HEAL, Los Angeles Sheriff's Department: All we have to do is go to our memorial and you can see the number of people that we lost before we started realizing it.
JEFFREY KAYE: You were telling me before about training with Marines, training with SEALS. Could you explain what you've done?
LT. SID HEAL: Now, some of this stuff I'm going to have to dance around on, because it's classified, just so you know. In fact, I'm starting to get nervous even just thinking about it. But, no, we've trained with most of the special operations units in the military.
JEFFREY KAYE: What kind of training?
LT. SID HEAL: A lot of urban movement, maritime interdiction operations, hostage rescue, a long of long rifle training, sniper training.
JEFFREY KAYE: To many police officers the threat from well-armed criminals justifies a military-style approach to law enforcement. Juan McDermott is an Orlando SWAT officer, as well as a reserve Marine.
OFFICER JUAN McDERMOTT: There's a lot of things that the military can do on a regular basis as far as training and actual combat we all learn from. And a lot of people don't realize that; that when we give to a call out for lack of a better description, we are in combat.
JEFFREY KAYE: Equating crime control to war bothers Patience Milrod. She's a Fresno lawyer who says the military approach to crime is wrong.
PATIENCE MILROD: This militarization of the police function shifts our expectations of what the police will do. And we're no longer back in the days when the police--cop is walking a beat, or there's a policeman on a bicycle, and there's a certain range of behavior that we expect from a police officer that's got a relationship with the community in which he or she is functioning. And that is an entirely different expectation than we have of a police officer who operates as if he or she were in a war. I mean, the idea of war is that there is an enemy, the enemy is as anonymous as humanly possible, and you do everything you can to obliterate that enemy.
OFFICER: Everybody who thinks that we're maybe the excess of the department or a waste of money are the same individuals that can't wait for us to get there if they're in that situation. So for a lot of reasons it all depends on what side of the fence you're on. If you've ever had to be escorted by the SWAT team or you have been in close proximity to a critical incident where the SWAT team had to come and maybe remove you from that situation, you can appreciate why we're there.
JEFFREY KAYE: Even SWAT critics agree police paramilitary units are needed in extreme situations, but they say there's no evidence to suggest their use in routine police work reduces crime. SWAT advocates argue these days routine policing too often involves unexpected violence.