The Rise of SWAT Units 1 of 3: The Need For SWAT

By R. Jacob Hedden

The Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT concept, originated in the late 1960’s by the LAPD as a result of several “authority challenging” incidents against both civilians and police officers around the United States. Many of these incidents occurred in Los Angeles, during and after the Watts Riot of 1965. With the addition of a specialized, military-style tactics force, law enforcement officers have the ability to continually maintain order and contain any outbreak ensued by a riot, or large group of civilians.

Throughout history, LAPD’s SWAT Team has been showcased in many movies, books, and newspapers across the nation. What many Americans don’t realize is that there has not always been a SWAT team assembled and ready to perform whenever a new department was founded for their area. With the rising support of Civil Rights in American society throughout the 1960’s, not all protests were peaceful, creating many incidents of civil unrest. That’s why the LAPD constructed a special force to address this national issue.

After the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the subject of race relations appeared to be going in the right direction for the United States.  However, many states failed to enforce the newly passed laws, including California. In 1963, the Rumford Fair Housing Act was proposed to the California State Legislature by William Byron Rumford, the first African American to serve in the California Legislature. The act passed in 1963 and deemed it unconstitutional for a landlord to deny a person housing because of ethnicity, religion, sex, marital status, physical handicap, or familial status. In 1964, the California State Legislature created Proposition 14, which would nullify the Rumford Housing Act. Following much publicity, the proposition gained endorsement from many large conservative political groups, such as the John Birch Society and the California Republican Assembly. As more groups endorsed the proposal, as it became more popular the measure reached 1 million signatures, even though only 480,000 we needed. Proposition 14 passed by a 65% majority vote in the 1964 California elections. Of course, it caused a feeling of injustice within the inner city population.

On August 11, 1965, a Los Angeles police officer pulled over African American motorist Marquette Frye and his brother, Ronald. The officer suspected Marquette of driving drunk. As the officers questioned the young man, a crowd of civilians formed around the questioning officers. More officers had arrived on the scene in a call for backup. Rena Frye, the men’s mother came to the scene and a struggle between the family and the officers broke out. This led to the officers hitting the young men with their batons and arresting all three members of the Frye family. A crowd had formed by this point and was extremely angry at what they had seen. After the officers had left the scene, the angry crowd began to riots and these riots lasted for six days.

The riots left more than 3,000 arrested, over 30 people killed, 1,000 wounded, and an estimated $75 to $100 million dollars in property damage.

(Figure 1: Buildings burning during Watts Riot of 1965
Photo Credit:

After the Watts Riots, Governor Pat Brown named John McCone to head a commission to study the riots. The McCone Report issued by the commission concluded that “The riots weren’t the act of thugs, but rather symptomatic of much deeper problems” (Luna Ray Films).

The California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights claimed “the report is elementary, superficial, unorganized and unimaginative… and.. a marked and surprising lack of understanding of the civil rights movement…. The McCone Commission failed totally to make any findings concerning the existence or nonexistence of police malpractice“(McCone Biography).

After the Riots, LAPD Chief William Parker stressed the need for a more structured way to deal with crowd control and civil unrest. Upon critical examination of the McCone reports on how each incident during the Watts Riots was managed by police, the higher powers of the LAPD realized that an “effective response to these dangerous situations was virtually non-existent.” After the much discussion of the Watts Riots, Officer John Nelson, a former Marine and Vietnam War Veteran, came up with the idea of a special weapons and tactics concept to tend to civil unrest and riots, such as the Watts Riots. “This was the brainchild of John Nelson, but it took somebody with some rank and some chutzpah to champion it,” said Glynn Martin. (Former LAPD officer and executive director of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society) “And that’s where Daryl Gates came in.

Daryl F. Gates, a young inspector (now a rank known as commander) and future Chief of the LAPD, who had supervised patrol officers during the Watts Riots, was in full support of Nelson’s idea. Gates knew that a uniformed course of action had to be set in place to maintain order if future incidents such as the 1965 summer riots were to break out. While Nelson’s military background helped, he searched for other units in the area being used effectively. He found that the Delano Police Department had come up with a specialized force to control the farm-worker protests led by Cesar Chavez.

While Nelson continued a search of a new method to counter the snipers and guerrilla style war tactics used against LAPD during the Watts riots, Gates and other LAPD officials decided unanimously on the idea of a military-style trained team of law enforcement officers who could react quickly, accurately, and with overwhelming force to particularly dangerous situations.

Nelson visited the Delano Police Department to develop a better idea of how to shape a team. He brought back three specific groups of specialists to form a single unit. The three specialist groups that were found to be useful were crowd control officers, riot police, and snipers.

Next week, Mr. Hedden will bring part two of his series on the Rise of SWAT teams.


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