On Aug. 1, 1966, a married 25-year-old former U.S. Marine and college student climbed to the observation deck of the campus tower at the University of Texas at Austin and opened fire on the crowd below.
Charles Whitman, a clean-cut blond engineering major, had already murdered both his mother and young wife prior to climbing that tower. As he ascended to the structure’s 28th floor, Whitman killed another three people and wounded two more. After establishing a vantage point, the heavily armed student systematically fired on anyone unfortunate enough to wander across his line of sight.
Police responding to the scene were unprepared for what they found; the situation was outside the scope of their training and experience. Finally, two officers reached the observation deck and took out Whitman. When the dust cleared, 15 others, including a police officer, had died. One pregnant woman lost her unborn child. That incident was a seminal moment in the development of special weapons and tactics teams. With the pull of a trigger, police across the country realized they needed to be better prepared for shooter and barricaded suspect scenarios.
But before Whitman came Watts
Frank Borelli, editor in chief of LET’s sister publication and website, Officer.com, spent more than 30 years working in law enforcement, much of that time in the training of SWAT officers. Borelli says the Whitman shootings at the Texas tower, coupled with the influx of highly trained returning Vietnam veterans, set the stage for SWAT.
“Some people think Los Angeles had the first SWAT teams, but there was a little agency just north of there that had the first one,” Borelli says. He also points to the Watts riots as a major catalyst for SWAT operations, especially in L.A.
One year before Whitman climbed that Texas tower, the West Coast wake-up call sounded when a California Highway Patrol Officer named Lee Minikus conducted a traffic stop that culminated in the arrest of an L.A. resident and two other members of the suspect’s family. As a crowd of onlookers grew unruly, backup officers were dispatched. Rioting in the predominantly black Watts section of L.A. broke out on Aug. 11, 1965, and continued for six days.
Rioters looted and burned businesses until the National Guard was brought in to quell the uprising. In addition to $40 million in damages (more than $275 million in today’s dollars), 34 people lost their lives and hundreds more sustained injuries. LAPD, which responded to the riots along with other local law enforcement agencies, found its approach to handling large-scale scenes like the Watts riots was not only ineffectual, but also put both officers and innocent civilians in jeopardy. It was obvious something had to change.
Those changes would eventually evolve into today’s SWAT.
Less than a decade after Watts
In 1974, an obscure college student by the name of Patty Hearst was abducted by a group of domestic terrorists who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA. Led by an escaped black convict, Donald DeFreeze (also known as Cinque), the SLA consisted mostly of radical white men and women from upper middle class families.
After attempting to extort the wealthy Hearst family of publishing fame, the SLA, along with its former prisoner, Patty (who later claimed she suffered from Stockholm syndrome), divided. Six members of the group, including DeFreeze and four of the women, holed up in a home on 54th Street in Compton. Police tracked DeFreeze and the other five SLA members to the Compton address and sent the SWAT team in to bring them out. Ron McCarthy, who was the supervisor of one of the four LAPD SWAT units and participated in the SLA operations, says that at the time, “It was the biggest gunfight in law enforcement history.”