Although many note that specialized weapons and tactics were used as early as the time of the civil war, special SWAT teams were not created until much later. Chris Pizzo cites William E. Fairbain as the creator of the first SWAT team. Fairbain organized his specialized teams, the Shanghai Municipal Police Force, to defend against riots, guerilla attacks and terrorists in the 1920s. Fairbains men were the first police group to use automatic weapons, carbines and high-powered rifles. They also used body armor, armed motorcycles, and chemicals to repel attackers.
They countered snipers, used martial arts, and excelled at hand-to-hand combat. While Fairbains men originally worked in Shanghai, they brought their methods back to the United States (Pizzo, 2007). In Los Angeles, the need for teams with specialized weapons and tactics was made evident in 1965, when Marquette Frye, a black man, was arrested for driving while intoxicated. His mother tried to stop the arrest, and drew a crowd. The event sparked anger and rioting against policemen in Los Angeles. According to Lee W. Minikus, the rioters threw rocks and gigantic pieces of concrete at patrol officers.
The officers were armed only with eleven shotguns one per car, and batons. After being attacked, they used their batons on the rioters to defend themselves. According to Minikus, They were not rioters, as far as Im concerned, they were gangsters. The officers neighbors, some white, some Latino, defended his wife and children, holding rifles on their front porches. The riots left 25 blacks and nine whites dead. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 others were injured. Rioters burnt businesses to ash and damaged more than 600 properties. Ironically, Minikus and Marquette remained friends after the incident (Reitman & Landsberg, 2005).
In the summer of 1966, Americas need for SWAT teams became even clearer when a tragedy struck Texas. A disturbed engineering student and former marine, Charles Whitman, killed his wife and parents, then climbed to a tower on the University of Austins campus and began shooting down students. Whitman allowed others to get close enough to aid the wounded victims, and then shot the would-be rescuers as well. He even shot an eight months pregnant woman in the stomach, killing her baby. When police arrived on the scene, they had to plan to reach Whitman or to help the victims.
Some tried to bring him down with an airplane, but were repelled by his gunfire. Eventually, the officers were able to bring Whitman down by using an underground tunnel. When they reached Whitman, he fired on them. They returned fire and finally ended Whitmans attack (Snow, 1996). The tower massacre lead police to the realization that they needed to be more prepared for such attacks. Meanwhile, after the Watts riots, several snipers shot innocent civilians and police were not able to respond efficiently to such disasters. The Los Angeles Police Department was the first to find a way to respond (LAPD, 2008).
Officer John Nelson, supported by inspector Darryl Gates, came up with a special weapons and tactics squad, which would enlist a small group of extremely disciplined officers to handle the most challenging and unusual problems faced by the force. The original LAPD SWAT team consisted of fifteen men, who had both police and military experience. They operated once a month, or when they were actually needed. By the 1970s, however, SWAT teams operated on a full-time basis in larger cities. In 1971, they officially adopted the name of SWAT (Snow, 1996).