How a Standoff with the Black Panthers Fueled the Rise of SWAT

S.W.A.T. teams, specially trained police teams, have been used increasingly in routine matters like serving drug warrants, sometimes with disastrous results.

S.W.A.T. teams were created in the 1960s to combat violent events. Since then, the specialized teams have morphed into a force increasingly used in routine policing, most often to serve drug warrants,sometimes with disastrous results. Which raises the question – are we too militarized?

Related:  The Rise of the SWAT Team in American Policing by Clyde Haberman

For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Producer: Bonnie Bertram
  • Producer: Olivia Katrandjian

For Educators


This 12-minute video shows students how the Watts uprising, the Black Panthers and the racial discontent of the 1960s caused the Los Angeles Police Department to create the nation’s first SWAT team. Once established at the LAPD, and made famous by a popular TV show, the highly militarized SWAT approach to policing proliferated before being repurposed in the 1980s as a key weapon in the War on Drugs. The video provides students with an opportunity to connect a modern controversy, the debate over militarized policing, with a specific historical cause, and understand historical causation and how modern issues have historical origins. The video is useful as a way to flash forward while covering the 1960s to demonstrate how the increasingly militant civil rights movement of the late 1960s created effects we are still feeling today. It could also be paired with a unit on 21st century problems with historical roots in the 1960s.

Background reading

The presence of heavily armed SWAT teams in big cities and small towns has normalized the militarization of the local police force, but it wasn’t always that way.

In 1965, the Los Angeles Police Department was caught off guard by the Watts uprising, which lasted six days and required thousands of National Guardsmen to end.

In response, the LAPD developed highly-trained, heavily armed five-man teams to handle extraordinary events like hostage taking, high-powered shootouts and riots. The word SWAT is derived from the teams’ mission: Special Weapons and Tactics.

The LAPD SWAT teams initially displayed their training in 1969, when they attempted to serve warrants on two Black Panthers in an early morning raid. The encounter led to gun battle, but the team accomplished its task.

In 1974, SWAT teams gained a higher profile after a dramatic shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army, which left five members of the terrorist organization dead. Soon big cities and small towns wanted their own SWAT teams too.

In the 1980s, SWAT teams were deployed to fight the War on Drugs and became a staple on the evening news, busting down doors and throwing suspects to the floor.

As their roles increased, so too did their firepower, thanks to government programs that transferred military equipment to local police departments for SWAT use.

So it came as little surprise that when SWAT teams lined up to confront protesters in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, they looked more like combat troops than peacekeepers.

Lesson Plan 1: Watts Uprising and the Militarization of Policing

Students will learn how racial discontent in the 1960s led to the creation of the nation’s first SWAT team, how the War on Drugs of the 1980s caused SWAT teams to be repurposed for drug raids, and how, in recent years, the SWAT approach to policing has fueled a nationwide trend: the militarization of local police departments.

  • How the 1965 uprising in Los Angeles and a 1969 gun battle between police and Black Panthers contributed to a nationwide trend: the militarization of police forces, and the routine use of SWAT teams.
  • How the War on Drugs during the 1980s had the effect of altering and shifting the original purpose of SWAT teams toward an increasingly narrow focus on drug-related policing.
  • How the militarization of police departments is creating controversy in local communities across the United States.
Essential questions
  • How did the 1965 uprisings in LA and the rise of the Black Panthers contribute to the creation of SWAT teams?
  • How did the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs contribute to the growth of SWAT teams? What percentage of SWAT deployments are now drug-related? How does this differ from the original purpose of SWAT teams?
  • How do local police departments obtain military equipment?
  • What action did President Obama take to try to reverse the militarization of local police departments?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 9.6: Challenges of the 21st Century

      Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical development relates to another historical development.

      Theme 8: Social Structures (SOC)