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What is a SWAT Team?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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A Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team is a specially trained law enforcement team which responds to potentially dangerous events, such as a situation which may involve hostages. These special response teams go by a number of alternate names, but most civilians refer colloquially to any sort of special response team as a SWAT team, regardless as to its official name. Generally, this term is used only within the United States, with international special response teams having their own colorful acronyms.

The origins of the SWAT team can be found in 1960s Los Angeles, when the police department recognized a growing need for an elite, highly-trained response team which could handle emerging situations. The first SWAT team was established there in 1967, and the concept quickly spread across the nation to other police departments. Today, most major American police departments have a SWAT team, as do other law enforcement agencies, and forces which do not have one typically have a cooperative agreement with a law enforcement agency that does.

In order to qualify to be SWAT personnel, a police officer must generally have several years of experience on active duty, and as a general rule he or she should have been recognized for especially excellent service. When an officer is accepted to the SWAT team, he or she receives specialized SWAT training, along with an assortment of tools which are available only to SWAT police, including specialized body armor, distinctive weapons, and access to riot gear and specially outfitted vehicles.

Because a SWAT team is not constantly in action, most people on these teams work as regular police officers most of the time, but make themselves available on an on-call basis for SWAT calls. When a SWAT team is activated, whichever SWAT officers are on call will be sent out, and some may be kept on standby in case the situation escalates and requires additional officers.

Whenever a suspect is believed to be heavily armed or suicidal, a SWAT team is sent out. These teams also serve arrest warrants to dangerous subjects, intervene in hostage situations, help to break down barricades, work on counter-terrorism missions, provide perimeter security for high-profile events, and provide assistance in other high-risk situations. Thanks to the involvement of SWAT officers in dangerous situations, these teams also plays a role in popular culture.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By behaviourism — On Jan 28, 2011

@aaaCookie,you sound a little skeptical of SWAT and other games like it, and I do not blame you. I feel like video games in general have become more about shooting "the enemy" and asserting power than just about being on the good side and preventing the spread of evil. I also think that they give people sort of unrealistic ideas about SWAT team requirements and tactics.

By aaaCookie — On Jan 26, 2011

There is also a video game series called SWAT that now has nine different titles, beginning with an original in which you played a regular police officer. While I have never played them, I think they are similar to many other first-person shooter and strategy games that are popular today, in which the player is some sort of important authority figure, and the enemies are all criminals or other seeming undesirables.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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