RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now to Los Angeles, where the police department could make a change to one of the units that responds to emergencies. The famous SWAT team is close to accepting a female member. That would be a first for a team that's all-male, mostly white, and very resistant to change. Its member ask if the city is scaling back its requirements to be politically correct.
NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: L.A.'s SWAT team was the first of its kind. The idea was to train cops like soldiers and give them combat-style equipment and weapons to deal with anything. Police departments across the country copied what they saw in Los Angeles. And so did Hollywood, with movies, TV shows, and even a SWAT theme song.
(Soundbite of music)
DEL BARCO: But at the core of all the fame was a police unit that remained rooted, some say mired, in the past. Now for the first time in its more than 40 year history, L.A.'s SWAT has allowed a woman to enter its training program. If 36-year-old Jennifer Grasso survives the intense 12-week course, she'll make history.
Police Chief WILLIAM BRATTON (LAPD): As great as SWAT is, SWAT is continually evolving. It's always trying to find better ways to do things.
DEL BARCO: Police Chief William Bratton says his department's last male bastion was long overdue for change.
Mr. BRATTON: I made it a point to break all the glass ceilings in the LAPD that kept women out of many units of this department for many years.
DEL BARCO: Jennifer Grasso isn't talking to the press while she's in training, but another woman who tried to break into SWAT more than a decade ago has plenty to say.
Ms. NINA ACOSTA: The men in SWAT wanted to keep it kind of elite, like this is really for the men of men. If women can do this job, we're not quite as macho as we once were.
DEL BARCO: Nina Acosta tried out to become a SWAT officer twice in the 1990s and passed the grueling fitness test, but still she didn't make the final cut.
Ms. ACOSTA: There only could've been one reason, and that was because I was a woman. I did very well in the tryouts. I knew I did. And when we got the tapes - because they taped the whole process - it proved exactly what I knew all along, that I had beaten most of those guys in the head-to-head in a competition.
DEL BARCO: Costa sued the LAPD for discrimination in 1994 and won her case. The jury awarded her more than $2 million in damages. But she says the culture of SWAT failed to change.
Ms. ACOSTA: The lieutenant in charge was very vocal and very arrogant about saying that women do not belong in SWAT. You guys can work in the field and work in juvenile detectives or, you know, work the front desk and all that stuff, but SWAT's where all the men play.
DEL BARCO: Traditionally, SWAT officers came up through the exclusive Metro Division, says Joe Domanick, senior fellow at USC's Institute for Justice and Journalism.
Mr. JOE DOMANICK: They got to vote on who was allowed to come into their units. These were the traditional white guy jobs.
DEL BARCO: Dominick says SWAT only began to change after a federal consent decree ordered the LAPD to diversify its special units. African-Americans were finally accepted in, and were Latinos.
Mr. DOMANICK: But it was still this old boys club. It was still based on how strong you were, how fast you could run, how agile you were. It was used as a way to keep women out. It was kind of the triumph of super-Rambo fitness and a quick trigger finger over problem-solving skills.
DEL BARCO: L.A.'s SWAT team began in 1967 as a response to the Watts riots, when police were outgunned by snipers. Back then former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates was still an inspector when he started pushing the idea of a paramilitary-style police unit.
Mr. DARYL GATES (Former LAPD Chief): At that time Vietnam was in play and there were a lot of activists that were concerned about the war and we had the Black Panthers. We had all kinds of groups which intelligence indicated we might have some urban guerilla warfare.
DEL BARCO: A few years ago, Gates told NPR how the Marines helped develop L.A.'s first SWAT team. He said at first the concept had many critics, but that started to change after SWAT helped the FBI take down the Black Panther headquarters in South Central L.A. in 1969.
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It was a four hour confrontation. The Panthers eventually surrendered. Five years later, SWAT faced another big shootout with heavily armed members of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Unidentified Male #1: Come out with your hands up. Come out of the house and you will not be harmed. Come on out.
DEL BARCO: The SLA siege, broadcast on live TV, ended with SWAT officers killing all six suspects. It helped create the image of a special unit that always prevailed no matter the odds.
But in recent years SWAT's luck has changed. Three summers ago there was the accidental shooting of a 19-month-old baby killed by a SWAT sniper during a standoff with a barricaded suspect. And just this year SWAT lost its first team member in the line of fire.
Unidentified Male #2: The deadly SWAT shooting involved Randy Simmons, a 51-year-old with 27 years with the LAPD.
DEL BARCO: Now the department is in the midst of what some may regard as an identity crisis. It's de-emphasizing the tough Marine-style, boot camp training that injured several recruits, and it's emphasizing hostage negotiation skills and other less physical police tactics.
Critics, including some of the wives of veteran SWAT officers, say the standards are being lowered just to make room for women. They worry that will endanger everyone by admitting lesser-qualified officers. But Captain Jeffrey Greer says that's not true.
Captain JEFFREY GREER (SWAT): There is no lowering of standards. I think if anything, the standards have been enhanced. We're raising the bar, and we're looking for the best quality individual to go into the SWAT team.
DEL BARCO: Greer says only five women have ever tried out for the SWAT team and he's rooting for Jennifer Grasso to make it in.
Captain GREER: And I think she's very, very capable. And she's an outstanding individual, and I think she has what it takes to get through that process.
DEL BARCO: The change is welcome, says the head of L.A.'s SWAT team, Lieutenant Mike Albanese, who plans to retire this summer. But he adds that SWAT isn't for everybody.
Lieutenant MIKE ALBANESE: (SWAT): The job itself is very demanding. It takes away from your private life. So if you have a family, something's going to suffer. So unless you have it arranged so that if you get a call at 3:00 in the morning and at zero seven in the morning you're responsible for taking junior and missy to school, all those issues have to be worked out. So it may be appealing, but it may not be practical for some folks.
DEL BARCO: Nina Acosta, who quit the department years ago, now works a desk job and married a SWAT officer in Clovis, California. She credits Chief Bratton for updating SWAT, but says sorry it took so long.
Ms. ACOSTA: I really felt like I deserved to be the first woman in SWAT. So selfishly, it was bittersweet for me. But on the other hand, I'm really excited for Jennifer and for other young women, so I hope that this works out.
DEL BARCO: Acosta says in some ways she feels some closure because SWAT is finally opening its doors to women.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: And you can hear more from Nina Acosta on her experience trying out for L.A.'s SWAT unit at npr.org.
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