SWAT History a Series of Highs, Lows in L.A.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In Los Angeles, investigators are looking into a recent shoot-out that claimed the life of a toddler. The LAPD acknowledges that one of its SWAT officers accidentally shot the child who allegedly was being used as a human shield by her father. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, the incident is a black mark on the city's SWAT team, which was the first police unit of its kind in the world.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:
LA police say it was the first time in SWAT's 38-year history that the elite squad killed a hostage during a standoff. The shoot-out made headlines around the country.
(Soundbite of news report)
Unidentified Reporter: A toddler is dead, killed while being used as a human shield by her own father during a police shoot-out...
DEL BARCO: Nineteen-month-old Suzie Pena's family and friends are demanding answers. Meanwhile, Assistant Chief George Gascon told reporters that the officers involved are devastated.
Assistant Chief GEORGE GASCON (Los Angeles Police Department): We have SWAT officers that are having tremendous emotional problems. We have some people that we don't know whether they'll be able to come back, to be honest with you, because of the emotional distress.
Mr. JEFFREY EGLASH (Attorney): I have to believe that this particular incident is sort of every SWAT officer's absolute worst nightmare.
DEL BARCO: Attorney Jeffrey Eglash is a former inspector general for the LAPD.
Mr. EGLASH: I'd like to know whether less lethal options were considered, whether they were available. But I also know from my experience at LAPD that SWAT, they train constantly. They are the cream of the crop. They're the best. And they don't act as cowboys.
DEL BARCO: LA's police department has been rocked by scandal. But until now, the SWAT team's reputation has been fairly golden. Police departments across America and around the world have copied the SWAT model. David Dotson is a former assistant chief who worked in the LAPD for 34 years.
Mr. DAVID DOTSON (Former Assistant Chief, Los Angeles Police Department): SWAT will go to great lengths, almost infinite lengths, not to use force. They adopted a slogan, `Time, talk and tear gas.'
DEL BARCO: LA's SWAT team earned a permanent spot in popular culture, inspiring a TV series, a movie and a theme song that was a Top 40 hit.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. DARYL GATES (Former Police Chief): Of course, we hated the "S.W.A.T." television program because it did not portray what SWAT was all about. They also had great equipment, and SWAT had lousy equipment.
DEL BARCO: Former police chief Daryl Gates formed the first SWAT team back in 1966 after LA police found themselves outgunned by snipers during the Watts riots. He put together a ragtag unit of ex-military police officers and had them train with the Marines. He named it SWAT, Special Weapons Attack Team.
Mr. GATES: And my boss at the time said, `Daryl, you cannot say Special Weapons Attack Teams. That is just not--you just can't call it that.' So I said OK, so I liked the acronym SWAT. That was kind of catchy. And so we went to back to Special Weapons and Tactics.
DEL BARCO: Gates says at first, many in the department didn't believe in SWAT's paramilitary tactics. But many saw the team's value when SWAT tangled with heavily armed members of the Black Panthers in a famous shoot-out in 1969.
Mr. GATES: That's the first time we got to show off, quite frankly.
DEL BARCO: Gates says SWAT was ready to deploy a military grenade launcher, but the Panthers surrendered. The next major test came in 1974 when SWAT confronted the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
DEL BARCO: During the fiery shoot-out, Gates says the SWAT team shot tear gas into the home where the SLA was barricaded. The place exploded in a fireball, killing six SLA members.
Mr. GATES: That was a mission where there was simply no way to bring the people out. We did everything in our power. But from the standpoint of the SWAT concept, that was a failure.
DEL BARCO: But over the past 38 years, none of these controversial incidents has been so gut-wrenching for SWAT as the accidental shooting of little Suzie Pena. Daryl Gates wonders if the tragedy will permanently change how SWAT operates.
Mr. GATES: I worry. I really do because it is such an emotional thing and because these officers are so dedicated, that the next time, there'll be a hesitation, and you can't have that hesitation. When they go, they go.
DEL BARCO: LA's current police chief, William Bratton, says while it's clear a SWAT officer fired the bullet that killed Suzie Pena, investigators may never know who that officer was. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.
ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.