Yet long before President Trump, the militarization of the police was being shaped by fantasy and entertainment, with roots in 1960s Los Angeles. In 1965, after a white cop arrested a black man he suspected of drunken driving in a predominantly black neighborhood, the Watts riots resulted. Thousands of National Guard forces and policemen swarmed neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. It resembled the escalating and televised war in Vietnam.
A Los Angeles inspector, Daryl Gates, was persuaded that the department needed its own special-ops corps, with military equipment and outfits, so that cops could look and act like soldiers. He wanted to call the new units Special Weapons Attack Teams: SWAT. (He changed the name to Special Weapons and Tactics). This first SWAT trained on a Universal back lot, the same place “Adam-12” was about to enact its televised Los Angeles Police Department fictions.
After SWAT showed up in 1974 at a Los Angeles hide-out of the Symbionese Liberation Army, firing tear gas and thousands of rounds, all of it broadcast live on TV, the SWAT concept was ready for prime time. Literally: ABC started a dramatic series, “S.W.A.T.”
The show was an immediate hit, and encouraged police departments all over the United States to create their own special forces and acquire all that cool military gear. “Some departments caught onto the idea” of SWAT teams, The New York Times reported in 1975, “after watching the televised shootout between Los Angeles Police Department SWAT” and the S.L.A. Now, a year later, the article continued, “some departments have been stimulated into adopting a SWAT strategy by the weekly network television program that erroneously depicts SWAT teams getting involved in almost every phase of police operations.”