The Disturbing Evolution of SWAT Teams in American Cinema

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Top Tier Gear USA

swat wikimedia

When most people try to make a point about how aggressive and militaristic our cops have become, they typically draw upon pop culture references, such as the Andy Griffith Show. They’ll say “Whatever happened Mayberry? Whatever happened to that polite sheriff and his goofy deputy?” It’s one of the most effective ways to express how creepy our police have become over the years, because it’s so much easier for the average person to digest a pop culture analogy. And since movies and TV shows draw upon real life to give their stories some semblance of accuracy, these analogies can still inform us about what has transpired in the real world.

However, it isn’t just beat cops and small town sheriffs that have changed over the years. Our SWAT teams have also seen an alarming evolution since they first started showing up in our major cities in the 60’s and 70’s. Arguably, the idea of a SWAT team was initially a good idea. It wasn’t uncommon in metropolitan areas, for there to be crimes that required a heavily armed police response.

But over time, these SWAT teams grew in number, and eventually started to resemble elite military units. And with that, they started being deployed for just about any crime under the sun. Now about 80% of small cities with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 have a SWAT team, and by some estimates, there are as many as 80,000 SWAT raids every year. Most of these raids are for private residences, and many of them don’t even involve violent people. Essentially, what started out as a good idea, has become an excuse for our government to bypass posse comitatus, and deploy veritable soldiers on our streets to enforce the law.

And much like the Andy Griffith comparisons, you can see this transformation occur over the years in our TV shows and movies. It all started with the S.W.A.T. TV drama, which was likely the very first time these police units were ever portrayed by the media. When American’s first tuned into the show in February of 1975, this is what they saw in the intro.

S.W.A.T. show

In the first few seconds, the cast just looks like they’re dressed as very ordinary cops who happen to be carrying M16s. By the end of the intro they’re all wearing blue fatigues and flak vests, which was a common motif throughout the 70’s. It’s similar to what you see the SWAT guys wearing in the 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead.

dawn of the dead

From 1981 to 1987, the show Hill Street Blues gave us a version of SWAT teams that modern audiences can easily recognize.

lieutenant hunter

However, the resemblance isn’t in their appearance, which wasn’t all that different than what we saw in the 70’s. It’s the character of Lieutenant Howard Hunter that embodies the antics of modern SWAT teams. He is a military veteran who is always eager to fight, a bit trigger happy, and giddy about the prospect of receiving any new high-tech weapon or vehicle. He is prone to overkill, while simultaneously clumsy with his operations. In the show his occasional ineptness is played for laughs, but in the real world, characters like him probably contribute to the countless botched SWAT raids we see every year.

By the time the 90’s came around, movies started to give us our first glimpse of the terrifying storm troopers that we’re all too familiar with today. Specifically, the SWAT team in the 1994 flick Léon The Professional, is a major departure from how these cops were portrayed in the past. Clad in black and donning menacing ski masks, they no longer have any resemblance to a typical police officer.

leon the professional

By the time the remake of the S.W.A.T. TV show came out 2003, the transformation into what we see today among cops was nearly complete.

2003 swat

I say ‘nearly’ complete, because Hollywood has been using some variation of this appearance ever since. By 2008, this is what a SWAT team looked like according to The Dark Knight, which is what they still look like in most movies today.

dark knight

In reality, Hollywood has yet to catch up to the awful truth. Nowadays, many SWAT teams are completely indistinguishable from soldiers.

CHP Swat

Within the next couple of years, that’s what you’re going to be seeing in movies and TV shows. The day these guys show up in the next Hollywood blockbuster, is the day you’ll realize that the soldier-cop has become the new normal.

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Contributed by Joshua Krause of The Daily Sheeple.

Joshua Krause is a reporter, writer and researcher at The Daily Sheeple. He was born and raised in the Bay Area and is a freelance writer and author. You can follow Joshua’s reports at Facebook or on his personal Twitter. Joshua’s website is Strange Danger .

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