Special Weapons and Tactics Unit
Celebrating Forty Years of Service
The Cleveland Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (SWAT) is widely recognized as one of the most experienced and finest SWAT/Tactical teams in the United States. Known as Cleveland SWAT, the unit has a long–standing track record of professionalism in resolving high-risk situations successfully and safely.
Cleveland SWAT has been in existence since 1979. However, the origins of the SWAT Unit go back to the 1960s. Cleveland, like many cities in the U.S., experienced urban riots. In the aftermath of the 1966 Hough Riots, the Cleveland Police Department formed a specialized unit known as the Task Force.
On the night of July 23, 1968, Cleveland experienced the worst violence in the city’s history. It began with a stakeout of a militant location on the city’s East Side. Suddenly, heavily armed militants emerged from the location and began shooting at the police. It rapidly escalated into a full-blown shootout between police and militants, with devastating results. When the shootout ended, three police officers, one civilian aiding the police and three militants were dead. Thirteen other Police Officers were wounded. Years later, a fourth officer would die from his wounds. The badges of the four slain officers are displayed in the Badge Case, at the CPD Justice Center Headquarters.
The gun battle, known as the “Glenville Shootout,” turned into several days of rioting, resulting in even more casualties and heavy property damage. The aftermath of the Glenville Shootout saw the formation of a new specialized unit, the Tactical Unit. The Tac Unit, as it was called, was specially trained and equipped to counter future threats.
In 1973 the CPD formed a second unit, named the Impact Task Force, known as the Impact Unit, to supplement the Tactical Unit. Both units’ primary assignment was high-risk assignments.
The showpiece of the Tactical Unit was its 12 ton Armored Command Vehicle, known affectionately as “Mother.” The 1974 East Cleveland Shootout, between heavily armed home invasion suspects and police resulted in five police officers from Cleveland and East Cleveland being wounded. However, there were no fatalities. The Tac Unit, “Mother”, and the Impact Unit had proven themselves as a valuable asset of the CPD.
In 1975 the Impact Unit was absorbed into the Tac Unit. In 1976, the Tac Unit was disbanded. In its place, the Tactical Emergency Operations Office was formed to coordinate all tactical activities in the CPD. All six Basic Patrol Districts had Tactical Cars assigned to each platoon. The system soon proved unwieldy.
In 1978, the newly formed Community Response Unit, contained a small group of officers assigned to the Tactical Section. It was the Tactical Section of the Community Response Unit that would evolve into the present SWAT Unit.
In January, 1979, three members of the Los Angeles Police Department SWAT Unit came to Cleveland to provide training for the CRU Tactical Section. This training resulted in the formation of the SWAT Unit, which was now a ‘stand alone’ unit of the Cleveland Police Dept.
As with any new entity, there was open skepticism of the SWAT Unit, which had to prove itself worthy of succeeding the fine units that preceded it. From the very beginning, the SWAT mission was, and remains, the successful and safe resolution of high-risk situations, occurring in the City of Cleveland. These situations include: hostage taking, barricaded suspects, active shooters, riots/disorders, dignitary protection, and high-risk warrant service. Within a short period of time, the SWAT Unit gained a reputation for professionalism and earned the respect of the CPD and citizens of Cleveland.
January 4, 1985 would launch Cleveland SWAT into the national limelight, with an attempted aircraft hijacking of a Pan Am jetliner at Hopkins International Airport. Hopkins was its usual beehive of activity. With two Cleveland Police Airport Unit police in hot pursuit, the armed female suspect shot and wounded a gate ticket agent while passengers were boarding the Pan Am jet. The suspect then entered the plane and held nearly thirty people hostage. She shot at the responding CPD Airport Unit police, who were not hit. The SWAT Unit and the Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) were called and responded to the scene. Thus began a six-hour hostage drama, which received widespread live national and local media coverage. Several hours into the incident, the suspect released all but four hostages; a young mother and infant child, and an elderly couple. As the suspect became increasingly threatening, the decision was made to make a hostage rescue. All four hostages were rescued safely in a coordinated effort conducted by Cleveland SWAT. The suspect was able to fire one shot, which struck a SWAT officer in his protective body armor. A second SWAT officer shot and wounded the suspect, who was immediately incapacitated. The Hopkins hostage drama was over – the hostages were all safe.
The 1980s saw an ominous cloud sweeping across America, spreading from both the East and West Coasts, toward the Midwest. “Crack” cocaine hit Cleveland like a tidal wave in the mid 1980s. “Crack” houses and street dealers sprung up overnight, along with a sharp increase of violence. The “War on Drugs” had come to Cleveland.
The SWAT Unit was pressed into service and would become one of the busiest SWAT teams in the U.S., serving hundreds of high-risk search warrants a year. The role of SWAT in warrant service is to secure the premises and make it safe for detectives to conduct their search. Not without risk to SWAT.
In 1989 a SWAT officer was saved by his body armor when a rifle bullet fired by a teenage suspect during a drug “raid” struck him. Two years later another SWAT officer was wounded during another raid, when a shotgun pellet fired by a suspect struck him. SWAT has been shot at and threatened with weapons on numerous occasions, with a number of SWAT officers saved by their protective equipment and “Mother,” which had been inherited from the Tactical Unit. On one occasion, “Mother” withstood more than 50 rounds fired by a barricaded suspect. “Mother” has been struck by gunfire on numerous other occasions. Over the years, “Mother” has been a most welcome sight to anyone, police or civilian, pinned down by gunfire from suspects.
By the 1990s, “Mother” was starting to show her age. Mechanical difficulties were becoming more frequent. In the mid 1990s, the SWAT Unit collaborated with a major armored vehicle manufacturer to design a new Armored Rescue Vehicle. The result was “Mother 2”, which was obtained by the CPD in 1997, and assigned to SWAT. “Mother 2” is a highly advanced Armored Rescue Vehicle, with sophisticated, enhanced features. Like the original “Mother”, “Mother 2” is deployed during high-risk situations, as well as, community events, where she is warmly received by the citizens of Cleveland.
Cleveland SWAT has a well-earned reputation for professionalism, often assisting other law enforcement entities. These include local, state and federal agencies. Over the years Cleveland SWAT has provided training and assistance to many other SWAT/Tactical teams. Of course, the SWAT Unit conducts an intense, on-going training program for its own personnel. Skills and tactics are honed to a razor sharp edge.
There are additional duties the SWAT Unit handles. These include Dignitary Protection and Crowd/Riot Control. The SWAT Unit is a valuable asset in assisting the Secret Service with the President and Vice President of the United States, and also many other dignitaries requiring enhanced protection.
The SWAT Unit is recognized as the “spearhead” of Cleveland Police Department crowd and riot control tactics. SWAT has worked in concert with virtually every entity of the CPD during volatile crowd and riot situations, supplying specialized training, tactics and equipment.
When the Cleveland Division of Police decided to equip each officer in the department with body armor, the SWAT Unit spearheaded and coordinated the effort. In addition, SWAT has long been considered the “Tactical Advisors” to the department.
The Cleveland Police SWAT Unit is also highly regarded nationally. Its members have received awards for heroism from the Cleveland Division of Police, the National Tactical Officers Association, and Parade Magazine. Cleveland SWAT was also the first SWAT team in the U.S. to hold a team membership in the prestigious National Tactical Officers Association. Yet, SWAT recognizes that it takes a total team effort, and points to the invaluable contributions of so many others in the CPD. These contributions range from the officers “on the street” and detectives, to the administrative leadership and support staff.
Special mention should be made for the Crisis Negotiation Team, which was formed shortly after the SWAT Unit. CNT is a separate entity, consisting of detectives, highly trained in negotiation tactics. During high-risk situations, CNT and SWAT become a single entity, combining to successfully and safely resolve the incident.
This article, written by retired Sergeant Robert J. O’Brien, is a partial reprint from the Cleveland Police Department 2002 Commemorative Album. Bob “O.B.” O’Brien retired after a 31- year career (1967 – 1998) with the Cleveland Division of Police. He spent the vast majority of his career assigned to the S.W.A.T. and Tactical Units and the Impact Task Force. He currently lives in California and is a law enforcement trainer, consultant and writer.