SWAT Team Suffers First Loss

It started with a 911 call: a man in the San Fernando Valley area claimed to have gunned down three relatives, and phoned in to report the deaths. The Los Angeles Police Department followed its routine—dispatching its SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactical) unit, a storied force that has been in on some of the most dramatic showdowns in recent California history. The team rushed to the house, fired in tear gas canisters, and broke down the front door. But this time the unit's luck ran out. Officer Randal Simmons, 51, a SWAT team member, was shot and killed on his way in; also wounded was Officer James Veenstra, who is expected to survive. By the time the overnight standoff ended, the suspect too had died, though the police have not yet indicated the cause of his death. Officer Simmons's was the first death in the line of duty in the SWAT team's 41-year history.

In some ways it is a miracle the SWAT unit's good fortune lasted this long. The team—a model for police departments across the country—was the tip of the spear during a four-hour shootout with the Black Panthers in 1969 that resulted in six Panthers and three officers being wounded. Its members waged a fiery battle against the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, in which six members of that group died in a house fire likely caused by SWAT tear gas canisters. And the SWAT team waged a fierce gunfight with machine-gun-toting bank robbers on the streets of North Hollywood in 1997 that was shown live on television.

Glynn Martin, a retired 20-year veteran officer of the LAPD, is now executive director of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society. He has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the department, including the SWAT unit, and counts Simmons and Veestra as close friends. Martin spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about Thursday's deadly standoff and the team's triumphs and tragedies over the years. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: First, what can you tell us about SWAT officers Randy Simmons and Jim Veestra?
Glynn Martin:
Both are extremely capable and tenured officers, team leaders. And both are good friends of mine. Jim, who they tell me will survive and recover, was a couple years ahead of me in high school, and I grew up with his sister. I played football against Randy in the police department's games. He was a true professional. It's just a tragic loss.

Do you think in this particular case it was a good idea for them to go into the house? Aren't SWAT teams trained to be patient and negotiate before shooting?
Yes. Each and every member of our SWAT team is highly trained in crisis negotiation. I don't know all of the circumstances of this case as of yet, but the only reason they came into the house was they thought they had a chance to save lives. There were three victims who they thought they could save. That's what SWAT is always concerned with: saving lives.

So how and when did the SWAT unit come about?
A number of events occurred both here in Los Angeles and nationwide in the mid-1960s that led to the formation of the unit, which at the beginning focused primarily on antisniper capability. Nationally there were instances of sniping at police officers, and there was the Texas tower sniper incident. [In August 1966 a University of Texas student named Charles Whitman climbed up to an observation deck in the university's administration building and gunned down 14 people, wounding 31 others.] The idea was conceived in late 1965 here, after the Watts riots, but it wasn't until 1967 that the acronym SWAT was approved.

What was this new unit's first major operation?
The visit to Los Angeles by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 was the first major assignment. But in terms of notoriety, what brought our team to the forefront was the shootout with Black Panthers on Dec. 8, 1969. Three SWAT agents were shot and wounded during the carrying out of search warrants at the Panther headquarters. The warrants had to do with weapons and explosive chargers. One of those SWAT officers who was wounded is a volunteer now here at the museum.

Early on, the Los Angeles SWAT team was considered a "ragtag outfit" that used guerrilla warfare and military tactics and was feared, yes?
Well, it's tough to speak to public perception when you work with these guys. But from a professional standpoint, these are people we have always called on when the day-to-day officer is in trouble. I can tell you that the folks that work in the SWAT unit consider themselves lifesavers. There are copious instances when the average officer would have been under fire and not be able to respond in any other way. SWAT officers have things at their disposal to neutralize a suspect. And the technologies continue to evolve. They are more capable of saving lives than they were 40 years ago.

Los Angeles was the first city to have such a unit, and other cities followed, right?
Yes. LAPD is the pioneer in forming a special team of officers, which of course has grown and evolved into a multifaceted operations tool. Other departments around the country and the world followed. Some used the name SWAT, while others came up with different names.

The Symbionese Liberation Army incident in 1974, too, got a lot of attention, and the SWAT team again was criticized, yes?
I'm actually building an exhibit in the museum on that very incident. It happened in May of 1974, when six members of the SLA holed up in a residence on 54th street in South L.A. and needed to be brought to justice for recent crimes, including the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the murder of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster, and more recently the robbery of Mel's Sporting Goods in Los Angeles. SWAT and FBI traced them to 1866 E. 54th Street. They were bullhorned 19 times the request to surrender. Then our SWAT team was met with gunfire from within the house. It was a lengthy and televised exchange. The house ultimately burned, and the remains of six people were later discovered. The belief was that the tear gas ignited the fire. The tear gas canisters then burned at a high temperature. Today the tear gas grenades burn at much lower rate.

What was the fallout of that incident for the department and for SWAT?
When six people lose their lives, even when those six are hardened criminals, it is a bad day all around. But the department, at the behest of mayor, did a lengthy investigation and determined that the situation was handled as best we could given the circumstances. The officers were being shot at, after making repeated requests for the suspects to surrender.

One of the most dramatic police situations in recent history occurred in North Hollywood in 1997 with the shootout with bank robbers, which was shown on live TV in Los Angeles. How did SWAT officers get involved?
It occurred on Feb. 28, 1997, after a robbery of a Bank of America in North Hollywood. It was a protracted, 44-minute gunfight, but the officers engaged in the fight were outgunned by the bank robbers, who had machine guns. The police had handguns and pump shotguns. Three SWAT officers—Steve Gomez, Don Anderson, and Rick Massa—arrived and engaged with the surviving suspect. It was captured on tape. There were wounded officers, and there was no tried-and-true method of taking these suspects into custody.

What do the rank and file think of Hollywood's depiction of SWAT, from the TV series in the 1970s whose song was a top 40 hit to the 2003 movie starring Samuel Jackson and Colin Farrell?
The adviser to that recent movie was one of our retired guys, Randy Walker. He's an old friend of mine, a retired SWAT officer. But the TV and movie depictions of SWAT are more entertainment than reality.

Do you think the incident this week will change the way the SWAT team goes about its business?
I would hope and expect that the public will support the special weapons team and the department in this instance. But from a historical perspective, most of the major engagements involving SWAT have resulted in improvements in capabilities and tactics. After the 1997 North Hollywood shootout, for example, the department adopted semiautomatic rifles for the officers as well as bullet-resistant panels in the patrol car doors for the black-and-whites. These kinds of things we do to try to protect ourselves so we can better protect the community. When you have a major tragic event like the one that happened this week, changes do emerge.