Thoughts on Outdoor Channel’s “Elite Tactical Unit: S.W.A.T.” and the Militarization of American Society

My recent reading of Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (PublicAffairs, 2013) led me to re-view the Outdoor Channel series “Elite Tactical Unit: S.W.A.T” (hereafter “ETU”) from a very different perspective than my initial viewing.

Outdoor Channel describes the show on its website this way: Elite Tactical Unit: S.W.A.T. is a character-driven, adrenaline-fueled reality show featuring the fierce competition between active-duty S.W.A.T. officers who are put into realistic missions that are both mentally rigorous and physically dangerous. . . . [T]he S.W.A.T. operators are divided into two seven-person teams as they compete in weekly team elimination challenges until only two remain. Then, it’s an all out battle to see who will win more than $100,000 for themselves and the departments they serve back home. It’s as real as it gets when the elite compete, and it’s only on Outdoor Channel.

As with so many contemporary reality competition shows, ETU is basically “Survivor” set in the world of police special forces. Contestants include members of the S.W.A.T. or special response teams from the Atlanta, Dallas, Fort Worth, Huntsville (TX), Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis Police Departments , as well as the Gwinnett Country (GA), Hall County (GA), and Madison County (NY) Sheriff’s Offices, and elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of Outdoor Channel

The missions set up for the competitors include such serious situations as entering a meth/crack house and a car theft ring’s chop shop, confronting a restaurant shooter and a hostage taker, and interrupting drug runners on a yacht and a Columbian drug cartel delivery at an airstrip. Many people if asked to imagine a S.W.A.T. team scenario would picture major criminal activity and life-or-death situations such as these. It is appropriate that drugs figure prominently in ETU because, according to Balko, the rise and expansion of S.W.A.T. teams in the U.S. coincided with the “war on drugs,” especially under Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Drawing on the work of Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University — who has been writing about the rise of police paramilitary units and the drug war since the early 1990s — Balko notes that in 2005 80 percent of American cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had S.W.A.T. units, and nationally S.W.A.T. units conducted some 50 to 60 thousand raids.

Unfortunately, according to Balko, the everyday realities of S.W.A.T. team policing are not as glorious as what appears in the popular imagination. If there is a paradigmatic example of the (inappropriate) use of force by S.W.A.T. teams on American citizens in Balko’s work it is the “no knock” (forced, often warrantless) entries being conducted against people who are suspected of nonviolent and small scale crimes. For example, in Columbia, Missouri (population of around 100,000), a S.W.A.T. team raised the home of the Whitworth family, shooting their two dogs, and unearthing a misdemeanor quantity of marijuana and a pipe. In Orange County, Florida in 2010, armed S.W.A.T. members entered nine barbershops without warrants, arresting 37 people. 34 of them were charged with the misdemeanor of “barbering without a license.” In Baltimore County, Maryland in 2011, a $65 buy-in poker game was raided. Balko gives a mind-numbing catalog of such instances of “mission creep” in his book. It is overkill created by a militarization of our civilian police forces.

DoD photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Andrew McKaskle, U.S. Navy
DoD photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Andrew McKaskle, U.S. Navy

ETU embodies the militarization of the police in a number of ways. The host, Mykel Hawke, is described on the Outdoor Channel website as a “U.S. Army Special Forces ‘Green Beret’ veteran.” He often describes the contestants’ “mission” as “going into battle.” The two “team leaders” – Terry Schappert and Adam Hamon – are both “operators,” individuals who come from a military background and can share their tactical expertise with the civilian law enforcement officers. The major sponsor of the show is Sig Sauer, and some of the weapons used in the program are civilian versions of military weapons made by Sig. Examples include the P226 MK25 handgun (“the sidearm of choices for the world’s elite military forces, including the United States Navy SEALs” — seen in action above) and SIG551 rifle (“in service with the Swiss Army”).

Although Balko only discusses the militarization of the police, the involvement of Sig Sauer and other sponsors highlights the more general militarization of American culture. One ad that ran repeatedly on the Outdoor Channel during the airing of Elite Tactical Unit so dramatically embodied the blurred lines between military, police, and civilians that I watched it every time it came on, even though I had DVRed the program and could easily have fast forwarded past it.

“Defending my brothers, securing our streets, protecting everything I love, just being prepared, I need a firearm that is torture tested, engineered to the highest possible standard, fired thousands of rounds without fail, built in America and proven it can perform anywhere. Because a single shot can be the difference between life and death, defeat and coming home. That’s why I choose Sig.”

The spoken words alone do not do justice to what is going on in this ad. The cutting back and forth between images of soldiers, police, and civilian men and women all using Sig Sauer weapons sends a powerful message to the average Joe or Jane at home watching Elite Tactical Unit: good enough for the military, good enough for me.


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