S.W.A.T.: How a TV Show Gave Us A Template For Police Reform

Two leading characters from the TV show SWAT dressed in full black riot gear, a river and grassy hill behind them.

CN: extensive discussion of police brutality, police tactics, institutional racism, brief discussion of of gender-based violence, sexual assault, and mass shootings

We know that fiction can be based on fact but how often is fact influenced by fiction? The beloved show Star Trek has long been famous for inspiring the invention of many of the “futuristic” technologies used in the show. The Black Lives Matter movement has repeatedly called on us to dismantle and recreate our law enforcement systems, to replace the current oppressive, violent, and racist version. Now, Dennis Upkins takes a look at how the reboot of the television show S.W.A.T. can offer inspiration for what police, and related agencies, could look like in the future.


There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”

-Admiral William Adama, Battlestar Galactica

Are you here to beat up the bad guys or protect the innocent?

It’s a question I often find myself asking self-proclaimed (usually white) social justice warriors to see if their methods and motives are on point.

Some years back I was reading a comic book issue, Birds of Prey #58 written by the one and only Gail Simone. The issue features a backstory of spoiled heir and one-percenter, Brian Durlin. Having relocated to Gotham City, he became a vigilante known as Savant. Genius intellect, computer hacker, proficient in weapons and hand to hand combat, Savant proved a force to be reckoned with.

However, Savant also proved to be morally bereft and unqualified to operate as a superhero; a point Batman made when he shut the new vigilante down after Savant tracked down and subdued a gang of serial arsonists. When Savant asked where Batman was while he was hunting the criminals, Batman revealed he spent most of the night saving the victims who were trapped in their burning homes. As the Dark Knight stated, saving lives and protecting the innocent always took precedence over hunting the villains. Hence the question, “Are you here to beat up the bad guys or protect the innocent?”

This also applies to law enforcement. There’s a world of difference between police who enforce the law of the ruling class of oppressors, and peace officers who protect and serve the community. It’s been well documented that law enforcement and the military have been the tip of the spear of systemic racism here in the United States.

As eloquently explained by rock band Rage Against the Machine’s hit song, Killing in the Name Of, “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses….Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites. You justify those that died by wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites.”

In the past year, there’s been an initiative for drastic (and long overdue) police reform. Critics have argued that such an overhaul is an abstract fantasy too impossible to manifest. Ironically, an unlikely source has been providing a blueprint to the contrary, the CBS police drama, S.W.A.T. It doesn’t take a detective to see why the series has been a hit these past few seasons. Action, drama, suspense, the gorgeous scenery that is show lead and executive producer Shemar Moore, Alex Russell, and the rest of the cast. But to the astute observer, this series has been addressing the issues Black Lives Matter and other activists have been casting a spotlight on. Each week S.W.A.T. provides viewers a one hour glimpse of what progress could look like and the steps to achieve it.

Accountability

Based on the 1975 tv show of the same name, S.W.A.T. debuted on November 2, 2017 on CBS.

A promotional poster for the TV show SWAT: Five of the main characters lined up in a V formation, wearing minimal black uniforms, looking serious. There is a helicopter flying above and on top of the red text that says "S.W.A.T." orange letters read "The elite of the elite."

The show is centered on Sgt. Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson. A Los Angeles native and former Marine, Hondo is selected to lead a new Special Weapons and Tactics unit. Because he is L.A. born and raised and a “brother in blue” so to speak, Hondo is not only qualified to lead the team but also be an ambassador between the LAPD and the community. Hondo’s team consists of new transfer James “Jim” Street; Christina “Chris” Alonso, the team’s sole female member; Dominique Luca, a third-generation S.W.A.T. officer; David “Deacon” Kay, a 10-year veteran and the only member of the team who is married and has children; and Victor Tan, a former VICE Squad officer.

In the pilot episode, former original team leader William “Buck” Spivey, kills an unarmed Black teenager during a shootout. While the shooting was an accident, Buck is still fired for his actions and Hondo is chosen to succeed him as team leader. Just like their real-life counterparts, S.W.A.T. is held to the highest possible standard, not only in performance but also in character as public servants. High standards, not rejecting overqualified candidates, transparency, and community oversight, all go a long way towards filtering out bigots and reducing police brutality and police corruption. After all, higher qualifications would mean the best men and women for the force; men and women who wouldn’t murder a child playing in the park. This would especially be true if they had to answer to an authority outside of the police department who would ensure proper procedure was followed before lethal force was utilized.

Speaking of which…..

Lethal Force is a Last Resort

While S.W.A.T. doesn’t lack for pulse-pounding suspense, action, and excitement, viewers also frequently see the officers practice de-escalation, active listening, and other forms of nonviolent conflict resolution. Violence is only utilized as the absolute final option.

Even when physical force is implemented, it is in self-defense, the defense of others, and to subdue criminals. Non-lethal tactics and weapons are often showcased on the show. Stun grenades, rubber bullets, XREP rounds, directed energy weapons are just a few examples. There’s no reason why rubber bullets couldn’t be used by patrol officers as alternatives to live lethal rounds. At the very least this would help reduce unarmed Black and Brown citizens from being shot down and murdered in cold blood.

In countries such as Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Norway, the police do not carry firearms unless the situation is expected to warrant it. There is no reason why the United States couldn’t adopt similar policies.

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Community Service

Each season, the audience sees S.W.A.T. interacting and connecting with marginalized communities, such as the housing program where Luca and Street move into a rough neighborhood run by gangs. Over time the relationship between the neighboring cops and bangers goes from tense to that of mutual respect. Audiences also see police officers put the SERVE in “protect and serve” by humbly and graciously performing volunteer work such as food drives and youth programs at local community centers.

The idea behind these initiatives is that they foster trust between police and the vulnerable citizens they serve. Interacting with marginalized communities builds rapport and empathy for cops and it helps deter bigotry and the dehumanizing of Black and Brown citizens they have vowed to protect and serve.

Diversifying Law Enforcement

The demographics of Hondo’s team include three heterosexual white men, a heterosexual Black man, a bisexual Latina, and a heterosexual Asian man. Three of this team’s commanding officers include Captain Jessica Cortez, Commander Robert Hicks, and Lt. Piper Lynch; two women, one of them a woman of color, and an older white man. Even in Los Angeles, a police unit this diverse specifically with two women in positions of authority is rare. The unique insight from a diverse unit has given them the edge countless times in investigating a case, bringing criminals to justice, and most importantly saving lives.

A video still from the TV show SWAT: Two leading characters hide in some pine trees, wearing black, with black smudges on their faces.

In Nashville TN, John Drake, a new Black interim police chief has already been a game-changer in shutting down some of the police brutality, abuse, and corruption that pervades Metro P.D. In addition, he has promised that the department will disband its flex units, which drive around seeking out targets to arrest. The flex units have been criticized for making lots of traffic stops and stop-and-frisks. Their targets have primarily been the poor and people of color.

To that end, Moore, a Black man, serving as both the show lead and executive producer on a series revolving around law enforcement is one of the reasons S.W.A.T.’s narratives and its addressing of real-life issues from the blue point of view have been nuanced.

Although the police badge is often referred to as a shield, unfortunately, it often proves to be anything but that when it comes to officers of color. As a woman of color, Chris often feels the pressure to work twice as hard as her male peers not only for herself but for the female officers who follow.

In the second season of S.W.A.T., Hondo and his girlfriend at the time, District Attorney Nia Wells, are driving to Arizona for a police conference when a racist motorcycle cop racially profiles the Black couple and pulls them over for a bogus reason. While Hondo is compliant, calm, professional, and identifies himself as a cop, he is still threatened and when he later tries to report the bigot, he gets stonewalled by the motorcycle cop’s superiors. What’s even more disturbing is that this storyline pales in comparison to the real life horrors Black officers have endured from their white brethren in blue. From being the last ones hired to the first ones fired, brutal assaults while working undercover, each day it becomes clearer that Chris Dorner was right.

Now if these officers of the court and law enforcement face discrimination and racism on this level, then it’s little wonder why there’s a movement to defund the police.

A video still from the TV show SWAT: Five of the characters dressed in riot gear but at ease gather in a circle to discuss their next movements.

Police Are Not the Answer

In the season three episode entitled Animus, Hondo and his new girlfriend Nichelle discuss whether or not stronger policing is the cure to societal ills over a romantic dinner.

“A city is like a person,” Nichelle states. “If there’s something wrong inside, you have to figure what’s causing the problem…I’m not saying we don’t need cops. I also believe in working towards a future where we don’t need as many of them.”

Nichelle’s point is later proven throughout the episode. Hondo and his team race to find a connection between the seemingly unconnected victims of gunmen targeting women. Meanwhile Lt. Lynch pushes Chris to do a news interview and share her experiences as a female S.W.A.T. officer. Chris initially refuses out of fear of reporters digging into her background and learning that she’s a rape survivor and that galvanized her to become a cop.

The team ultimately discovers the common link to the shootings and the gunmen is an MRA/incel online forum that’s a cesspool for virulent misogynists. While the team manages to take down the gunmen, thousands of more anti-women comments are made on the forum and a copycat mass shooting occurs in Kansas. Realizing that sharing her story may have a profound impact, Chris agrees to do the interview.

The brass tacks?

In 2019, there were 417 mass shootings in the United States. There were more mass shootings than there were days in the year. The common denominator among most of the domestic terrorists? They were caucasian and steeped in conservative/white nationalism. This is why tougher policing and stricter gun laws are ineffective; by themselves anyway. Because the same systemic racism that fuels the mass shooters to go on a murderous rampage correlates to the same white privilege that allows police to arrest many of them alive and unharmed while innocent African Americans continue to be executed without any recourse during a routine traffic stop.

It’s time to dismantle the spear and that starts with repurposing the spearhead. While S.W.A.T. may be a work of fiction, it’s providing our culture a glimpse of what could potentially happen if we rethink law enforcement and shift from policing to peace officers who protect and serve. Here’s hoping life imitates art sooner rather than later.


About the guest blogger: Dennis R. Upkins is a speculative fiction author, a journalist, and an equal rights activist. His first two young adult novels, Hollowstone and West of Sunset, were released through Parker Publishing. Both Upkins and his previous work have been featured in Harvard Political Law, Bitch Media, MTV News, Mental Health Matters, The Nerds of Color, Black Girl Nerds, Geeks OUT, Black Power: The Superhero Anthology, Sniplits, The Connect Magazine, and 30Up. You can learn more about him at his website dennisupkins.wordpress.com.

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