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After Ferguson, Retro Report digs into the origins of SWAT teams and their 'mission creep'

SWAT teams are in the news after the local and county police in Ferguson, Missouri, used heavy force and military-grade armaments to deal with largely peaceful protests last month. But between "swatting" — where someone calls for a SWAT raid on an acquaintance or celebrity, as a horrible "prank" — and other botched raids, the paramilitary police units had their share of bad press before that.

Retro Report looked back at the "long and complicated history" of SWAT teams, from their beginnings in late-1960s Los Angeles to the "mission creep" that has followed. The name SWAT — Special Weapons and Tactics — was coined by future LAPD chief Daryl Gates (he originally wanted to call it Special Weapons Attack Team, but was dissuaded).

From their start in L.A., SWAT teams spread across the country, gaining cultural relevance with a 1970s TV show — and power in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan declared "war" on drugs. Now, more than 80 percent of SWAT raids are drug busts — or attempted drug busts — mostly in private homes. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, local police forces got even bigger weapons and more heavily armored transportation.

Retro Report tells its story with the help of Peter Kraska at Eastern Kentucky University, who has studied SWAT teams for more than 20 years, and former LAPD SWAT leader Ron McCarthy. There are pros and cons, and some terrible stories of raids gone wrong. You can read more about the history at Retro Report partner The New York Times. --Peter Weber