The Los Angeles Police Department's elite SWAT team was the first of its kind when it formed more than 40 years ago. The idea was to train cops like soldiers and give them combat-style equipment and weapons to deal with any situation. Police departments nationwide copied the unit, and Hollywood came out with SWAT-themed movies and even a TV show of the same name.
Since it was founded, the L.A. SWAT team has been all-male, mostly white and resistant to change. But that may soon change. The unit has permitted a woman to enter its training program, and if Jennifer Grasso, 36, survives the intense 12-week course, she will make history.
That has prompted criticism that SWAT, which stands for Special Weapons and Tactics, is scaling back its admission standards to be politically correct.
'Traditional White Guy Jobs'
Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton says his department's last all-male unit was long overdue for change.
"Well, I've made it a point to break all the glass ceilings in the LAPD that kept women out of many units in the department for many years," Bratton says.
Nina Acosta, a former police officer who worked in the department's select Metro division, says she was one of those women who were kept out.
In the 1990s, she tried out to become a SWAT officer twice. She passed the grueling fitness tests but was not selected to enter the training program. She says she was devastated.
"There could have been only one reason and that was because I was a woman," Acosta says. "I did very well in the tryouts. And when we got the tapes, because they taped the whole process, it proved exactly what I knew all along, that I had beaten most of those guys in the head to head competition."
She sued the LAPD for discrimination in 1994 and won. The jury awarded her more than $2 million in damages.
Acosta says the lieutenant in charge was "very arrogant about saying women do not belong in SWAT." She says she was given the message that "you guys can work in the field and work in juvenile detectives or work the front desk and all that stuff, but SWAT's where all the men play."
Traditionally, SWAT officers came up through the Metro division, says Joe Domanick, senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Institute for Justice and Journalism.
"They got to vote on who was allowed to come into their units. These were the traditional white guy jobs," Domanick says.
The SWAT team only began to change after a federal consent decree ordered the LAPD to diversify its special units, he says. Black and Latino males began to be accepted onto the squad for the first time.
"But it was still this old boy's club," Domanick says. "It was still based on how strong you were, how fast you could run, how agile you were. It was used as a way to keep women out."
L.A.'s SWAT team was formed in 1967, as a response to the Watts riots, when police were outgunned by snipers. When former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates was still an inspector, he supported the idea of forming a tactical team to combat armed militant groups.
"At that time, Vietnam was in play, and there was a lot of activists that were concerned about the war, and we had the Black Panthers, we had all kinds of groups which intelligence indicated we might have some urban guerrilla warfare," Gates told NPR a few years ago.
In recent years, the celebrated SWAT unit has faced crises, including a case in which an infant was killed during a SWAT standoff with her father. This year, SWAT lost its first team member in the line of fire.
And the department is in the midst of what some may see as an identity crisis. It is putting less emphasis on tough Marine-style, boot-camp training, in which several recruits have been injured, and putting more importance on hostage negotiation skills and other less-physical police tactics.
Critics, including some wives of veteran SWAT officers, say the standards are being lowered to make room for women. They worry that lesser-qualified officers might be admitted, endangering SWAT members. But Capt. Jeffrey Greer says this is not the case.
"There's no lowering of standards," Greer says. "If anything, the standards have been enhanced. We're raising the bar, and we're looking for the best quality individual to go into the SWAT team."
He says Grasso is "an outstanding individual, and I think she has what it takes to get through that process," and notes that only five women have ever tried out for L.A.'s SWAT unit.
Acosta, who quit the department years ago, now works a desk job and is married to a SWAT officer in Clovis, Calif. She credits Bratton's efforts but says change for SWAT is long overdue.
"I really feel like I deserved to be the first woman in SWAT. So selfishly, it was bittersweet for me. But on the other hand, I'm really excited for Jennifer and for other young women, so I hope this works out," she says.
In some ways, though, she says she feels some closure because SWAT may finally open its doors to women.