The SWAT’ification of Solutions

Alastair Somerville
2 min readDec 29, 2023

I’m watching the latest Mission Impossible movie as the rest of the family have gone out. It’s OK but, as with most of the movies, I’m disturbed by how much of the action is gunplay and fights.

I grew up with the original TV series in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. For the most part guns appear infrequently and mostly are not fired. Direct physical violence is minimal. The plots and the team skills are technical and psychological. The TV series was based around the drama revelation of some wildly complex scheme to solve a problem. The TV teams were technically competent but only lightly militarily competent. The movie teams are mostly the reverse and the technically competent are secondary to the martially competent. There is the same patina of Supercompetency in both TV and movie series but something shifted in the time between them.

Mission Impossible ran from 1966 to 1973.

The shift, I think, is visible in a couple of seasons of another TV show.

SWAT ran from 1975 to 1976.

SWAT was different from Mission Impossible but also different from the previous style of police drama, like Dragnet.

SWAT from ‘Special Weapons And Tactics’ represented a new idea of dramatic solution finding.

Guns, lots of guns.

The use of direct violence as primary method not as an act of criminality or of professional failure.

SWAT came from the real shift in policing in the USA. With the declaration of the War On Drugs and the fear of urban violence (after the Watts Riots), the police sought out military solutions to civil law enforcement problems.

This SWAT’ification of solutions has spread thru both real and fictional societies.

Thru the 1980’s, movies had more and more characters defined by muscles and violence. Stallone’s Rambo and Cobra as characters with direct and clear solutions thru machine guns and high body counts. Meanwhile, thru the 1990’s and 2000’s, the use of more and more military technology and tactics by US police forces to enforce even quite minor infractions (further abused by the Swatting technique of false reports leading to violent assaults).

Violence, particularly the heavily militarised and tactically equipped model, shifted as a solution from the periphery to the core. Not just the Wild West nor the battlefront, but the neighbourhood and the home. Not just the last-gasp solution but the solution.

Violence as a solution has run thru most societies for years. However, the SWAT’ification is different in that it places violence openly and explicitly as the primary method even when alternatives based upon kindness, humanity and knowledge are available.

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Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX