Super Wicked Action Television
How the bombastic SWAT genre got its humble start in Dallas.
On January 4, 2006, Court TV launched Texas SWAT with a bang. Actually five bangs. First an exploding warehouse door. Then a burst of gunfire destroying a wall. Then a smoky “diversionary flash-bang device” at the entrance to a crack house. Then a burst of something in the dark. And, finally, three guys firing at an off-screen object on the ground. Fireballs. Explosions. Broken doors. Flying metal. Paramilitary cops busting stuff up and making a lot of noise in a cacophonous, over-the-top, testosterone-fueled montage of burly guys with fearsome weapons.
That was all in the first 10 seconds.
Next came one of those authoritatively sarcastic announcers of the type they use on World’s Wildest Police Chases: “These are the members of the Texas Special Weapons and Tactics teams.” BANG! “Known as SWAT.”
The explosions continue as we cut to an extreme close-up of the eyes of Senior Corporal Steve Claggett, Dallas SWAT team, as he drives down the street. All we see is a sort of crinkly Clint Eastwood squint.
“When civilians need help,” Claggett says, “they call the cops.” BANG!
Cut to a close-up of Claggett in profile. He’s a handsome man with salt and pepper hair, furrowed brow, aquiline nose, prominent chin, and thin lips that tend to curl into a half-grin as he finishes a sentence.
“When the cops need help, they call us.” BANG!
He turns slightly toward the camera.
“Face it, when they call us, it’s gotten bad.”
Bang! Bang! Bang! And BANG!
That first night of Texas SWAT had three segments—a crack house bust in Dallas, a drug dealer takedown in Irving, and a distraught killer barricaded (actually sitting on his porch with a gun) in Oak Cliff—and if you’re a devotee of crime shows, as I am, then you probably wondered, “How can they sustain this?” How often, after all, does the SWAT team get called out?
That’s why, one night later, on January 5, 2006, you might have been incredulous to see the debut of Dallas SWAT on the A&E Network. This time there was no apoplectic narrator. Just explosions, gunfire, and action footage as giant type announced, headline-style:
THERE ARE 3,000 POLICE OFFICERS IN DALLAS
ONLY 50 MAKE IT TO SWAT
THESE ARE THEIR STORIES
Then, incredibly, there’s a shot of a SWAT officer, seen in profile, driving in his car, exactly like the shot of Steve Claggett. But this time it’s Senior Corporal Robert Cockerill, wearing the regulation highway-patrol-type dark sunglasses.
“Any time the city has a problem,” Cockerill says, “we’re the solution to their problem. Period.”
It’s the “period” that makes it typical of SWAT speech. For some reason all SWAT officers tend to talk like high school football coaches. Every statement ends with either “Because that’s what we do” or “That’s all there is to it” or “That’s what we signed up for,” and after a while you start to wonder if there has ever been a Dallas SWAT officer who feels like former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent, the guy who turns hippie and refuses to conform to the Tom Landry playbook. Now that would make for a good episode of Dallas SWAT, or Texas SWAT, or Waco SWAT for that matter.
The opening Dallas SWAT montage continues with quick-cut stormtrooper footage, more pithy sound bites, an easy-listening theme song, lots of busted lumber, and concludes with a shot of five SWAT officers in full battle gear, walking toward the camera in deep focus with their weapons akimbo, like the final death walk in The Wild Bunch. Dead center in the shot, one step ahead of the others, is—wait, I’ve seen this guy somewhere before. Oh no. It’s Steve Claggett!
How the hell does this happen? SWAT teams have been around for 40 years. Why suddenly not one, but two, SWAT reality shows, premiering within 24 hours of each other, and why Dallas? And how did Steve Claggett become the first person to star simultaneously in two primetime series since 1982, when Heather Locklear double-dipped in T.J. Hooker and Dynasty?
These are questions more easily asked than answered. I can tell you the story, but after several weeks of investigation, I still can’t quite tell you the answer.
“I have no idea,” says Laura Fleury, a fast-talking blonde in a pink fuzzy sweater. We’re sitting in her office near Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. Her title is “Executive Producer and Director, Non-Fiction & Alternative Programming, A&E Television Networks.” She seems slightly perturbed by the question, which was “How did Court TV and A&E end up premiering shows featuring the Dallas SWAT team in the same week?”
“You would have to ask them.” She looks at me: next question, please. Later she says, “I didn’t realize we would be talking about programming strategy.”
Six blocks down Third Avenue, in his Midtown Manhattan office, Ed Hersh gives the opposite answer when asked “Who had this idea first?”
“We think we did!” says Hersh, whose title is “Executive Vice President, Current Programming and Specials, Court TV.” “We did a wide-ranging investigation of shows like this. A production company came to A&E with the idea, and they never reached an agreement. Then the company came to us and we said yes. Then A&E devised their own show. We were the first to air. We were the first to shoot a pilot.”
The answer is still equivocal. Did the “wide-ranging” investigation occur before or after the production-company pitch? No matter. What we know is that in the spring of 2005 sweet SWAT love was suddenly in the air, and so the dueling reality shows ramped up, rolled out, and sent a small arsenal of Sony PD 1-70 cameras to Texas to record the strange world of cops equipped with military weapons and vehicles, flushing criminals out of their barricaded lairs. A&E and Court TV have always competed in the true-crime arena—A&E’s Cold Case Files is an answer to Court TV’s Forensic Files, Court TV’s The Investigators is an answer to A&E’s American Justice—but never before had they gone head to head quite like this. It even got personal: sometime in 2005 A&E apparently won the diplomatic bidding war for exclusive access. The Dallas SWAT team dominates the first three episodes of Court TV’s Texas SWAT, then disappears from view, and the remaining seven episodes in the first season feature Irving SWAT, Austin SWAT, Amarillo SWAT, and even Lewisville SWAT. “We like those guys in Dallas and we were interested in doing more shows,” Hersh says, “but they didn’t call us back after the A&E show happened.” (The Dallas Police Department similarly denied D Magazine access—or, rather, it requested pre-publication review of this story in exchange for access, which this magazine never grants.)
Interestingly, if you compare the Dallas SWAT action footage shot by both networks, Court TV’s ended up being a little more dramatic, even though Court TV uses only one cameraman and A&E uses as many as four on each operation. (That’s partly because Court TV wanted cops in full battle gear doing what they do best—busting doors and windows and, if we’re lucky, heads. A&E wanted to follow the cops home and show their private lives.) That Court TV cameraman is a guy named Jeff Chagrin, to whom Hersh gives credit for coming up with the idea in the first place. (We’ll never know, because three months of trying to get Chagrin on the phone, even with the help of Court TV’s publicity department, proved fruitless.) Chagrin reputedly got the idea while shooting a series on paramilitary police for a television network in Colombia. He talked to a producer about doing a similar show for the lucrative American market, using Texas SWAT teams. Why Texas? SWAT teams, after all, are a California invention, devised in 1967 by then inspector Daryl Gates to deal with urban guerrillas like the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army, not to mention rioters in Watts.
Apparently the answer is exactly what you would expect: the cowboy thing, the Wild West thing. The use of “Texas” and “Dallas” as high concept shorthand for Alpha Male. But there’s a more practical reason as well. New York and Los Angeles, always the high-concept cities of choice, have both declared their SWAT teams off-limits to cameras. New York refuses even to disclose the SWAT team’s location, so paranoid are they about Homeland Security operations being compromised.
STILL, WHY SUCH A FUSS OVER DALLAS? There are about 1,600 SWAT teams in the country—a trend that some critics say is bad news for community policing—so either network could have done the show in any number of large cities. The answer you get from both is that “Dallas is always named as the top SWAT team in the country.” Yet, in the very first episode of Dallas SWAT, the cameras follow Cockerill and comrades to the Original SWAT World Challenge in Las Vegas—yes, that’s what I said. Think Marine boot camp, but with team scoring. The officers keep talking about how nobody ever beats San Antonio SWAT, the defending champions. On the show, they come in second to GSG-9, a team from Germany. Dallas comes in third. So why didn’t somebody do San Antonio SWAT instead? In fact, after Court TV got frozen out of Dallas, they did start using San Antonio beginning with Episode 6 of Texas SWAT, and the officers totally lived up to their bad-boy reputation. With a younger average age than Dallas SWAT, many still in their mid-20s, they wear cool green fatigues over blue jeans, gather in a football huddle before every operation, and are prone to yelling “Yeehaw!” as they hit the road. The Dallas team, by contrast, resembles a clan of sober Zen Buddhists, hermetically sealed in armored personnel carriers, grimly meditating on their future, like troops buttoned up in the landing craft that hit Normandy Beach.
The premise of the A&E show is that the Dallas SWAT officers are handling the toughest, most dangerous assignments in police work—we’re reminded of it constantly, usually in sound bites like “Sometimes we have to take lives to save lives” and “We’re always ready for the worst case—a deadly force confrontation.” And yet, as the weeks go by and you learn about the day-to-day routine of the job, it seems that most SWAT teams spend 80 percent of their time serving no-knock drug warrants. They identify where a drug dealer does business, plan the assault on his house with military precision, hit it quickly with overwhelming force (“Speed, surprise, and violence of action” is their mantra, repeated frequently), and usually end up handcuffing some guy who’s cowering behind the sofa, because HIS HOUSE IS BLOWING UP!
The chief spokesman for the idea of SWAT as a Green Beret-type “band of brothers” is the ubiquitous Steve Claggett, who early on proved very comfortable in front of the camera as he delivered the kind of one-liners that producers love. “It takes a special kind of person to be in SWAT.” “We’re working from a warrior mindset.” “It’s us against the ultimate bad guy.” “We never pick the time and place of our destiny. We can only pick the outcome.” Claggett is always on, even in his up-close-and-personal segments. He positively beams when he supervises helicopter rappelling training. His day off is spent organizing a rock-climbing and rope-bridge-building expedition for his two sons, telling them the same thing he tells rookies: “It’s good that you’re scared because scared makes you smart.” At the conclusion of his outing at Lake Mineral Wells State Park, he says ,“We don’t raise sons, we make men.”
If SWAT is a football team, then Claggett is the quarterback. (Cockerill, the “period” guy, is more like the coach.) Claggett provides a running commentary that always intensifies the perception of danger. At the pre-operation briefing, where SWAT officers sit stone-faced, slumped in their chairs, while a sergeant reviews the video surveillance and assigns the teams that will be breaking windows and doors and entering the building, Claggett can always be counted on to comment on the types of assault weapons they’re likely to be up against, the presence of pit bulls, the difficulties posed by steel-reinforced “cages” in the crack houses, and the problems in positioning snipers. Sometimes they have intelligence that children are present inside the house, causing head-shaking and pontificating about “the kind of person” that would expose children to “that world.” Claggett is so good at sound bites that he can sometimes run them together into a speech that doesn’t make literal sense but gives the viewer a vague sense of the dark menace waiting out there. “You rely heavily on your partners,” he says at one point. “And that’s the whole concept behind SWAT. Anything short of that, we take the risk of losing. And we cannot, in our job, lose. The price is too high.” For sheer “huh?” value, while still sounding good, this is perhaps the ultimate Claggett quote.
But inevitably the pre-battle briefing overstates the case. In the 20 shows aired on both networks in the first season, not a single shot was fired by a drug dealer, and most of them apparently weren’t anywhere near a weapon anyway. (Gunfire episodes usually involved barricades—potential suicides, mental patients off their meds, or guilt-ridden doped-up guys who have just committed homicides.) You start to wonder after a while if all those .357 Magnums and AK-47s carried by the dealers are not primarily used for their own defense and enforcement purposes—against other drug dealers and unruly clients—since, when SWAT shows up, they tend to go down fast. I don’t know if there’s ever been a drug dealer who thought he could shoot his way out while surrounded by SWAT, but if one exists, he seems to be an extremely rare bird.
The structure of Dallas SWAT was devised by John Kim, who rented six apartments in Deep Ellum so his shooters could be close to SWAT headquarters. He usually has one assigned full-time to a “featured” cop, at least two on 24-hour call for rapid response, and there’s a shooter at every warrant briefing. He also devised segments showing demonstrations of various SWAT weapons and devices (example: the “Stratman Pull Tool” is used to rip off steel-reinforced doors and windows), as well as fairly simple computer animations showing the positions and movements of SWAT team members at each operation. “I didn’t want to make just another cop show,” he says. “I envisioned it as a study of American masculinity, in the form of these geared-up SWAT guys from Texas. We see their camaraderie, their attachment to weapons—and then we see the flip side of who they are as human beings. We wanted to show both the job and the personal life. One of my favorite episodes is the one where [Senior Corporal] Rich Emberlin is waiting on a warrant to be signed and he’s worried about being late to the Daddy/Daughter Dance.”
Rich Emberlin, it turns out, becomes the foil to Claggett in the first season. If Claggett is the Clint Eastwood of the series, Emberlin is the Tom Hanks. Soft-spoken, tender with his daughter, a little afraid of his girlfriend, Emberlin is a classically handsome Clark Kent type who makes polite jokes at the office cooler. (“I really need to have my coffee in the morning. If I don’t, I can really tell that I haven’t had my coffee, and so can the people around me.”) Less gung-ho than Claggett, more “female friendly,” as they say in the marketing meetings, Emberlin not only goes to the Daddy/Daughter Dance, but he visits his girlfriend Jeannene at her salon, takes her to the opera as a way of apologizing for a fight they had, takes flying lessons with her, and then goes shopping with her for half-million-dollar airplanes (!) as a way of strengthening their relationship. Meanwhile, when it gets gnarly in the workplace, Emberlin remains preternaturally calm. While speaking to the camera in one episode, he suddenly hears several loud reports. “Okay, that’s automatic fire,” he says, quizzically, as though he were saying, “That’s odd, someone slammed a door.”
The segments featuring the cops with their wives, girlfriends, buddies, and children are supposedly what makes this “not just another cop show,” and yet they’re oddly devoid of suspense, narrative drive, or even simple emotion. The officers seem to live fairly humdrum lives in tract homes on cul-de-sacs in Lake Highlands, where they barbecue, banter with their Significant Others, fry eggs, and tinker with their motorcycles. Apparently most of the Dallas SWAT members are recruited, not just from the high school football team but from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I told Kim that I was surprised, for such a close-knit squad of good ol’ boys (with the exception of lone female Misty VanCuren), there was so little complaining, much less dirty-joke-telling.
“These guys don’t really curse that much,” Kim says. “I’m surprised myself. Maybe it’s a Texas thing. I’m in New York, so I hear more cursing on the street than I get from these guys in their locker room. ... We tell them, ‘Please don’t change your behavior,’ but we normally do have to talk about language. Not with these guys.”
For whatever reason, the show really doesn’t end up delivering much “behind the scenes” insight into the home lives of cops. They try to manufacture little story arcs. Robert Cockerill goes to the doctor and gets diagnosed with a broken foot right before the World SWAT Games, then decides to tough it out and play hurt. Officer Terigi Rossi dyes his hair and fixes chicken cutlets for his family. Andre Taylor, a buff young officer, goes to an all-female yoga class and chats up a blonde. Christian D’Alessandro reminds his 17-year-old daughter’s boyfriend Keith that he’s a professional sniper. (“I do like Keith, and Keith knows the rules.”) One episode is about the preparation of a SWAT calendar for charity. Another is Sergeant Paul Junger’s attempt to lose weight. (He succeeds, and chows down on stromboli to reward himself.) In other words, the backstage lives of these cops are not exactly Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant.
What would be more interesting is seeing the cops at the job but not on the job, talking about things that go wrong, not right. There are a few operations in Dallas SWAT that go wrong—they hit a house and it’s empty, their tools fail to work—and there’s one that goes horribly wrong, when a man barricaded in a motel room makes repeated requests to talk to his girlfriend on the phone, then, when told he can’t do that, kills himself. The negotiator on that operation, J.D. Byas, is obviously a little shaken up, but you only see him making some vague references about it to his wife. What you’d rather see is the soul-searching session among his fellow cops. The show also totally ignores the friendly-fire incident in which four SWAT cops were wounded last year. Obviously this should have been a source of much in-house debate, if not actual blaming. I asked both networks whether they’re subject to any censorship from the Dallas Police Department, and they both gave the same initial answer—that rough cuts are shown to the department so that faces of undercover cops can be fuzzed out, certain suspects can be disguised, and anything that might affect the criminal prosecution can be changed or deleted. When I asked if anything is ever changed because the department is simply embarrassed, A&E’s Laura Fleury said no, that the show is not journalism and that was not an issue, and that Chief Kunkle has no veto. Court TV’s Ed Hersh said the opposite: “Of course, we make the change. Those people control our access.” (This has long been the tradition in you-are-there cop shows.)
The Court TV show, by its nature, is tighter and faster. Each 30-minute episode of Texas SWAT features three operations, and since a TV half hour has nine minutes of commercials, that’s an average of seven minutes per segment to set up the story, get in, bust stuff up, and get out. The most compelling segments are always armed barricaded persons because of the inherent suspense: Who is he? Why is he doing this? Does he want to kill himself? Does he want the cops to kill him? Why won’t his girlfriend talk to him? But occasionally Texas SWAT comes up with some oddball segments like Aryan Brotherhood crystal-meth dealers in Amarillo. I mean, how great is that? One of the items seized in the raid is a Nazi flag. Court TV returned to Amarillo several times during the first year, in part because the SWAT team there is so small (only eight full-time officers), and its equipment so meager, that they have to improvise more. The Dallas team, on the other hand, uses equipment you would normally see outside a bunker in Sadr City. Irving SWAT also turned out to be a gold mine of local color. After the officers bust up a guy’s truck with baseball bats and drag him out onto the ground, the suspect says, “My goodness. Holy mackerel. What happened to my truck?” Because he’s the wrong suspect! No charges filed. The Irving officers are constantly talking about the Mexican Mafia and a Salvadoran gang called MS-13, adding a little international intrigue to what would normally be the Crack House Bust of the Week. And then there’s the Irving gang member who drives around in a PT Cruiser—that alone would make it tough to take him seriously, but he gets arrested while shopping at the mall with his wife and his 2-year-old, whose hysterical crying is silenced by a SWAT officer who produces an Elmo doll.
And that’s actually the most troubling thing about celebrating the SWAT culture. Do you really need the SWAT team at the mall? These are men who are essentially trained in National Guard tactics; they’re mini-militias. At the advent of SWAT training in the ’60s and ’70s, these units were intended for crisis situations only—rioters, looters, urban guerrillas, hostage-taking, and, yes, terrorists. Now they’re used for operations that result in the seizure of, in some cases, a single baggie of weed and, in other cases, destruction of houses where nobody is home. (One starts to wonder whether home improvement firms follow the SWAT schedule. Check out the house in Episode 5 of Dallas SWAT, where the porch is destroyed, the walls sag, and there’s basically a big hole where a house used to be, after what they call “Operation Triple Pull.” Result: arrest of one meth cooker, with two other suspects released.) SWAT officers like to shoot out streetlights with their rifles—so that barricaded suspects can’t see them. Am I the only person who thinks, “Uh, couldn’t you call the power company and just have it switched off?” As early as 1997 the Hoover Institution—in the person of Joseph McNamara, former police chief in San Jose and Kansas City—warned about the dangers of “militarizing Mayberry.” “It’s a very dangerous thing,” McNamara said, “when you’re telling cops that they’re soldiers and there’s an enemy out there.”
Of course you won’t hear opinions like this on Dallas SWAT or Texas SWAT. Not after the ratings came in for the first season anyway, showing both shows to be unqualified hits. Court TV was so happy that they renamed the show SWAT USA so they could use SWAT teams outside Texas, under the theory that the more footage they shoot, the more barricade and hostage situations they’ll end up with, so that they don’t have to rely on entire episodes consisting of crack house-busting. Dallas SWAT is a featured show on A&E’s Thursday night lineup, and everyone involved says they’re “pleased with the numbers,” especially the 18-to-49 numbers. After running 10 shows the first season, A&E reordered for 13 this year and has already ordered 10 more for a third season. Ironically, this is happening as A&E has cut way back on its reality crime programming. The reason? They bought re-run episodes of CSI: Miami, a fictional show that was based on the popularity of the reality shows!
But A&E also decided that the 50 SWAT officers of Dallas weren’t quite enough to sustain their interest. Apparently there are some alpha males in other cities as well, so Dallas SWAT will now alternate with Kansas City SWAT and Detroit SWAT. I’m betting on Detroit SWAT to be the next breakout hit. I hear they cuss up there.