Section 4.4: Specialized Units in Policing

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

When we talk about specialized units in police departments, think of them like unique teams each with their own important role. Imagine a football team; just like you have players who are really good at defense or offense, in policing, there are teams who are experts in specific areas. The larger a city is, the more you’ll find these specialized teams. Why? Because bigger cities usually have more complex issues that need different kinds of expertise.

Table of Contents

Types of Specialized Units in Policing

The most common types of these specialized units are traffic units and drug enforcement units.

  • Traffic Units: These officers are like the guardians of the road. They focus on making sure people are driving safely, and obeying traffic laws, and they deal with accidents too.
  • Drug Enforcement Units: They are the ones who work hard to stop illegal drugs from harming the community. They keep an eye out for drug-related crimes and work to prevent them.

How do They Work?

The way these units operate can be different in each city. A lot of it depends on the rules set by the police department itself. However, what happens at the national level, like the government’s priorities and funding, also plays a big role. Sometimes, the national government gives money to police departments to help them focus on specific issues, like fighting drug crimes.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How do you think having specialized units like traffic and drug enforcement helps in managing a city’s safety? Can you think of other areas where specialized police units might be needed?

Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) Teams

The Beginning of SWAT Teams

In the late 1960s, police in the United States faced a big challenge. When dangerous situations like hostage crises happened, they used to just send as many officers as they could, without any specific plan. This approach sometimes led to sad outcomes, like the tragic incident in Austin, Texas, in 1966, where a sniper harmed many people. After incidents like this, police departments realized they needed a better way to handle such crises. That’s how SWAT teams came into being.

What are SWAT Teams?

SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. These teams are like the special forces of the police. They have special training and equipment, including rifles and tear gas, to handle high-risk situations. Their job is to control, contain, and calm down these intense scenarios. Over time, different police departments have given their SWAT teams various names, but SWAT is the most well-known.

Different Types of SWAT Teams

SWAT teams vary across the United States. Some police departments have full-time SWAT teams, while others have part-time teams, where officers have other regular police duties but come together for SWAT missions and training. In smaller towns, several police departments might join forces to form a SWAT team.

These teams do more than just handle hostage situations. They also protect important people, manage large protests, conduct surveillance, and help serve search and arrest warrants in dangerous situations. One of the first major uses of a SWAT team was in Los Angeles in 1969, during a conflict with the Black Panther Party.

SWAT Equipment and Use of Force

Over the years, SWAT teams have gotten a lot of advanced equipment, ranging from simple tools like ladders to high-tech surveillance devices. They also use non-lethal weapons, like bean bag rounds and tear gas, to avoid hurting people seriously.

Interestingly, even though SWAT teams have many powerful weapons, they rarely use them. A study showed that between 1990 and 1996, SWAT teams in large cities used their weapons in very few of the thousands of incidents they responded to. This low rate of using deadly force is partly because SWAT teams focus a lot on negotiation and de-escalation tactics. They try to resolve crises by talking to the people involved, sometimes using SWAT members as negotiators.

Controversies and Concerns

Despite their importance, SWAT teams have faced criticism. Some people think they have become too much like the military, especially in how they approach drug law enforcement. This criticism is part of a larger debate about police power in the United States, which has been ongoing since the 1800s. While SWAT teams use advanced technology and tactics, they operate under the same scrutiny and concerns as the rest of the police force.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

Considering the evolution and role of SWAT teams, how do you think they balance the need for effective law enforcement with public concerns about police militarization?

Special Investigations: Prostitution

Understanding Different Views on Prostitution

Prostitution is seen differently by different people. Some think the prostitutes themselves are to blame, while others see them as victims and blame the clients. Then there are those who believe prostitution is a private matter and the law shouldn’t get involved. The way a community thinks about these things really shapes how they deal with street prostitution.

The Life of Street Prostitutes

Street prostitutes often have a tougher time than those who work indoors. Many of them face hard personal challenges like escaping abuse, drug addiction, mental health issues, and physical decline. They usually start young, often before turning 18, and have to deal with social, economic, and health problems.

Not all street prostitutes view their work the same way. Some are deeply into it for money or lifestyle, some because of drug addiction, and others because it seems like the easiest way to earn money. Often, they turn to prostitution because they can’t find other jobs that pay well.

Many try to leave street life but come back, usually because it’s hard to find other work due to their limited education and skills. For those with children, staying on the streets can seem like a less risky choice than trying to leave prostitution.

Who are the Clients?

Clients, often called “johns” or “tricks,” have different reasons for seeking prostitutes. Some are attracted to the thrill of doing something illicit, want sexual acts their regular partners won’t do, see sex as just another thing to buy, or donโ€™t have access to conventional relationships. The decision to pay for sex is influenced by many factors like knowing where to find prostitutes, having the money, worrying about getting caught or diseases, and how easy it is to get services.

Only about 10 to 20 percent of men admit they’ve paid for sex, and just 1 percent do so regularly. The characteristics of these men vary a lot, and many try to justify their actions in different ways.

The Connection Between Street Prostitution and Drugs

Street prostitution often goes hand in hand with street drug markets. Many street prostitutes use drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin. Some turn to prostitution to pay for their drug habits, and drug use can also start as part of the street lifestyle. This combination makes street prostitution more unpredictable and dangerous.

Enforcing Prostitution Laws

Enforcing laws against prostitution often involves undercover police work, which can be tough. It’s expensive to make these arrests, and by themselves, they don’t do much to control street prostitution or protect the prostitutes.

Campaigns Against Prostitution

Sometimes, police launch big campaigns against street prostitution, arresting lots of prostitutes and clients. These campaigns can scare people away from prostitution for a while, but the effect usually doesn’t last long. Without follow-up help or changes in the environment, these campaigns just interrupt or move the prostitution somewhere else.

Effective Responses to Street Prostitution

The best way to deal with street prostitution involves lots of social services to help prostitutes leave the streets for good. Police need to work closely with these services. Since street prostitution can move around, it’s important for different areas to share information to make a big impact.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

Considering the complex issues surrounding street prostitution, what kind of social services do you think would be most effective in helping individuals leave street life? How can communities balance law enforcement with providing support and opportunities?

Specialized Units in Policing: Domestic Violence

Understanding Domestic Violence

Domestic disputes are common reasons why people call the police. Not all of these calls involve violence, but this guide focuses on those that do. In the U.S., domestic violence is a significant issue, accounting for about 20% of nonfatal violent crime against women and 3% against men. The harm from domestic violence can range from minor injuries to severe cases, even homicide, and it often affects children who witness it.

Challenges Faced by Police

Domestic violence calls are tough for police. They often see the same victims being hurt over and over, and it’s hard when victims can’t or won’t leave their abusers. Police used to think these calls were very dangerous based on old research, but that risk was somewhat exaggerated.

Why Some Women Stay in Abusive Relationships

It’s frustrating for police when women in abusive relationships don’t leave their batterers. There are several reasons why some women stay:

  • Cycle of Violence: This cycle has three parts: tension building, acute battering, and a honeymoon phase. The honeymoon phase makes a woman think things will get better, keeping her in the relationship.
  • Battered Woman Syndrome: Here, a woman feels so scared and helpless that she thinks she can’t escape.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Similar to being a hostage, a woman feels a bond with her abuser, often because she’s isolated from normal relationships.
  • Traumatic Bonding Theory: This happens when a woman had unhealthy relationships with her parents and repeats this pattern in her adult life, staying with an abusive partner.
  • Psychological Entrapment Theory: The woman feels she has put so much into the relationship that she’s willing to endure abuse to save it.
  • Multifactor Ecological Perspective: This view says staying in abusive relationships is due to a mix of factors, including family history, societal norms, and cultural influences.

Reducing Domestic Violence

The best way to reduce domestic violence is through comprehensive and collaborative efforts. This complex issue can’t be solved with just one approach. It’s crucial to assess the current strategies and identify any gaps.

Recidivism and Integrated Approaches

In some places, integrated approaches involving advocates, police, and the justice system have been tried, but repeat offenses remain high. There’s some evidence that victims are satisfied with these approaches, but it’s unclear if they actually reduce repeat offenses.

A Comprehensive Approach

To effectively reduce domestic violence, we need a range of responses:

  • Before an Incident: Preventing violence from happening.
  • During an Incident: Stopping the immediate violence.
  • After an Incident: Preventing further victimization.

This involves strategies that focus on both victims and offenders, including improved identification and reporting of abuse.

Police Involvement in Prevention

Some police agencies work on domestic violence awareness and school programs, teaching teens about dating violence and conflict resolution. Campaigns can be general or target specific groups, aiming to encourage reporting, deter potential offenders, or raise awareness among potential witnesses.

Effectiveness of Prevention Strategies

The success of these strategies is still unclear. For instance, programs to reduce teen dating violence have shown mixed results. While some increase awareness and knowledge of resources, it’s not always clear if they actually reduce violence.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How can communities support victims of domestic violence and work towards preventing it? What role should schools, police, and other community organizations play in this effort?

Specialized Units in Policing: Drugs

The Role of the Narcotics Bureau

The narcotics bureau is the main part of the police department that deals with drug trafficking and use. Think of it as the core team that focuses on stopping the source of drug problems. They’re the experts in understanding drugs, both in general and in the local community, and they lead the most complex investigations against drug traffickers.

Other Police Units Dealing with Drugs

While the narcotics bureau is central in fighting drug crimes, other parts of the police department also play important roles:

  1. Specialized Units: Some departments have teams focused on organized crime or criminal gangs. These units often deal with drug trafficking because gangs and organized crime groups are usually involved in it. They also have informants and special equipment that help in drug investigations.
  2. Patrol and Investigative Units: Regular police patrols and detectives also encounter drug crimes. As they focus on street crime, and since many street crimes are related to drugs, they end up arresting a lot of drug users. These units might arrest people for drug possession and use. If the person isnโ€™t already on probation or parole, they will have to go through a trial. But if they’re violating probation or parole with these offenses, they could be jailed right away.
  3. Responding to Citizen Complaints: Patrol units also get involved in drug issues when citizens complain about drug dealing in their areas. Sometimes, in response to these complaints or on the chiefโ€™s order, special drug task forces are formed. These are temporary teams made up of patrol officers and detectives, focusing on specific drug markets.

Drug Education Programs

An interesting and somewhat different approach is drug education. While it might seem unusual for police work, more police departments are starting these programs. They see them as a way to fill a gap in reducing the demand for drugs by educating people about the dangers and consequences of drug use.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How effective do you think these different police units and strategies are in addressing drug problems in communities? What other approaches could be taken to complement these efforts?

Specialized Units in Policing:ย  Juvenile Units

Police as Gatekeepers to the Juvenile Justice System

When it comes to juveniles (young people under 18) getting into trouble with the law, police officers often decide what happens next. They’re like the gatekeepers to the juvenile justice system, making the first calls on how to deal with incidents involving young people. This role is really important because their decisions can label a young person as a delinquent and introduce them to the legal system.

Police Interactions with Juveniles

Police officers often meet with juveniles, but most of these encounters don’t end up in court. They have many ways to handle situations with young people, and these choices are crucial. They need to decide carefully to avoid wrongly labeling a juvenile as a delinquent.

Evolution of Juvenile Units

Most police departments now have special units or officers who focus on juvenile issues. These juvenile officers used to mainly work on preventing youth crime. Now, they also do detective work, investigating crimes by or against young people. They’re a big part of the police department and not just an extra addition.

Juvenile Officers and Crime Prevention

Juvenile officers still work on preventing crime among young people. They set up sports leagues and youth programs and visit schools to talk about the dangers of drug use and joining gangs. A famous program they used was DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which started in Los Angeles. Officers would go into schools and teach kids about staying away from drugs.

DARE Program and Its Effectiveness

DARE was very popular in the 1990s, and many officers worked specifically on this project. But later studies showed that DARE might not have the long-lasting effects people thought it did. Because of this, some police departments are changing or stopping their DARE programs.

Future of Juvenile Policing

The way police work with juveniles is still changing. While investigation is a big part of their work now, there could be new shifts towards more prevention. With community and problem-oriented policing, police are working more with communities to stop crime before it happens. This approach will probably change how police handle juvenile crime too.

In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton started a program to create partnerships between police, schools, and communities. The aim was to tackle school crime and violence and to build a better connection between kids and cops. These projects are still being evaluated to see how well they work.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How do you think the role of police officers in schools and communities can impact juvenile crime? What are the benefits and challenges of having police officers involved in school-based programs?

Specialized Units in Policing: Internal Affairs

The Growing Importance of Internal Affairs

In the world of policing today, Internal Affairs, or Offices of Professional Standards, are more crucial than ever. With the rise of social media and the ability to record police actions and share them online, these departments have a big responsibility. They need to check if there’s any video evidence when complaints are made against police officers. If officers are wearing body cameras, that footage can be key evidence.

What Internal Affairs Does

Internal Affairs investigates complaints against police department employees. These can include:

  • Excessive force
  • Sexual harassment
  • Creating a hostile work environment
  • Unfair treatment based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation
  • Retaliation against someone for reporting misconduct
  • Inappropriate sexual comments or behavior
  • Inappropriate comments about someone’s gender, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation

In some places, like Texas, there are specific laws about how these investigations are done. For example, complaints have to be written, signed, and filed within a certain time after the incident.

The Process of Internal Investigations

Having a clear, written policy for internal investigations is important. It guides employees and lets the person being complained about know what to expect. The policy should detail every step, like sending a confirmation letter to the person who made the complaint. Consistency is key. Treating complaints differently can lead to mistrust in the police department.

Some departments require a sworn statement from complainants to ensure sincerity, but this could discourage people who are already hesitant. It’s important that the complaint process isn’t so tough that it stops people from coming forward. When the community knows the police want their feedback and are willing to make changes if needed, it builds trust.

Special Protocols for Certain Complaints

Some departments and state legislatures have special rules for certain types of complaints. For example, Texas passed a law in 2001 against “Racial Profiling,” which means police can’t act based on someone’s race, ethnicity, or national origin. This includes things like stopping a car because of the driver’s race or assuming someone of a certain race shouldn’t be in a particular area.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How do you think the role of Internal Affairs impacts the relationship between the police and the community? What steps can be taken to ensure that complaints against police are handled fairly and transparently?


The Evolving Challenge of Cybercrime

Policing has always adapted to changes, but the rise of technology in the past 20 years has brought a whole new challenge: cybercrime. This means police departments now have to deal with not just local crimes, but also with computer hackers who could be thousands of miles away. The speed of this change has left many local police departments struggling to keep up and figure out their role in preventing and investigating cybercrime.

The Extent of Internet Crime

The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a joint effort between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, gives us a clear picture of how big this problem is. For example, in 2012, they got nearly 290,000 complaints with total losses of $545 million. In one case in 2013, cybercriminals stole $45 million from ATMs in just 10 hours โ€” more than all the traditional bank robberies in the U.S. in a year.

The Shift in Crime Patterns

Police chiefs are noticing a shift in criminal activities. Gangs are moving from drug trafficking to cyber-scams as it’s easier and safer. However, tackling these crimes is tough. Federal agencies like the FBI and Secret Service focus on the biggest cases, leaving smaller ones, often below $500, unaddressed due to the challenges of jurisdiction and resources. Many local police departments feel they are “behind the curve” in dealing with cybercrime.

The Need for Local Police to Act

Despite these difficulties, it’s crucial to address cybercrime. The federal government is taking significant steps, but the 18,000 local and state law enforcement agencies still need to develop their strategies and authority in this area. This is a call to action for these agencies to step up their game.

Technological Component in Crimes

Almost every crime today involves some technology. Investigators often find crucial evidence in texts, social media posts, and GPS data from stolen smartphones. This means all police departments must be ready to investigate not just computer crimes but also crimes involving digital evidence.

The Role of Banks and Credit Card Companies

When cybercriminals steal from bank accounts or make fraudulent charges on credit cards, banks and credit card companies often reimburse the victims to avoid bad publicity. While this is good for the victims, it has downsides. Victims might not report these crimes to the police if the banks handle their losses, meaning the crimes go uninvestigated and the criminals remain free to commit more crimes.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

Considering the rise of cybercrime, what steps can local police departments take to improve their ability to combat these crimes? How important is it for individuals to report cybercrimes to the authorities?


In modern policing, specialized units play pivotal roles, similar to specialized players in a football team. Bigger cities, with more complex issues, often have a range of specialized units, such as traffic units and drug enforcement units. Traffic units ensure road safety and handle accidents, while drug enforcement units combat drug-related crimes. The operational methods of these units vary depending on local police department policies and national government priorities and funding.


Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) teams, established in the late 1960s, are specialized units formed to handle high-risk situations like hostage crises more effectively. SWAT teams, equipped with special training and equipment like rifles and tear gas, work to control, contain, and de-escalate intense scenarios. These teams vary from full-time to part-time across different departments, handling not only hostage situations but also protecting important figures, managing protests, and more. Interestingly, despite their heavy armament, SWAT teams rarely use deadly force, focusing more on negotiation and de-escalation tactics. However, they have faced criticism for potential over-militarization, especially in drug law enforcement.


Regarding prostitution, perspectives vary significantly, affecting how communities address street prostitution. Street prostitutes, often facing personal challenges and starting young, have various reasons for staying in the profession, including financial necessity and drug addiction. Clients seek prostitutes for various reasons, influenced by factors like accessibility and risk perceptions. Street prostitution often intertwines with drug markets, creating unpredictable and dangerous environments. Law enforcement strategies include undercover operations and public campaigns, but these have limited effectiveness without supportive social services.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence, accounting for a significant portion of nonfatal violent crime, poses challenges for police, especially when victims are reluctant to leave their abusers. Various theories explain why some women stay in abusive relationships, including the cycle of violence and psychological entrapment. Effective responses to domestic violence require comprehensive approaches, focusing on prevention, immediate intervention, and post-incident support.


Cybercrime presents a new challenge for policing, involving crimes committed by distant hackers. Local police departments struggle to adapt to this rapidly evolving crime landscape. The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) highlights the extensive nature of internet crime, with significant financial losses reported annually. Despite federal efforts, local and state law enforcement agencies need to develop effective strategies to combat cybercrime. The technological component in crimes today necessitates that all police departments be equipped to investigate digital evidence.

Internal Affairs

Internal Affairs units, vital in maintaining police integrity, investigate various complaints against police personnel. These units face challenges with the rise of social media and the need for transparent investigation processes. Special protocols for certain complaints, like racial profiling, are in place in some regions to ensure fair handling.

Reflecting on these varied aspects of policing, questions arise about the effectiveness of different units and strategies in managing city safety, supporting victims, balancing law enforcement with community support, and adapting to new crime forms like cybercrime. These reflections underscore the importance of evolving policing strategies to address contemporary challenges effectively.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:ย  08/15/2018

Last Modified:ย  12/14/2023

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This work is licensed under anย Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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