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San Diego SWAT team 35th anniversary: SDPD's most dangerous showdowns

Officers asked News 8 for archive footage of the San Diego Police Department's most dangerous encounters to reflect on ahead of SWAT's anniversary next year.

SAN DIEGO — Content warning: The videos in this story include scenes of violence and may be disturbing to some viewers.

The San Diego Police Department's SWAT team is preparing to celebrate its 35th anniversary next spring. High-ranking officers asked News 8 for our archive footage that captures their most dangerous showdowns which influenced SDPD's creation of the department's full-time SWAT team.

In this Zevely Zone, I took a look back at the three biggest lessons learned by the SDPD SWAT Team that has made them one of the finest units in the country.

At KFMB Stations our film, script and video archives date back 70 years. KFMB-TV is the oldest television station in San Diego. We opened our entire video vault to San Diego officers who in turn told us about the three most frightening encounters that have made every San Diegan safer.

April 9, 1965 - The Hub Pawnshop Shootout

We started in 1965 in downtown San Diego. SWAT Commander Lt. Robert Daun reviewed our footage from a failed robbery attempt at a pawnshop. The gunman was holed up inside shooting with police outside throwing everything they had at him. 

"One of the first things I see is it doesn't look like they have a plan," said Lt. Daun.

"Sixty-five officers showed up with 1,000 rounds fired from the officers," Sergeant Mark Willhelm with San Diego SWAT added.

It wasn't nearly enough.

Sergeant Willhelm says it took five officers from the police force with military training to form their own plan and force the gunman to surrender.  

"Law enforcement at that time didn't have any way to respond to that. Law enforcement was strictly law enforcement. It took military tactics and training to go into a building and stop people," said Willhelm.  

The lesson in 1965? Police needed more firepower and much more training. They formed an anti-sniper platoon that upped their game, that is, until police were outmatched again in 1981.

June 6, 1981 - Linda Vista shooting that killed two officers

It happened In Linda Vista on Crandall Drive. Police responded to a neighborhood dispute. Along with SWAT officers, we looked at footage from the shootout that showed a burning police car.

"He shot both policemen who were standing there," a neighbor said in the footage from that day.

Officers Harry Tiffany and Ronald Ebeltoft were down.

"This is a tough one to watch because you can see the officers there - they know that their fellow officers are down in the driveway. They've got gunshot wounds. They are probably bleeding out," said Lt. Daun cringing.

But responding officers couldn't get to the wounded because the suspect kept driving them back with his rifle. 

News 8 photographer Bruce Patch was rolling his camera on the backside of the shootout. The gunfire is loud and disturbing.  

"You guys go out there, alright?" yelled an officer risking his life to evacuate residents.

Police did what they could and continued to shoot at the suspect while rushing neighbors to safety. It took 45 minutes to stop the gunman who was shot and killed. Our footage shows officers then trying to save the lives of the fallen officers. 

"Come on Ron. Hang in there. Breathe," they screamed.  

It was too late. Both officers died.

Watching the footage, Lt. Daun was almost speechless. 

"The department had a stance: 'never again'?" I asked. 

Lt. Daun looked me in the eye and said, "Correct."  

Sergeant Willhelm and Lt. Daun said that tragedy lead to big changes with the SWAT team that included cross-trained officers available seven days a week, 24 hours a day.  

"We could get SWAT officers within minutes of this call versus 45 minutes to an hour," said Lt. Daun. 

These days, when SWAT shows up, they bring an arsenal with them.  We asked Sergeant Steve Spurlock to show us their weapons.  

"So we got our body armor here. Night vision goggles. This is our armored Bearcat," said Sergeant Sputlock.  

He showed off a table covered with guns and gear no bad guy would ever want to face. 

"30 years ago, how much of this equipment did the SWAT team have?" I asked.  

"None. They wouldn't have any of this stuff," said Spurlock.  

SWAT members now have their own individual gear.  

"It saves a huge amount of time. The Crandall Street murders for one - they had no shields. They didn't have rifles to do suppression fire," said Sgt. Spurlock.  

July 18, 1984 - San Ysirdo McDonald's Massacre

Which leads us to one of San Diego's darkest days. July 18, 1984. The San Ysidro McDonald's Massacre was the country's worst mass murder by a single shooter at the time.  

As we watched the footage with SWAT officers and saw customers and workers being rushed to safety. 

One said, "Oh my god."

News 8 reporter Carlos Amezcua was at the scene on that day.  

"Police hearing the calls on the radio were confused not sure how to approach such a dangerous situation. It was all happening so fast," he reported at the time. 

Police had a SWAT team but they were not trained to enter the building and stop the shooter. 

One of the high ranking officers in 1984 told News 8: "The suspect entered the facility heavily armed, immediately started shooting everybody, and the customers inside the restaurant had no chance to escape."

RELATED: Locals remember San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre 35 years later

The killing went on for an hour and 17 minutes and could have ended 20 minutes sooner.  

"This incident here was finally stopped by a SWAT sniper but this incident itself helped with the creation of a full-time SWAT Team," said Lt. Daun. 

The unit is called SRT which stands for Special Response Team. The unit is dedicated full time to hostage rescue.  

"From this tragedy you now have a team that can show up and enter the building?" I asked. 

"Exactly," Lt. Daun said. 

Twenty-one people were killed and 19 injured during the McDonald's shooting. 

"The world is changing and every time you think you've seen it all something else happens," said Lt. Daun.

Between these three officers, they share 91 years of SWAT experience and Lt. Daun wants every San Diegan to know this: 

 "I think we are one of the best trained and highest trained SWAT teams in the nation. It doesn't get any better than the San Diego Police Department. This is the best SWAT team that this department has ever had and I am extremely proud of it."

I shook each of their hands and thanked them for their commitment to public safety and their bravery. The next time something bad happens: rest assured the good guys are on their way and they are better trained and equipped than ever.  

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