'S.W.A.T.' Co-Creator on Why the Series Is Tackling Hot-Button Issues in a New Light (Exclusive)

Bill Inoshita/CBS

Co-showrunner Aaron Rashaan Thomas opens up about the inspiration behind the CBS procedural's most powerful storylines.

On paper, S.W.A.T. has all the ingredients of a standard police procedural, with its tried-and-true, suspect-of-the-week formula. Onscreen, however, it is anything but. Two seasons into its run on CBS, the Los Angeles-set hour-long series -- which was first a 1970s TV show before it was adapted into a 2003 movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell -- has tackled timely, sometimes controversial, social issues and hot-button topics permeating the real world today, with a respectful eye and keen awareness.

From the powerful school shooting episode, told through the perspective of victims and first responders, to an hour exploring the consequences of an extremist radio host inciting violence against members of the LGBTQ community, to S.W.A.T. leader Hondo (Shemar Moore) becoming the legal guardian of a troubled teen, S.W.A.T. has become an unlikely advocate for transformative storytelling. With the sophomore season nearing its end, co-creator and co-showrunner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas reveals, in his own words, why the series has remained unwavering in its dedication to shedding light on real-world injustices.  

In high school, I entered a contest to make a music video. I took it seriously. Instead of choosing a song by Tupac, I chose “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the unofficial Black National Anthem. I painstakingly selected images to fit every lyric. But, in an era before digital editing, my sound didn’t sync perfectly. Consequently, I earned second place. First place went to a friend who made a video of himself, dancing in a dress to Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).” Message sent. That video was funny and clear. Yet, I was undeterred. 

Part of my perspective as an African American man is an obligation not to simply entertain, but to try and engage audiences. For every helicopter sniper shot or massive explosion that our S.W.A.T. team incredibly pulls off, we also try to provide moments where characters engage serious issues. We look to provide feels with dope action. This is what co-creator Shawn Ryan and I promised CBS when we pitched the series. 

I took inspiration from a kid in my childhood neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. The kid was an awkward teenager who frequented an arcade at the local mall. Once, when he grew frustrated with a Star Wars game and punched the screen, he was chased by a security guard into the parking lot and fatally shot in the head. When the United States faced the latest rash of controversial police shootings in inner cities, offering a disturbing list of black men who lost their lives during interactions with police, it was my neighbor from childhood who I thought about. His death posed questions: Why did it happen? Why did the officer who chased him feel it was necessary to use deadly force? Why did this kid, who had no criminal record, find it necessary to run from a police officer in the first place? Difficult questions about fear and miscommunication inspired the idea behind developing S.W.A.T. as a modern TV series. 

Debbie Allen, Deshae Frost and Shemar Moore appear in the April 18 episode, 'Invisible.' - Sonja Flemming/CBS

“Taking the fight to South L.A. is just wrong. And it’s not going to work. … We’re going a different way. [We’re] going to treat ‘em like family.”
- Sergeant Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson, “Pilot”

This line of dialogue for the S.W.A.T. team leader, Hondo, to deliver to his team in the wake of civil unrest after the controversial police shooting of an unarmed black teenager not only addressed department orders -- which were to squeeze an inner city neighborhood for answers -- but was also a way into the national dialogue about police and community relations. This was our thesis statement for S.W.A.T., which promised to explore hot-button topics, using hope and empathy as ways to improve communication between seemingly disparate groups. 

While the main goal of any television series is to entertain, selfishly and ambitiously, my hope was to help other kids like my neighbor be less afraid of police and vice versa, perhaps reducing tragically lethal encounters in the process.  If S.W.A.T., which originated as a 1970s TV police procedural (later rebooted as a 2003 motion picture) more famous for its catchy theme song than sociological examinations, seems an unlikely vehicle to explore sensitive topics, we felt that our main character, Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson, allowed us a platform to update and expand.

I was inspired by the idea of telling stories through an underrepresented voice. In this case, making Hondo an African American cop, yet also a proud black man from the inner city, with concerns that reflect those details. A police officer who faces pressure from both sides of the Black Lives Matter-Blue Lives Matter debate may allow viewers to empathize with points of view they would otherwise be unfamiliar. To bring kids like my neighbor and police officers together in the form of an optimistic character looking to build bridges. 

Similar to the way we used a controversial police shooting to launch the series, we often take topics reserved for "very special episodes" of TV series and feature them as story engines. We’ve explored storylines as diverse as devout Christian beliefs, immigration, privatized prison labor, militant liberalism, white nationalism, false information on social media and throuples (where three people exclusively date each other as a group). We strive to effect change by presenting different sides of topics for audiences to consider. There is no better example than our Jan. 3 episode, titled “School,” which chronicles our S.W.A.T. team working to prevent a school shooting, even as we flash back to see a past school shooting tragedy they experienced. 

As we’ve learned from our technical advisers, real-life S.W.A.T. is a life-saving unit. If our episodes can help increase communication, empathy and a care for humanity, our TV series, in its own way, can help achieve the same purpose.

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, a native of Kansas City, Kansas, is the co-creator, co-showrunner and executive producer of S.W.A.T., alongside Shawn Ryan. He was previously a writer on Friday Night Lights, Soul Food, Numb3rs and CSI: NYS.W.A.T. airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.