Police agencies collaborate on SWAT units, dream of robots [UPDATED]Published 7:55am Wednesday, August 15, 2012 Updated 12:00pm Wednesday, August 15, 2012
By Jennifer Vogel
MPR News — 91.5 FM
Glenwood — It’s sweltering inside the Minnewaska High School near Glenwood as members of the West Central Special Weapons and Tactics Team check their M16s, M4s and Glock Gen4s to make sure they’re not loaded.
The team is about to start a three-hour training exercise, but not before each gun is marked safe with a piece of tape, preferably masking tape.
The problem is nobody has any. A team member finally dashes out to his squad car and returns with a roll of translucent medical tape, barely visible on the gun barrels. It’s not perfect, but it’ll have to do.
Making do is a recurrent theme for the team of 16 officers, deputies, sheriffs and chiefs from a range of western Minnesota law enforcement agencies.
The five-year-old team is outfitted in a hodgepodge of vests, helmets and camouflaged shirts and pants. Members keep mental lists of the equipment they’d like to have, such as a BearCat military-style armored vehicle.
Currently, the team travels the often long distances to raids in a secondhand bus from the Rainbow Rider transit company and uses a donated armored bank truck from a local security outfit.
The team isn’t called on very often–maybe six times per year, to descend upon a marijuana grow operation or diffuse a hostage standoff–making these monthly training exercises all the more revelatory.
By skulking through the school’s library and hallways, unloaded guns drawn, the team establishes routines for entering and securing houses, stores and even schools.
Officers who might not otherwise interact with each other figure out how to work as a team.
The goal at the school this evening may be to clear Mrs. Olson’s 7th grade reading room of imaginary threats, but the larger mission of the SWAT collective is to provide each participating department with a service it couldn’t afford on its own. “We have to cooperate because we all have small agencies,” said Pope County Sheriff Tim Riley, who chairs the team.
These cost-saving collaborations are cropping up more in Minnesota and across the nation as budgets grow ever tighter, even in the long-sheltered realm of public safety. According to Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), based in Pennsylvania, the last several years have seen an uptick in multi-agency SWAT teams.
“It’s a growing trend,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the economy. SWAT teams are very expensive to have on the books because of the equipment and training and the selection process and so forth. So, many smaller departments outside metro areas have combined the resources.”
Lomax thinks the number of SWAT teams nationwide is actually shrinking because teams are joining together and regionalizing “to share the resources and the grief.”
Who covers the hard corner?
Tonight, the West Central team aims to improve the way it moves, how members work in unison to secure rooms and hallways, communicating without words and rushing in to cover potential hiding spots.
“I want to see a good stack, a good push and go,” said Glenwood Police Chief Dale Danter, a SWAT team leader. “I want to see good flow into the room.” The dozen men — it’s all men — are split into two groups, each with a designated “quarterback.” The groups form lines, or stacks, outside the classrooms they are about to enter.
A debate breaks out over whether the first or second person into the room should clear the “hard corner,” the nearest blind spot.
“Both are good techniques,” said Pope County Chief Deputy Nathan Brecht, the SWAT team’s assistant commander. “We’ll have to see what’s most effective.”