SWAT's Small-Town Question

Whether you work for a metropolitan police department with thousands of officers or small-town agency with only a handful of personel, an incident requiring the response of a special weapons team can happen in your town. How prepared are you and your agency?

Detective Gary Entrekin was just assisting a friend when he told Chris McCurely that he would help serve a warrant late last fall. The Rainbow City, Ala., detective was working an overtime patrol shift when McCurley, the head of the Etowah County Drug Task Force, asked Entrekin to be part of a narcotics warrant service the following day. McCurley had personally worked up the case on Ezra George Peterson, a 50-year-old probationer, and didn't expect any problems.

"Chris briefed me before the warrant and there was no intel that indicated the guy was armed," Entrekin said. "He felt sure there were no weapons in the house. He was expecting it to be a pretty low- key warrant. If we knew we needed them (the tactical team), we would have taken them."

Although Rainbow City had a small tactical team, it lacked special weaponry and the team's training had been somewhat limited. McCurley and the assisting officers were experienced in serving warrants and he didn't think the team would be needed.

Officers went to Peterson's house with Det. Entrekin going to the back with another officer while McCurley and the others approached the front. When the officers knocked on the door, they were initially met with silence. When they tried to force entry, they encountered every officer's worst nightmare. In what was supposed to be a "routine" warrant, a well-prepared suspect opened up with a AK-47 assault rifle.

"I was around back with another officer when I heard the door crash in," Entrekin said. "I heard the sound of a high powered rifle and it sounded like it was fully auto. I ran around to the front and was hit in the legs." Entrekin crawled behind a can on the property, but the suspect seemed to specifically target the wounded detective. "He kept shooting, ricocheting the shots off the ground,: said Entrekin. Seeing the extent of his wound, Entrekin knew he was in serious trouble. "My legs were all mangled and I was losing a lot of blood," he said.

Without warning, the suspect came out of the house, moving directly toward Entrekin. "He was yelling, 'I'm going to finish you, you son-of-a-bitch," said Entrekin. The experienced detective thought his life was over until his partner, Sgt. Tommy Watts, shot the suspect multiple times with a shotgun. The suspect went down, he was not seriously injured because he was wearing body armor.

Peterson was taken into custody without further incident. His girlfriend, Connie Stozzie, 30, was also arrested. She, too, was wearing body armor, and had been helping Peterson reload the AK-47.

When the smoke cleared, Peterson had fired more that 200 rounds. Chris McCurley was dead. Gary Entrekin's legs were so badly torn by the AK-47 rounds that he spent more than two months in the hospital and ultimately had to have one leg amputated. Two other officers were also wounded but eventually recovered from their wounds.

In the aftermath, officers in the area questioned how prepared they were to deal with incidents of this nature.

How prepared are you and your agency?

Reality Brings Need

Whether you work for a metropolitan police department with thousands of officers or small- town agency with only a handful of personnel, such as Rainbow City, an incident requiring the response of a special weapons team can happen in your town. In the last few months, the media has brought us stories of barricaded suspects, schoolchildren held hostage, heavily armed bank robbers, and drug- crazed maniacs with assault weapons. Many of these stories have come from small towns, thrust into the national spotlight when a tragedy struck without warning.

The question becomes then: How prepared is your agency?[PAGEBREAK]

Know Your Limitations

Rainbow City is a small community of less than 20,000 people, policed by a force of 19 officers. Only two or three cars are fielded per shift. Unlike many small towns, the department had a small tactical team, but the team was equipped only with handguns and shotguns. Training was limited and real- life tactical experiences were infrequent.

After this tragic incident, Rainbow City purchased H&K MP-5s and Colt AR- 15s. The department also provided training with the weapons and upgraded the capabilities of its tactical team.

Det. Entrekin feels strongly that line level officers should have the ability to properly respond. "Every department, regardless of size, should provide every officer working the streets with a rifle in the car," he said. Entrekin is a realist, though, and recognizes that sometimes situations can be tactically overwhelming. "There's not much you can do when you have a maniac with 100- round magazines," he said.

In nearby Gadsden, Ala., officers reflected on the Rainbow City shooting and questioned what they would do if a similar situation arose in their tow. Chase Jenkins, an officer with Gadsden PD, is a friend of Entrekin. He has seen the impact of this incident on the families and co-workers of those involved. It has motivated him to examine the need for tactical response ability in his own department. Unfortunately, Off. Jenkinds reports that the general attitude seems to be negative towards the idea of a tactical team. "A SWAT team is not viewed as citizen- friendly," said Jenkins. "We just don't have the ability to respond to something like this in Gadsden."


Should small towns have a SWAT team? Or is a SWAT team an unnecessary move towards militarization, as some critics claim? Police officers have long been the first lime of defense for society and, while overall violent crime is down, the number of barricaded and heavily armed subjects has been fairly consistent, by some accounts even growing.

When a town does not have a special- weapons team, options in a tactical situation are essentially limited to whatever the responding patrol officers can do. Perhaps due to the frequent and extensive publicity of incidents in small towns across the nation, many police managers are asking what they would do if faced with a similar situation

In Hancock County, Miss., Major Matt Karl is the commander of the Special Operations Division, a joint- agency, special- weapons team. About three years ago, he became concerned that the law enforcement agencies in his area did not have the ability to response properly to a tactical incident. "We would have to just wait it out," he said. Referring to an incident which took place prior to his team's formation, Major Karl said "it was a mess."

Karl took the initiative to contact managers in two small, adjacent agencies, the Waveland and Bay St. Louis police departments, and developed a plan for a multiagency teactical team. Three years later, the team consists of 25 officers who handle any situation beyond the capabilities of patrol officers. The unit even assisted an adjacent county which did not have a tactical team after a barricaded subject held the local police at bay for hours. The situation was resolved peacefully and the subject was taken into custody.[PAGEBREAK]

Larry Glick is the president of the National Tactical Officers Association, a nonprofit organization, composed of officers from around the country. He knows full well the controversy over SWAT teams. "Our profession has taken a lot of criticism from people who say there is an alarming rise in the number of SWAT teams," he said. "I think there is a rise in the number of teams, but not an alarming one."

Glick points out that contrary to media hype, the presence of a SWAT team does not aggracate a situation. "We've been collecting data on major incidents and we have our first year's worth of results. It clearly shows that the number of shots fired and the number of deadly force encounters go down as a result of SWAT intervention," Glick related.

The NTOA is also working to determine the number of SWAT teams across the country, a number which at this time is unclear. "We have 700 agencies holding a team membership and a total membership of 20,000 officers," said Glick. "But the total number of agencies having SWAT teams we could only speculate at this time."

Sometimes experience is a big city SWAT team gets transferred to a small town, much to the smaller town's benefit. Capt. Steve Taylor is a former member of LAPD's SWAT team and he believes strongly in the tactical options a SWAT team can provide. "SWAT is a life-saving entity. It's a group of highly skilled and trained individuals that is able to utilize specific tools as a surgeon does and surgically remove a problem. It is a much more controlled situation when SWAT is there," said Taylor.

Working Against SWAT

So why would any town not have a SWAT team? Cost is one factor. SWAT teams do not come cheap. According to the NTOA, a department should plan of $3,500 to $6,000 per officer in start-up costs. Hancock County's Major Karl knows first hand the challenge of funding a SWAT team. "We get $5,000 (total) funding from the three participating agencies each year," Karl related. "We need some weapons. We need ladders, rope and we're still trying to get good radios, headsets and night goggles."

The members of the Hancock County team have taken the challenge of funding in stride, though. "We do a lot of fundraisers like softball and volleyball tournaments. The banks have made donations and the officers have done a lot of shaking cans." Shaking cans? "Some of the guys got in their BDU's and stood by the highways for three days shaking cans. They raised $7,000," Major Karl explained.[PAGEBREAK]

Training is another challenge when it comes to fielding a SWAT team. Even a well-trained street officer will probably need a specialized school to get started and there is a very real need for ongoing training. The NTOA recommends a minimum of two training days per month for SWAT team members. Tracy, Calif.'s Taylor reported that his department puts a lot of emphasis on SWAT training. "We were training once a month, but now we're training twice a month. It's a big bite but you have to look at the incidents that are low frequency and high risk."

He recognizes the responsibility associated with SWAT actions. "There are high- liability issues surrounding a team any time it is used. You have to spend the money up front. It's pay me now or pay me later. Make sure you have a unit that is trained appropriately for their mission." Regarding the quality of SWAT personnel and their training, Taylor spoke candidly. "I can understand the political ramifications, but I also understand the need to have very skilled individuals. Their skill comes from the repetitive nature of their training.

Many departments feel they just can't afford a SWAT team when so much training is required and the team may not even be used. This type of reasoning could be dangerous, though.

Captain Jim Hilton, patrol commander for the Ruston(La.) Police Department related that his department's team has been in place for about two years and it trains regularly, both as a team and with other agencies. "Before we had a team we just winged it. We just had to do with what we had," said Hilton. Hilton's advice to police departments weighing the SWAT question? "Don't wait until you need it to decide. Then it's too late for everybody. We went for a long time with an extreme amount of luck. But you can't trust to luck."

The Right Personnel Are Critical

If a department decides to implement a SWAT team, careful consideration should be given to the selection of personnel. In Hancock County, Miss., prospective SWAT team members go through a thorough screening before they are permitted to become a team member. Det. Mike Bird, a training coordinator and team leader on the miltiagency team, relates the process is extensive. "When we have a position available, we give the applicants a testing packet consisting of basic tactical information. The applicant must study for a written test and score at least 80 percent to proceed to the next phase," said Det. Bird.

The written test is followed by an extensive physical fitness test and then a firearms proficiency test. "They must shoot 285 out of 300- 290 if they're going to be on the entry team," said Bird. The firearms screening is followed by a combat stress course, an in-depth oral board which ranks the applicants and finally, a six-month probationary assignment for the most qualified applicants. Training is such an integral part of the team's success that team members can be removed for failing a portion of the training or exhibiting a poor training attitude, according to Bird.

Sometimes a major incident serves as the catalyst for the formation of a tactical team. Such was the case in Darien, Ill., a town with 32 full-time officers. "About five years ago we have a hostage situation where a woman was taken hostage overnight," explained Sgt. Ron Campo, of the Darien PD SWAT. "We had to call a neighboring agency to handle it and there was a feeling of loss of control. After that, our administration wanted to form a team."

The town now has a seven- officer SWAT team which is available for call-out as needed. All of the team's members serve in full-time assignments ranging from patrol to detectives. Recognizing the limitation of the small team, Darien PD is looking at the possibility of combining efforts with other departments. "We're in the process of forming a multi- agency SWAT team," reported Sgt. Campo. "In a long incident, the fatigue factor gets high. There is a concern that in a protracted incident, we'll need other resources. With more agencies involved and more potential to use the team, everybody can stay sharp and we can better justify the team's existence and training."

Do the Homework

If your agency is considering a special-weapons team, research should be done to determine the need, related costs, and department impacts. Part of the need assessment should include the careful review of tactical options available from surrounding agencies. Determine the level of support from your community and be prepared to explain that having a tactical option does not mean the militarization of your police department.

Avail yourself of resources such as the National Tactical Officers Association. Check with the nearest large agency about the possibility of training with its personnel. There probably are experts in your area of the country who will help your department get a team started. Once a unit is begun, commit to ongoing and meaningful training.

If your department waits until a tactical response is needed before looking at the SWAT option, it's too late. Remember, as Capt. Hilton of Ruston (La.) PD said: "You can't trust to luck."

Sgt. Dale Stockton is a former member of POLICE's Advisory Board.

About the Author
Page 1 of 503
Next Page