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Communication is Key in Fremont SWAT Operations

6 November 2008 2 Comments

Photos and Story by Linsay Rousseau Burnett

April 1st, 2008. The 911 call came at 2:30am from a woman reporting that she had been raped and robbed inside her apartment. Fremont patrol officers quickly located the suspect in an adjacent apartment where he had barricaded himself inside. It was time to call in the SWAT team. The team quickly surrounded and locked down the building. But after nine hours of failed negotiations, SWAT officers fired tear gas into the apartment. The suspect immediately surrendered was taken into custody without injury.

The effectiveness of any SWAT team in a situation such as this, requires high quality training in weapons use and tactical operations. But a team does not operate alone. A recent joint training operation by the Fremont police department showed that an intricate relationship between the SWAT team, hostage negotiator team (HNT) and tactical dispatchers is vital in any “call out.”

Fremont SWAT officers take down a suspect during a training operation

For this recent joint training operation, organizers transformed an abandoned daycare center into the scene of an incident. Role players were brought in to serve as suspects, victims and hostages. The nature of the scenario was known only by a handful of organizers, or proctors.

While SWAT team members donned their protective gear and loaded up their weapons with dummy rounds, the tactical dispatch team got set up in the RV-sized mobile command center. Not far away, the HNT organized their smaller van, filled with equipment used to communicate with suspects and gather intelligence.

Also inside the mobile command center was the command team. The command team is comprised of the SWAT tactical commander, Sgt. Patrick Epps and the HNT team commander, Sgt. Curt Codey. The final decision maker is team commander Lt. Johnny Liu. “We’re like the intelligence center, we make sense of all the information coming in from the tactical team and HNT,” said Epps.

The event kicked off with a “call” to dispatchers, reporting that a suspect who had escaped from jail was barricaded in his house with two hostages. According to Epps, a 22-year veteran of the force who has been on the SWAT team for 14 years, the SWAT team was dispatched in a “surround and call out” operation.

“The days of a SWAT team kicking in the front door and running through the house and tackling everybody are over. Our job is to protect lives. Which includes our own. The priority of life now is citizens and hostages, officers and suspects,” he said.

According to Epps, the majority of SWAT calls today result in the “surround and call out scenario.” This is when a SWAT team surrounds the building and provides the suspect with someone to talk to, a hostage negotiator. The SWAT team is then on standby for a worst-case scenario or to accept a surrender.

The responsibility of making contact with a suspect falls to the HNT. Codey has been on the HNT team for 22 years and in charge of it for nine. According to him, 90 to 95-percent of the time, incidents are resolved through negotiations.

“We want it that way,” said Codey, “Our job on the HNT is to keep those guys [SWAT] from having to go in. They’re our friends and we don’t want them to go into harms way.”

Fremont SWAT officers approach a house where hostages are being held during a training exercise

Sometimes this negotiation process is quick said Codey. Other times it can take hours. He said that this is why communication and cooperation is pertinent in call outs. It is important for HNT to know what the SWAT team’s needs are so that HNT can gather appropriate information, such as the number of individuals inside or the layout of the room.

But HNT also relies heavily on SWAT tactical operations. “We can’t do anything without containment. It’s very difficult to negotiate without containment. So the SWAT team provides that element,” said Codey.

Containment refers to surrounding suspect and cutting off any possible escape routes, thus making that suspect dependent upon the negotiator for a safe exit.

In Fremont, the 20-member SWAT team and 16-member HNT is considered a collateral assignment, meaning the job is in addition to each officer’s traditional police assignment, such as patrol, traffic or detective.

Outside of joint exercises, the SWAT team and HNT train 22 hours a month in order to maintain the high standards set by the Commission of Peace Officer Standards and training. There are also opportunities for more advanced state and federal training.

For those involved in SWAT and HNT, the additional training and work hours are worth the price and are often the reason they became involved with the team in the first place.

“It takes a lot of dedication. A lot of training,” said SWAT officer Jeremy Miskella, “I always like to be very tactical in my job and obviously your job as a SWAT officer is very tactical, so I kind of fell into it.

Above all else, these officers said that camaraderie is the driving factor behind their involvement and dedication in SWAT and HNT. “It’s the people. It’s like being on the football team in high school. You’re surrounded by 20 of your best buddies,” said former SWAT officer Steve Pace, now a technical advisor for the team.

Along with this advanced training comes additional responsibilities. “It’s a special call of duty. You can’t make any mistakes in this business, it’s not accepted. It’s not allowed,” said Epps.

These responsibilities can take their toll on officers, especially those on the HNT who are attempting to communicate with a suspect or victim.

Fremont SWAT officer Ramin Mahboobi pulls security as a suspect prepares to surrender

Codey said that the job of a negotiator is a double-edge sword. On the one hand they must develop a report with a person in order to gain their confidence, but if a situation turns negative, he said it is emotionally damaging to the negotiator.

“We’ve had people kill themselves while negotiators are talking to them and that’s extremely taxing on the negotiators. But that attachment is also what makes you effective,” said Codey.

It is the pressure to achieve success that officers said drives them rather than hinders them. Former SWAT officer and now technical advisor for the team, Tony Tassano, said, “Sometimes things go to crap and we are the guys they call out to fix it.”

Codey said that the challenge of resolving a difficult situation is what he enjoys the most. “You’ve got an incident that might be life or death. You might have 40 or 50 cops out here. Everything is hanging on your word. On what you hear and your communication skills,” he said.

While the Fremont SWAT team may not respond to as many calls as cities such as Oakland, Epps said that the police department and city of Fremont are dedicated to fully funding the team. The team also provides personnel and equipment to assist other cities when requested.

This support from the police department and city ensures that the team has sufficient resources needed to stay abreast of improved tactics and field new equipment. The joint training scenarios then provide an opportunity to test out these skills and technology and discern what works and what needs improvement.

No matter how proficient the SWAT team, HNT or tactical dispatch team is by itself, the joint training showed that it is the interaction between the three that determines the success or failure of a mission. As Epps said, “Communication is the key to the successful outcome of these things. The perfect SWAT call out is when we roll in and we roll out and it’s not in the news because nobody got hurt.”

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