Shoestring collaboration with dreams of robots

West Central Minnesota S.W.A.T. training
While the West Central Minnesota S.W.A.T. team is typically only called to action a handful of times each year, monthly training exercises serve to retain team members' skills. Team members pictured from left to right are: Jared Swanson, an EMT with Glacial Ridge Ambulance in Glenwood, Rob Velde, a police officer with the Morris Police Department, and Pope Co. Sheriff Tim Riley.
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

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.

"We have to cooperate because we all have small agencies,"

"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."

Danter suggests maintaining their usual approach, where the first person takes the hard corner. "Let's stick with what we've been doing," he said. "There are pluses and minuses to both. But this is so engrained." It's the kind of procedural debate best had during a training session, rather than on the bus ride to a high-anxiety raid.

The teams enter their respective classrooms quickly, guns leading the way. They holler out "red zones," the backs of televisions, the dark edges of desks, all the while moving until they've covered every corner. "Nothing is ever going to go the way you plan it," Brecht said. "We've changed a lot of things from when we first started."

"I don't have any idea how you'll react."

"I always say a little training is better than no training."

The team formed in 2007 after officers, including sheriff's deputies from Pope and Stevens counties, responded to an incident near the county line involving a suicidal man with a gun. Police in this sparsely-populated part of the state are used to helping each other out, especially with high risk situations.

But afterward, "We sat down and said, 'This is ridiculous,'" recalled Brecht, a team founder. "Communication is ridiculous. We don't know who is on what channel and what their call numbers are. It's hard to try to keep control of everything that happens in a situation without ever working together."

Danter, another original team member, was equally unnerved. "I said, 'No offense to anybody in the room, but we don't train together and I'm going to a high-risk, dangerous call with you guys and I don't have any idea how you'll react. We should at least train together so when we go out together we can operate smoothly.'"

Monthly S.W.A.T. training
Five western Minnesota counties formed the joint West Central Minnesota S.W.A.T. team in 2007, combining 13 jurisdictions with donated and grant-funded equipment. Team members come together for monthly trainings like this one in late June 2012 at a Glenwood, Minn., school.
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Today, the resulting team includes representatives from five counties, the University of Minnesota Morris and a handful of cities, along with two paramedics and a doctor. Swift County and the cities of Appleton and Benson are the newest members, having joined in late 2011. Each agency pays $770 per year to belong, which buys equipment and extra insurance. Overtime, if necessary, is covered by individual agencies.

Danter said it takes three to five years for a team to gel. "And we're just getting to that stage. Everybody that is on the team is really dedicated to it." He said the camaraderie bleeds into everyday police work, as members are more likely now to talk and share information. Still, a SWAT team with minimal resources, yet covering a vast geographic area, has its challenges. It can take an hour or more to organize and get to a call, and that's assuming the bus and armored truck start.

Scratching for equipment

"That is an issue in the winter," said Danter. "None of us has the facilities to store a lot of the equipment, so they sit outside in a parking lot. We try to find an extension cord to keep them warm. The batteries go dead. It's always a challenge for us. Sometimes we're able to plug them in and sometimes not."

Also, in open country, an approaching convoy of police vehicles can be easy to spot, so the team learned early on to execute stealthier raids. At first, said Brecht, "We rolled into a small town with our armored personnel carrier, two squads and three trucks. The water pressure falls because all of the toilets are flushing. We've learned we need to meet somewhere else and drive there [together]."

Then, there is the constant struggle for equipment. Donations and grants help. But, said Brecht, "We itch and scratch for everything we can get. That is the toughest thing. It's so expensive and we don't have the money for it. We could use a robot. It's so much safer to send a robot into the house to see what's going on. Did he shoot himself or is he waiting in there for us?"

Equipment could become easier to land with the close of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Lomax. "I would suspect with the wars paring down tremendously there should be a lot of surplus equipment, similar to when SWATS first came around in the early '70s or late '60s. After Vietnam, a lot of the equipment came from the military."

Lomax' organization, the NTOA, is pushing for national standards for SWAT teams, mainly to protect the safety of officers. He'd like to see every team with at least 16 members and between 16 and 40 hours of training per month. "Most teams are only used a handful of times throughout the year," he said. "The skill set needed in tactical operations, the movements and weaponry and communications and tactics and so forth, those things have a short shelf life. If they are not reinforced frequently, they tend to fade away."

The West Central team meets the 16-person goal, but falls short on the training, getting together four hours per month and one full day four times per year.

Lomax' response to that? "I always say a little training is better than no training."

Rubber bullets in the girls' room

Toward the end of the evening at Minnewaska High School, SWAT members pull on their full battle gear--helmets, vests, gloves, eyewear and groin protection--for an "active shooter exercise." Sweat pours down the men's reddened faces as their goggles fog. The team members lay their weapons aside and instead holster special guns that shoot rubber bullets, which they will fire at each other in order to simulate a real attack.

S.W.A.T. team training at Minnewaska Area HS
A vacant portion of the Minnewaska Area High School in Glenwood, Minn., provided the backdrop for an evening training session for the West Central Minnesota S.W.A.T. team on Wednesday, June 27, 2012.
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Swift County Deputy Brandon Grimsley, one of the newer members, volunteers to play the "bad guy." He takes up a position in the darkened girls' bathroom, standing atop a toilet inside a stall, and aims his weapon toward the door. From outside, the team creeps up to the closed bathroom door and a team member swings it open, shouting, "Gun, gun, gun!" Grimsley lets the rubber bullets fly as the team returns fire. "Gas!," someone yells as someone else rolls in a fake tear gas canister. The exercise ends in a flurry of rubber bullets.

In the hallway, a team member picks up a handful of rubber ammo that has spilled onto the carpeting. "It's tough times here," comments Brecht.

The training ends along a bank of lockers, where officers remove their gear and pack it into enormous duffel bags they wouldn't need if they all worked for one department and had a centralized locker room. Between trainings and calls, they keep the bags under their beds or in their car trunks.

"Are there any problems with what we did?" asks Danter.

"I kept pumping" Grimsley says. "I was picking them off. I hit someone in the boot, I think. Did anyone get hit in the boot?" He counts the exercise a success. "Once you guys flooded, there was nothing to do but get shot." He notes a red blood mark on his hand, the kiss of a rubber bullet, and adds, "I got one round off, and then I was overwhelmed. Somebody shot me in the butt cheek."

"It was a good one," someone says. "Back to basics."

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