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Posted: 12/19/2009 9:40:58 PM EDT

Dallas County constables, others keep little-used tactical units

11:59 PM CST on Saturday, December 19, 2009
By ED TIMMS / The Dallas Morning News
[email protected]

The stylized photo looks like a promo for a Hollywood movie: hooded and helmeted men in body armor, heavily armed, wisps of smoke hugging the floor, lightning bolts stitching across the background.

Dallas County Constable Roma's Skinner's "special response team" is one of four SWAT-like tactical units operated by local constables, and among a dozen or so in the Dallas area.

The team is trained to handle incidents such as "hazardous apprehensions, barricaded persons, and hostage rescues," according to a blurb underneath the photo on the Precinct 4 constable's Web page. On average, based on documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News, the team has been called upon for actual operations about three times a year, typically for search warrants or arrest warrants.

The team doesn't get much in the way of financial support from county commissioners. Asset forfeiture funds are an alternative source of money that can be spent by constables without commissioners' blessing. And as elected officials whose positions are constitutionally protected, constables have wide latitude in how they use their personnel.

Skinner's office balked at providing an inventory of equipment for his special response team and at detailing what has been purchased for it. Opposing an open records request on Skinner's behalf, a Dallas County assistant district attorney asserted that disclosing such information might "compromise the actions" of the team and perhaps put it in danger.

The News later determined that redacted receipts from Skinner's office detailed more than $7,000 in charges for paintball equipment, silencers that were discussed openly in Commissioners Court and several other items listed on briefing agendas available to the general public online.

"We don't like to talk about training. We don't want to talk about what we have. We don't want to do anything that would jeopardize the operational integrity," Skinner said.

Skinner said he thinks it would be irresponsible not to have a unit with the capabilities of his special response team, given the potential threats that law enforcement officers face.

Across the nation, however, the wisdom of relatively small law enforcement agencies fielding tactical teams increasingly is being questioned. Some experts suggest that smaller departments don't have a sufficient pool from which to select ideal candidates, and may not have sufficient funds for training and equipment. Routine duties such as patrol and investigations may suffer in small departments where serving on a tactical team is a part-time duty.

Experts also warn that small teams, with perhaps six or 12 members, simply don't have the numbers to carry out high-risk operations such as hostage rescues or even barricaded-person incidents. Lacking sufficient numbers, they say, both the officers and citizens may be exposed to excessive risk.

Some critics also say that once such a team is formed, the temptation may be to use it – for practice or to justify its existence – when such an overpowering use of force isn't needed.

At a time when many government agencies are facing budget shortfalls, some officials question just how many tactical teams are necessary. Does every municipality and county law enforcement agency, regardless of size, need one? Or is there a better way?

Different approach

Nearly 18 months ago, several smaller police departments in Dallas and Ellis counties took an unusual step. The decision was made to disband existing SWAT teams and pool resources to form a unit that would serve all of their communities.

The combined SWAT team was an outgrowth of a mutual aid network known as the Southern Regional Response Group that has evolved in Dallas and Ellis counties. Most participants are in southern Dallas County or northern Ellis County, but Highland Park also is involved.

The response group is modeled heavily on the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System, made up of suburban police departments in the Chicago area. NIPAS was formed after the response to a severe flood in the early 1980s convinced officials that they needed a better-organized system to deal with major incidents. In addition to a mutual aid network, NIPAS developed a tactical team.

Assistant DeSoto Police Chief Wayne Nero, a driving force behind the multijurisdictional SWAT concept, said the Southern Regional Response Group has 36 members. The size, which is likely to grow, reflects a decision to staff for some of the most difficult situations that a SWAT team might confront.

"No matter how much talent and equipment you have, when you get to the hostage rescue level, it's a game of numbers," Nero said. Six- to 12-man teams "aren't going to get it done."

The team became operational on a limited basis in June with the final steps expected to be completed by January. From the start, a heavy emphasis was placed on selecting top candidates, training, and developing policies.

"You need to have the right people doing it. And you need to equip them to the right degree. And you need to train them the proper way to do it," Nero said.

Southern Regional Response Group officials say the multijurisdictional approach has a number of advantages.

"Once you get past territorial issues, what you come down to, not only are you sharing costs, you're creating a larger gene pool from which to pull highly qualified candidates," said Midlothian Police Chief Carl Smith, the response group's president.

Whenever there is a major incident, Smith said, "you're going to call on your neighbors anyway."

Paul Hershey, president of the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association and a veteran Houston police officer who served on the department's SWAT team for 18 years, describes the SWAT team formed by the Southern Regional Response Group as "probably one of the most successful multijurisdictional teams in the state of Texas." And he is encouraging other law enforcement agencies in the state to follow the example.

Leading the pack

Over the years, several law enforcement agencies in Dallas County have formed tactical teams, including municipal police departments, the Dallas County Sheriff's Department, the Dallas Independent School District's police force and local constables.

Typically the officers have duties in addition to serving on such teams.

The Dallas Police Department SWAT team, however, has about 40 full-time officers. It is recognized as one of the best in the nation.

"If most any city around the Metroplex had a situation like a barricaded person or a bank robbery ... and they reached out to us, we'd be more than happy to assist them with it," said Deputy Police Chief Julian Bernal, who oversees the Dallas SWAT team.

The Dallas County Sheriff's Department fields a tactical team of more than 30 members. Deputies from the department's warrant execution section also serve on the tactical team. Lt. D.L. Hodge, who oversees the team, said it routinely responds to requests from other agencies.

DISD's special response team of 14 officers was formed more than two years ago and outfitted with more than $40,000 in weapons and equipment. To date, it has not been used operationally.

Among Dallas County constables, Roma Skinner was the trendsetter. When his special response team was formed in 2001, it became the only such unit operated by a Dallas County constable. The Precinct 4 Web page says the unit has eight members, but training records indicate about a dozen are involved.

Three other constables have since formed tactical units of some kind: Precinct 2 Constable Michael Gothard, Precinct 3 Constable Ben Adamcik and Precinct 5 Constable Jaime Cortes.

The News requested documents detailing how often the Precinct 4 constable's Special Response Team has been used operationally since its inception. Skinner's office provided reports on 21 occasions in which the team was deployed from Aug. 7, 2001, through July 31, 2008. The team made arrests or confiscated weapons and drugs in several of the operations. In at least a third of the cases, no arrests were made.

The team frequently served drug-related warrants or raided homes where drug sales were suspected.

In a 2006 incident, the team raided a Dallas apartment looking for two men wanted on felony warrants and two other men suspected of armed robberies. Team members knocked open the front door with a ram as "flash-bangs" – pyrotechnic devices designed to distract suspects with a loud noise and a flash of light – were set off "into the front living room" and at a rear second-floor window.

No one was home. The team did find an AK-47 assault rifle in a closet. Before they left, "the weapon was returned to the closet and a copy of the search warrant was left on the living room table," according to the after-action report.

The Precinct 4 team also helped out U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2007 after the wife of a man whom two ICE agents were seeking to arrest for deportation refused to let them into the house, in the Tarrant County portion of Grand Prairie.

After the team arrived, "We set up by the front door of the residence and knocked," according to an after-action report. The wife answered the door and "immediately we entered the residence." The man sought by ICE agents was not home, but the wife was arrested on misdemeanor warrants.

Other constables' tactical teams also appear to be deployed sparingly. Precinct 2's special response team, for example, executed four search warrants in 2008 and two in the first months of 2009.

The sheriff's team appears to be called out more often. Over about eight months in late 2008 and the first part of 2009, the team went out eight times on high-risk arrest or search warrants, provided security for high-profile inmate transfers on three occasions, worked with the Dallas Police Department twice cleaning up drug- and gang-infested apartment complexes, and responded to two barricaded-person calls in unincorporated areas of the county.

While their actual use may focus on executing search warrants or serving arrest warrants, the operational guidelines for constables' tactical teams suggest broader interests. The guidelines for the Precinct 2 special response team, for example, state that it can be used for everything from high-risk evictions to counter-sniper situations, civil unrest and hostage situations

Adamcik, the Precinct 3 constable, said his team focuses on serving high-risk warrants and on searches related to drug activity. If confronted with a situation that demands more manpower and resources, Adamcik said, "that's when you hold and contain the area – and then you call in and try to get some specialized help. We recognize that."

One explanation offered for having constables' tactical teams is that units from another agency may not be able to respond quickly enough in an emergency. When needed, Skinner said, his team is an absolute necessity – not a luxury.

"If you're out there arresting felons, and I've got a wounded deputy laying on the porch whose life is gone in 15 minutes from bleeding, who am I going to call? Do I get the Yellow Pages, and call SWAT-ARE-US?"

The only mandatory standards for tactical teams typically are what law enforcement agencies impose on themselves. The state agency that monitors peace officers in Texas has a recommended curriculum for basic training but does not require it. The National Tactical Officers Association developed its own voluntary standards in 2008. Key points:

• SWAT teams are formed to resolve "critical incidents involving a threat to public safety" that would "otherwise exceed the capabilities of traditional law enforcement first responders and/or investigative units."

• A SWAT team should consist of at least 17 members. "This minimum does not allow for the deployment of a vehicle assault team during a hostage situation or a sophisticated hostage rescue plan, which would require many more officers."

• When "size and/or demographics limit the capabilities of an agency," multijurisdictional resources should be "combined and coordinated in a manner ... consistent with reliable tactics, techniques and procedures."

• Recognizing that a significant number of SWAT teams operated by smaller agencies do not or cannot attain enough personnel to meet these standards, the National Tactical Officers Association suggests that those unwilling to become a part of a multijurisdictional team should enter into an agreement with a neighboring team that both respond to incidents. In such a case, the teams should conduct "joint training events for all levels."

• Minimum training for part-time SWAT members should include a 40-hour basic SWAT course, 40 hours annually of "in-service full team training," 16 hours monthly of "critical skills maintenance" and an additional eight hours of training monthly for "specialty assignments," such as tactical emergency medical support.

• Minimum training for full-time SWAT members should include a 40-hour basic SWAT course and 25 percent of their monthly on-duty time, including specialty assignments.

• Law enforcement agencies also should develop standard operating procedures for acquiring and handling equipment and personnel issues such as the selection of team members, retention, mandatory physical and tactical competency and selection of team leaders.

• SWAT teams should develop agreements, protocols and procedures with neighboring teams "for the handling of extraordinary incidents which exceed the capabilities and resources of the primary jurisdictional team."

SOURCE: "SWAT Standards for Law Enforcement Agencies," National Tactical Officers Association, published September 2008

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