SWAT REACTion

MANSFIELD, TX —  Mansfield SWAT team scouts, seen only as subtle flickers of movement among the trees, quietly surrounded a cul-de-sac home. The Special Weapons and Tactics officers positioned themselves to watch every inch of the property.

According to their dispatch orders, a disturbance in the home could become a hostage situation. As a black, armored vehicle pulled into the street and parked facing the house, Sergeant Jim Harrell keyed his radio. “Be advised: patrol saw the female try to leave the house. The male grabbed her and threw her down.”

The truck’s back and side doors opened. Numerous “React” team members jumped out and waited, rifles covering the house.

Soon Jim spoke again. “Be advised: negotiations have broken down. There is a threat to the hostage. React: prepare for gas. Advise when you have your masks on.”

Minutes later, a report echoed through the neighborhood as a rifle sent tear gas canisters through the front windows. At Jim’s order, the React team rushed the house and broke through the front door.

The officers found no perpetrator or hostage inside. But then, they did not expect to. The entire call had been a training scenario, the first scheduled for the day. Signs posted at the cul-de-sac entrance alerted neighbors and passers-by that police training was in progress. After the exercise, Jim briefly analyzed their performance, and the team left the neighborhood to reset itself for the next call.

Jim leads the SWAT team and had organized the day’s training. SWAT is sent on crisis calls, such as narcotic and other high-risk warrants, barricaded persons and hostage situations. Scenario training helps the officers prepare for these hazardous assignments. They use all their normal weapons, from pistols to rifles. Rather than live ammunition, however, the guns are loaded with wax bullets known as “simunition.”

Since the men must make their plans as they go, an unfamiliar house adds invaluable realism to the training exercise. “This house was condemned and purchased by the city because of

flooding,” Jim said. “It’s going to be demolished, but they’re letting us use it for training first.”

Unlike the full-time SWAT teams that serve some larger cities, Mansfield’s SWAT members volunteer for the assignment on top of their regular patrol duties. They also spend an extra 20 hours per month in specialized training. “They get no extra pay, but they are highly trained and have the best equipment on the force,” Jim said.

SWAT members must be made of stern stuff. To be considered for duty, each must pass a series of tests, including physical fitness and firearms skill. Jim explained that fitness and endurance are as important as marksmanship. The men have to run while wearing 45-pound protective vests,
often in brutally hot weather.

The rigors of duty and training have melded the officers into a close team, most of them five- to seven-year veterans. “There isn’t anything these guys won’t do for each other,” Jim said.

He gives full credit to the SWAT wives for the crucial support they offer the men — and to each other, as a family may need babysitting during a call. Over the past two years, Mansfield’s SWAT team has averaged a call about every 10 to 20 days. “It’s hard on a wife,” Jim said. “When the pager goes off at 2:00 a.m., there’s nothing she can do except wait for that call that says ‘We’re done, and we’re OK.’”

SWAT cannot work alone, but depends on information from the Police Intelligence Officer. And, in a hostage or barricaded person crisis, they act in tandem with the negotiating team to stop or prevent violence. The negotiators’ job is to talk the person out of the house. But, as Jim pointed out, “If he looks out the window, and nobody is there except the negotiator, why should he surrender? SWAT is the threat that motivates him. If he knows there are men out there with gas canisters and rifles, it gives him a reason to cooperate.”

Jim’s boss, Patrol Division Commander Kyle Lanier, oversees all three teams’ efforts. Though SWAT faces the most volatile situations in police work, Kyle said that statistically they suffer no more casualties than patrol officers. After all, even during a traffic stop an officer may be harmed. Besides, the team gets the best training on the police force. “Everything they do here, they can take on patrol. The mindset of these individuals makes them safer cops,” Kyle asserted.

As another safety measure, three Fire Department medics go with the team. Two of these are also police officers. Lt. David Holland, one of the double- duty officers, may treat anything from accident injuries to gunshot wounds at the scene. Even during training, no case of dehydration or other problem escapes his watchful eye. David spoke about how rewarding his work is, but played down the sacrifices he makes.

In fact, all the team members cheerfully sacrifice the required time and effort above the normal call of duty. Naz Aguirre accepted the challenge partly because of the top-notch training and equipment. More importantly, he gains fulfillment from answering the most urgent calls. “When people are in dire need, I’m able to show up and take care of the situation,” he said. His most memorable call came in 2006, when a shooter in a Midlothian apartment had wounded and pinned down four law officers. “We finished that,” he said with grim satisfaction.

Michael Midkiff is an eight-year veteran on the force who joined SWAT after the first year. Like Naz, he appreciates the specialized training he receives. But what actually drew him to SWAT was the chance to test what he is made of. “It puts me in situations where things have gone from bad to worse — where I have to step up to the plate,” he said. “It’s a gut check.”

SWAT’s whole-team effort demands a lot of trust. The men must trust each other; they and their wives must trust their training. Everyone depends on the information that Intelligence provides. React depends on the support officers who drive and stay with their vehicles.

One of those vehicles, the armored truck, bears a curious marking: a “smiley face” on the back door. Sketched into the marking plans as a joke, the emblem had caught the chief’s eye. He said he liked it. After the truck was painted with only the official markings, the chief sent it back to have the smiley added. As the team attends training events around the country, the audacious truck has gained its own reputation. Mansfield’s SWAT team, made of courage and dedication with a dash of humor, more than lives up to their Police Department motto: “Pride – Honor – Integrity.”

Written by Janice C. Johnson.