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Front Page - Friday, November 3, 2017

Through the eyes of SWAT

Team members share methods, weapons used to avert disaster

From my vantage point behind a pair of SWAT officers, I can see the target at the base of a tall cliff on the shore of the Tennessee River. The helmsman at the back of the boat in which I am traveling points the craft at the distant mark and then gives the engine a big swallow of gas.

As the boat lurches forward, its nose hits a small wave, sending the rubber vessel bouncing up and then slapping back down against the water. Somehow, the uniformed men at the bow of the craft keep their weapons fixed on the target.

At the helmsman’s command, the officers begin to fire their fully automatic weapons, sending bullet casings leaping into the spray the boat has kicked up.

Moments later, the attack is over, and the craft is slowly approaching the shore to give everyone a look at the marksmen’s handiwork. There, a man is propped against the trunk of a fallen tree, his face and torso pocked with bullet holes.

I grin, turn to the radio talk show host crouching next to me and say, “I bet you don’t do this every day.”

He doesn’t. And neither do I. But as members of the Hamilton County Special Weapons and Tactics Team, or SWAT, the men at the front and back of the boat routinely engage in exercises that prepare them for a variety of dangerous scenarios.

The paper man on the shore, though, had seen his first and last day of service.

The boat ride is part of a special afternoon during which the Hamilton County Sheriff’s office removed the veil of secrecy to give local media outlets a look at the operations of its SWAT team, which uses specialized military equipment and tactics to handle violent confrontations with criminals.

From rappelling down the side of a tower, to firing the same weapons SWAT uses during its missions, to watching SWAT simulate a downed-person rescue using its MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) vehicle, participants are invited to take part in many thrilling moments, some of which seem lifted out of an action movie or a cop show on TV.

But, as Sheriff Jim Hammond says at the beginning of the afternoon, the pulse-pounding moments people tend to associate with SWAT are few and far between. Most of the time these men commit to the team is spent getting primed for whatever comes their way.

“Law enforcement is 90 percent boredom and 10 percent terror,” Hammond says. “But when the terror hits, you have to be ready.”

Fortunately, Hamilton County SWAT is generally successful when it enters a situation, the sheriff adds.

“Our mandate is to keep our officers, the people in harm’s way and the culprits safe,” he says. “And we have a 99 percent success rate.”

While the sheriff’s percentages might have been slightly off, given the informal nature of his chat, they did reflect the overall reality of Hamilton County’s SWAT. This was seen in several recent incidents, including a July 2016 episode in which SWAT was involved in an extended standoff with an armed individual and helped to bring about a nonviolent resolution.

SWAT was equally effective in an August 2016 incident in which a young man who claimed he’d accidentally shot his grandmother met the responding officers with a gun and then disappeared into a house. Once on the scene, SWAT deployed tear gas, which resulted in the man’s surrender.

In March of this year, Hamilton County SWAT chalked up another win when it responded to a domestic situation in Soddy-Daisy involving a suicidal and possibly armed ex-husband. Following several hours of talks, SWAT was able to remove the man from the building in which he’d taken refuge.

These are just a few of the many situations Hamilton County SWAT has helped to resolve peacefully, or without firing their weapons. Hammond says the team responds to several such calls a month. “Whenever there’s a danger to life or limb, whether it’s a drunk holed up in his house or a full-fledged hostage situation, we’re called to the scene,” he explains.

That said, Hamilton County SWAT is ready for worse. With their evolving weaponry, technology and training, the men who wear the SWAT uniform are prepared for any eventuality, Hammond says. “There are more people with mental issues, more PTSD and more violence due to criminal activity than ever before, so we can never know what’s coming.’’

As Hammond speaks, sniper-rifle shots echo across the vast stretch of the law enforcement training grounds near Moccasin Bend. Soon, we would be the ones pulling the trigger.

Through the scope

After outfitting everyone with ear plugs and safety glasses, Lt. Spencer Daniels, commander over Hamilton County SWAT, gives us a rundown of the afternoon, which begins with sniper rifle training and a walk down the side of the training tower. His most compelling instruction: “Do exactly what we tell you to do and you’ll be fine.”

We weren’t going to be with playing toys; we were going to be using the real things.

“Which reminds me,” Daniels says next, “has everyone signed the waiver?”

Daniels sends us into the training tower in groups of five. I am in the second group, which allows me to ask a few questions about when SWAT deploys snipers and uses rappelling skills.

Once again, the reality of SWAT is different from what one sees in movies. Instead of scaling the side of the building, breaking through a window and taking out perps with a few well-placed shots, the typical SWAT team is more likely sends someone down ropes to gather intel.

“We can make an entry through a window if we have to but it’s dangerous and hard,” Daniels points out.

Lt. Tony Sylvester, assistant SWAT commander for Hamilton County, says SWAT is more likely to use rappelling training in woodland operations. “If someone has built a meth lab in the woods, we might encounter a steep cliff en route to the location,” he says.

Intel gathering is a major component of weapon deployment, as well. While snipers fire rifles when necessary, more often than not they simply use their scopes to determine the location of the culprit, the number of hostages and any obstacles present.

“Walking up to a building or house to see where people are isn’t safe,” says one of the SWAT officers present. “Our scopes are really powerful. From 100 yards out, I can look through a window and see someone walk from the living room to the bedroom.”

Before long, it’s my turn at one of the sniper rifles SWAT had set up for our use. Having little experience firing weapons of any kind, I was apprehensive but excited.

The gun – a Remington 700 bolt-action .308 rifle – is mounted on a ledge and aimed toward a pair of targets located outside a cluster of trees 200 yards away. To get in position, I lie belly down on the ledge and place my cheek against the butt of the rifle. My instructor tells me to look through the scope, find the crosshairs and get as close to the target as I can.

When I don’t see anything, he tells me to move my head forward and back from the scope to make its eye box open and close. (The effect was similar to an iris opening and closing.) I also have to squeeze a beanbag that was supporting the butt of the rifle to raise and lower the weapon. I feel like a rookie on the first day of training as I try to see something – anything.

I am elated as I finally spot the trees. However, the feeling of being a newbie soon returns as I looked in vain for the target itself and see only a blur of leaves.

The officer swap positions with me, find the target and allow me to lie back down. When I peered through the scope, I still see nothing but the woods.

After taking a deep breath, I spend what feels like forever searching for the target. My patience is rewarded when the paper man suddenly sweeps into view.

Next, the instructor shows me how to lock the bullet in the chamber. As I push the bolt knob forward and then down, making the weapon click with each movement, a jolt of adrenaline shoots through my veins.

“Bingo! The gun is live,” my instructor says. “When you pull the trigger, it will fire.”

I try to position the crosshairs between the eyes of the target but quickly give up out of fear of losing it again. I pull the trigger. I am prepared for the deafening crack that follows and grateful for the earplugs.

As my shot rings out across the training grounds, the officer smiles and says, “Want to do that again?”

He doesn’t have to ask twice. I eject the empty round, run the bolt knob forward, lock the second bullet in the chamber, locate the target and pull the trigger. I’m no Chris Kyle, but I’m also not a rookie, anymore.

As I await my turn down the side of the tower, I ask SWAT member Shane Rominger if he’s ever fired his weapon in the line of duty, and he says no. While chatting with him, I also learn that each member of SWAT has a separate, full-time job within the Sheriff’s Office and that SWAT consists entirely of a volunteer crew.

Rominger is a property crimes detective. If someone breaks into your house and steals your television, he might be sent to investigate the crime. Rominger says he joined SWAT for the camaraderie and because he believes the training would make him a better officer. The possibility of excitement was not a factor in his decision.

“I’ve been with the department for 13 years,” Rominger noted. “I’m not looking for an adrenaline rush.”

The afternoon starts to lag as people wait to rappel, so I skip my turn, having experienced the thrill of being at the mercy of dangling ropes when I took part in the fire department’s media day in 2015.

That makes the boat ride the next item on the list of adventures.

Prepared for the unthinkable

If Hamilton County SWAT members wanted to give the media the impression their job is nothing like the movies, then they shouldn’t be sending us skimming across the Tennessee River in a F470 Zodiac Combat Rubber Raiding Craft as two officers fire live rounds at a target on the shore.

Unlike Rominger, I want the adrenaline rush, and the boat ride delivers.

A more likely scenario would see SWAT moving in on a location quietly using oars rather than the engine, the helmsman explains. (I was not allowed to take his picture, nor can I mention his name, due to the nature of his job with the Sherriff’s Department.)

SWAT has two Zodiacs, neither of which it has had to deploy. The helmsman mentioned a couple of scenarios that would require their use, but asked us not to mention them, either. Rather, he simply wants people to understand that Hamilton County SWAT is prepared for every contingency.

“We’ve trained for the unthinkable,” he offers.

Ready, aim, fire!

More weapons training follows the boat ride. This time, we are outfitted with bulletproof vests, lined up side-by-side with each of us facing a target and handed a Glock 35, a semi-automatic handgun my instructor explains is the perfect combat weapon.

“It has three safeties but automatically engages when fired properly,” he says. “I don’t like weapons with a lot of buttons on them.”

As I take my Glock in hand, I don’t know my experience would come with a bonus no one else will enjoy.

After showing me where to put my hands and how to stand, my instructor hands me a magazine containing 15 rounds and then tells me to give it a tap after inserting it to make sure it is seated. Then another instructor tells the group to begin firing “nice and slow.”

The air around me fills with pops as we began to shoot at the targets. Then, as I am switching from manual to semi-automatic mode, I feel a red-hot sensation on the back of my neck. The burning quickly makes its way down my shirt and stops about halfway down.

I realized a bullet casing from the Glock the cameraman next to me is firing has ejected from his weapon and found its way to me.

“That’s HOT!” I say as I point my gun downward and use my left hand to shake the casing out. The instructor assigned to me has been watching me closely and quickly steadies my right shoulder and arm to make sure I don’t aim the gun at myself or someone else.

That night, I was disappointed by the lack of a red trail from my neck to my middle back. I wanted more than the memory of my encounter with the bullet casing; I wanted physical evidence.

Next, my instructor places a SIG 516 gas piston my hands and asks – with a straight face – if I have experience with the weapon or one like it. I laugh because he wasn’t joking.

After the officer goes over the basics of the gun – which can fire over 760 rounds per minute – and shows me how to use its sights to aim at the target, I ask him when SWAT would use such an implement.

Weapon choice boils down to strategy, he says. If SWAT is facing someone who’s wearing a bulletproof vest, the Glock wouldn’t do the job. At the same time, from 10 yards or more out, the SIG isn’t precise enough for the head or groin shot needed to take out a gun-wielding culprit.

I also note the weight of the weapon, which is heavy when I take it and is growing heavier by the minute. “Try holding it steady for eight to 10 hours,” my instructor says.

After everyone spits out a few rounds in semi-automatic mode, the lead officer on the exercise has us switch to full auto and tells us to fire the weapon in short bursts. “If it starts to walk away from you, let go of the trigger,” he cautions.

I tuck the weapon against my shoulder to prepare for the increased recoil, lean forward and bend my knees. As I fire the remaining rounds, I looked at the drawing of the man on the target and wonder what I would be feeling if he were real and pointing a weapon back at me.

I’ve always respected the men and women who spend their days and nights putting their lives at risk to protect the people of their communities. But as I peppered the target with gun spray, I thought about how a trained officer instinctually performs each of the steps I had slowly and awkwardly completed to ready the weapon, and how they must keep a level head and execute the proper strategy in an instant when their lives are suddenly on the line. In that moment, my respect turned into admiration.

When my magazine is empty, I turn to the officer assigned to me and thank him for his instruction and for spending time with us that afternoon. I want to thank him for the choices he’s made and the risk he takes every time he puts on his uniform but decide that would be too emotional for the moment. Inside, though, I feel like I’m in the presence of a hero.

Fun with explosives

Although we spend the rest of the afternoon as passive observers, SWAT saves the best for last: two exercises that have been replicated in countless movies and TV shows.

During the first exercise, SWAT demonstrates two ways in which they can breach a structure by either blowing a door off its hinges or obliterating it completely. From a safe distance, we watch as a crew of six sets a small explosive charge, lines up single file facing the door, kneels and takes cover behind a ballistics shield.

After the lead officer shouts “Fire in the hole!” three times, he detonates the charge, sending wood and metal splinters flying. Unlike some of the other tactics SWAT has learned but not used, the team has employed this tactic many times.

“It defeats the locking mechanism and serves as a distraction, which is ideal when issuing a high-risk warrant on a dope house,” Daniels recounts. “Instead of one guy ramming the door open while someone else throws a flashbang into the house, we use a small explosive, which pushes the door open and serves as the bang.”

For the grand finale, SWAT pulls out all the stops and simulates a downed-person rescue using their MRAP vehicle, which looks like a distant cousin of the armored vehicle in “Die Hard.” Unlike the ill-fated crew in the movie, the team inside Hamilton County SWAT’s MRAP makes it to their target alive and pulls him to safety.

The coordination and teamwork are impressive as the driver pulls into position to shield the victim, then a contingent of SWAT pours out the back, weapons ready, and rescues the injured party. When it was over, I half expect Daniels to shout “Cut! That’s a wrap!”

Hamilton County SWAT has deployed its MRAP only once – July 16, 2015. The vehicle was pulling through the gate of the Naval Reserve Center when the Chattanooga Police Department gave the all-safe signal. Four U.S. Marines died that day in a terrorist attack on the facility.

As the MRAP rumbles off the training grounds, the afternoon is indeed a wrap. I return to my car, my hearing temporarily dulled from gunfire but my mind racing with the implications of what I saw.

I think primarily about how fortunate the people of Hamilton County are to have a group of men who are going above and beyond the call of duty to protect them from the unthinkable. They deserve our gratitude and support.

And they deserve to be seen as heroes.