Officers earn respect for work on SWAT & HNT

Officer Bill Garland knew everything was coming to a head when a CS gas cartridge was fired into a Wilsonville apartment, following a 4½-hour standoff with an armed man.  And Garland was ready.

An Oregon City officer working on Clackamas County’s interagency SWAT team, Garland is part of the entry team trained to rush a barricaded residence, overcome any resistance and neutralize suspects inside.

But to everyone’s surprise, the gunman, who had held his wife hostage for more than 3½ hours, burst out the front door, brandishing a handgun.  SWAT team members quickly hit the man with sting balls and a stun gun – defensive weapons to help police defuse potentially deadly situations without killing the suspect – and then safely took him into custody.

“He was just five feet from some of the other team members and was literally a second from being shot,” Garland, a 6½-year SWAT veteran, said of the July 4, 2012, confrontation.  “We really hope all situations can turn out so well.”

Garland is one of Oregon City police officers who work regular patrol shifts, but remain on high alert 24/7, ready to respond to tense, dangerous situations across Clackamas County.

The officers are members of the Special Weapons and Tactics and Hostage Negotiations teams, highly trained specialists in intelligence-gathering, observation and negotiations.  They’re also well versed in how to secure perimeters, deal with threats by armed suspects, enter a barricaded building and – if necessary – deliver accurate firepower in the safest way possible.

Both the SWAT and HNT are run by the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office.  Nine officers from other police departments in the county work with sheriff’s deputies on the teams.

But with five officers participating, Oregon City Police Department is clearly the police department making the biggest contribution, which has drawn praise.

“We love having them,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Anthony Kollias, who directs the SWAT team.  “In fact, two Oregon City officers are being considered for assistant leadership positions.”

Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Ritter, who directs the HNT, said the two OCPD officers who work under his command are “assets to the team.”

“Both have a real calm demeanor and can talk to anybody,” Ritter said.  “It seems like they’re always available, and people can really count on them.”

Both teams may be called into action for a variety of high-wire scenarios, ranging from armed standoffs and hostage situations to suicide threats, serving high-risk warrants and disturbances at correctional facilities.

The teams train often and work side by side, both commanded by Clackamas County deputies.

“They’re essentially one team,” said Officer Chad Weaver, a 7½-year SWAT Team veteran.  “Whenever there’s a call-out, anybody and everybody available goes.”

In the old days, an officer might arrive at a hostage situation and begin shouting commands, warnings -- and even threats -- through a bullhorn.

But today, hostage negotiators work much more carefully and methodically.  They try to gather as much information as possible about the person and the situation they are facing before doing anything.  They try to learn the person’s history, whether he or she has been violent in the past, whether they have been drinking or taking drugs.

They try to establish whether the person is armed, what kind of building they are in and whether any booby traps may have been set.

They then try to make direct connections by land lines and cell phones, making the communications less confrontational and more personal.

“We want to know everything we can about the suspect,” said Officer Mike Day, a 3-year HNT veteran.  “We want to know why they made the choices they did.  We want to find out if they’ve been fired from a job or if they’ve just broken up with a girlfriend.  We even want to know what NOT to talk about.”

With that information, the negotiators have a much better chance of establishing rapport.  Then, they can explain the process to the person – what to expect at every turn so they aren’t surprised or frightened into doing something rash – or violent.

“We have to get through to them how to resolve the situation peacefully,” Day said.

Officer Jon Neece, a 3½ -year veteran of the Hostage Negotiations Team, said the job might be better described as “crisis negotiation.”

“Very rarely do the situations actually involve a hostage,” Neece said.  “But all of the people are in some kind of crisis, so we keep talking and trying to work them through it.  If we stay at it, they usually come around.”

Unfortunately, not everything can be resolved by just talking.  The person in crisis may feel trapped or threatened.  Or he may even get a perverse charge out of commanding the attention of so many police officers.  Although negotiations never are stopped, commanders at the scene may judge that more persuasion is necessary.

That’s when the SWAT Team is deployed, too.  The team has access to many tools, including robots, armored vehicles, pole cameras, flash-bang diversionary devices, ballistic shields and CS gas.  The team is divided into sub-teams that specialize in entering buildings, establishing inner perimeters and sharpshooting.

Meanwhile, all are diligent, active observers, feeding all their information to the commanders.

Officer Jared Turpin, a 7½-year SWAT team veteran, is a sniper who carries a 7.62mm DPMS rifle equipped with a variable 4.5- to 14-power scope.  The combination can accurately deliver a lethal shot at a long distance.

“First, we try to get into position without being seen,” Turpin said.  “A lot of our job is intel-gathering – observing and relaying information to the rest of the team.”

If he is working “over-watch,” Turpin may be positioned 100 yards away, so he can see not only the suspect’s location but the entire scene, including the SWAT and HNT teams.

During one confrontation, Turpin was ready to shoot an armed suspect if necessary.  But when the situation changed, the man was hit by a stun gun from behind and taken into custody.

“We don’t get paid extra for being on SWAT or the HNT,” Turpin said.  “The compensation is just to be part of the team.  But I’m proud of that.  We’re all proud to do it.”