OREGON CITY, Ore. - We've all seen SWAT in action either on the news or fictionalized on TV and in movies, but what is it really like for the officers who call it their job?
Some folks got a chance to find out first-hand this week, courtesy of the Oregon City Police Department, which invited the public to drop by the station for a meet and greet with some real-life SWAT members.
On Tuesday, about 20 people filled a courtroom at the police station to hear from Officers Bill Garland, Chad Weaver and Jared Turpin - three of the 26 members of the Clackamas County Interagency SWAT team. We stopped by as well to listen in.
Not only did the officers talk about their jobs, but they also brought along the gear they use - their guns (unloaded of course), gases, those flash bombs you always hear about, the type of vests they wear and the gas masks they use.
The coolness quotient in the room was definitely high and although the officers were careful to keep their specific tactics a guarded secret, they did offer insight into what they do and cleared up some of the common misconceptions about SWAT.
For one, they don't just roll up on a scene, pile out of an armored vehicle and start busting down doors or breaking windows. Their aim is to keep the peace.
"In an ideal situation a person comes out simply because the cops are there," said Officer Garland. "But in the event that doesn't happen and SWAT shows up, then maybe they're thinking 'oh, the SWAT guys are here, I better come out now.' If they don't come out at that point, we try to make it uncomfortable - we pump gas into the house and try to get them to come out that way. In the event that doesn't happen, that is where the entry team comes into play."
"We are trying to make the situation as easy on everyone as possible," he added. "If it gets to the point where we're blowing doors off hinges, throwing flash bangs and charging into the house, things haven't exactly gone as planned."
Also, did you know that there are actually three teams within SWAT? There are the snipers, an entry team and an inner perimeter/gas team.
The snipers are always the first SWAT members on the scene and they're pretty stealth.
"One of our biggest responsibilities is to go in ahead of time and try to get in position without being seen and get out of position without being seen," said Officer Turpin. "That's our goal."
They deploy in teams of two - one keeps their eye on the scope and the other keeps an eye on everything else that's going on. They switch out roles about every 15 minutes to avoid eye fatigue from the scope.
They are also the eyes and ears for the SWAT team members that are coming behind them, letting them know what to expect once they arrive.
"Before they show up, we're talking to our guys on the radio - 'what do you see?' " said Officer Turpin.
The entry team is responsible for getting inside a structure once it's deemed necessary. They will break windows and use what's called 'The Key' (a.k.a., the battering ram) to get inside.
The inner perimeter/gas team are the ones who head inside a structure and try to diffuse whatever situation is happening there, whether it's taking a subject into custody and/or helping hostages.
What Type of Situations does SWAT Respond To?
Some of the Random Stuff We LearnedThe Clackamas County Interagency SWAT team has two armored vehicles - one named Bear Cat and another named Peace Keeper, which is an old armored vehicle from the 80s that is still in service.
While SWAT snipers practice long-range shooting, their average engagement distance is actually about 60 to 180 yards because they are mostly working in urban settings and can get very close to where a situation is unfolding. For example, they might be on a neighbor's back deck with their gun aimed at the house in question.
A sniper's gun weighs about 13 pounds with the bullets in it.
Hostage negotiators are not members of SWAT but they do drive the armored vehicles to the scene so SWAT can gear up and be ready once they arrive.
SWAT guys are on call 24/7 - if their pager goes off and they're in town, they respond.
Police dogs are usually not affected by the gases that SWAT sets off.
The Clackamas County Interagency SWAT team does not have one of those robots you sometimes see deployed, but they do occasionally borrow one from Portland police if they need one.
"We respond to any person who has barricaded themselves who has committed a crime or who is in need of being arrested, whether it be by themselves and they're armed, or they're with other people and it's become a hostage situation," said Officer Weaver.
"We won't respond to every barricaded suicidal person, but if their behavior has put somebody other than themselves in danger, then that's something that we would respond to," said Officer Weaver.
"We'll serve high-risk search warrants on a fairly regular basis," said Officer Weaver. "There's a risk assessment process that each warrant goes through and it's given certain points based on the criminal history of the bad guy, the type of warrant it is, the type of evidence we're looking for and if there's information of any kind of weapons in the residence."
What if SWAT Shows Up In Your Neighborhood?
It's very tempting to watch the action unfolding outside your home, but if the police haven't knocked on your door and asked you to evacuate, then stay inside and keep away from your windows - for obvious reasons.
Also, although we live in a day and age where cell phones and cameras are everywhere, try to resist the urge to take any pictures, especially if you plan on putting them on the Internet or otherwise sharing them.
It's the same reason news organizations are careful not to air live video of a SWAT situation or post certain photos online when an incident is unfolding - you could inadvertently give away what the SWAT team is doing and put them in danger if the subject they're after is paying attention.
How Does an Officer Become SWAT?
The Obstacle Course
The first step is to make it through a rigorous obstacle course in 4 1/2 minutes and if you can't do it, you're out.
"It's a pass or fail thing," said Officer Weaver. "And actually every year we have to re-certify ourselves on the obstacle course to make sure we maintain our physical fitness."
The obstacle course is tough - there are walls to get over, chain link fences to climb, culverts to traverse, a log to drag for a distance and a run with 'The Key,' just to name a few of the challenges.
Of course there are always those Superman-types who make it all look easy.
"There's one guy that can do it in under two minutes," said Officer Weaver. "It's pretty insane. I don't think his feet ever touch the ground."
Once an officer makes it through the obstacle course, they're tested on their reaction in mini scenarios to make sure they are able to make the right decisions, especially when it comes to use of force. They're also looking for the ones who are team players. The last thing anyone wants is an officer that goes rogue.
"You've got to be able to operate in a team environment," said Officer Bill Garland. "A guy can't fly off on his own. He's got to know his role on the team and perform it no matter what because there's 25 other guys that are counting on him."
The Gas Test
After that comes the really fun part - the officer will be placed in a 'gas environment' to see how they handle it both with and without a gas mask.
"Those things (the gas masks) don't always work," said Officer Weaver. "Sometimes they leak or sometimes the filter quits working at the wrong time. We want the guys to be able to recognize the fact that 'I'm getting gassed right here and I need to calmly get myself out of this environment.' "
"We put each candidate on the range for a couple of hours where we put them through a series of shooting drills, both with a handgun and a rifle" said Officer Weaver. "And it's very physical - there's a lot of running, a lot of push-ups, a lot of squat thrusts. It's designed to put a person into a situation where they've become very physically tired, they're sweating, they're moving. We want to see if they can safely handle their weapons and accurately fire them."
"After you've gone through all of this stuff and you're sweaty and gassy and tired, then you get to sit in front of a panel of the team leadership and do your interview," said Officer Weaver.
What Did Folks Think About Meeting SWAT?
The Oregon City residents who attended the presentation were pretty interested in hearing what the officers had to say about their job and they asked them lots of questions. People of all ages were there and it was definitely a learning experience all around.
"It was neat to interact and get a sense that these (SWAT members) are human beings and they're trying to protect us even when they're in a very dangerous situation," said Oregon City resident Dawn DiGregorio. "They're always looking out and trying to be safe, not only for them but the people they are going after."