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Big Guns for Small Towns: Suburban Officers Team Up to Give Their Cities SWAT Firepower

SWAT members are briefed on an impending scenario.
SWAT members are briefed on an impending scenario.
Danny Fulgencio
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The SWAT officers glide down a door-lined hallway in an abandoned juvenile center on the outskirts of Mansfield. Guns at the ready, they follow one another like soldiers on a sweep, sticking close to the walls, entering rooms two at a time. These are the guys police call when they need help.

The Southwest Regional Response Group is searching for a shooter in a black skull mask this Wednesday afternoon in early February. He's barricaded in one of the rooms, armed with similar weaponry. He announced his presence with gunshots and now waits at the end of the darkened corridor.

Dying in a blaze of glory isn't in his cards today.

"High, low, left, start clearing on the right," the SWAT team leader calls out from the shadows as his tactical officers move silently but quickly.

They break into smaller groups, one heading right, the other remaining left, moving in formation to contain the shooter inside the center that once served as a juvenile boot camp for Tarrant County. The city of Mansfield bought it and planned to make it a police department. Now it looks like a set piece from The Walking Dead, but these zombies are armed.

"High, low on the other side," he calls out again. "High, low on the other side."

The exact moment when the SWAT team members know they've located the shooter is hard to pinpoint. Their trainers, all veteran SWAT officers, have been helping to hone their senses, running them through monthly training scenarios built upon lessons from other mass shootings, call-outs for barricaded persons, search-warrant executions and other scenarios they or other SWAT teams have experienced in the field.

Sgt. Heath Penwarden, of the DeSoto police, commands the Southwest Regional Response Group, one of the largest in the region. He started as a grunt when southern Dallas and Ellis County law enforcement agencies formed the group in 2008. He's spent the last 21 years in law enforcement, 19 of them on a SWAT team.

At a distance, Penwarden resembles John Wayne, bigger than life, with short blond hair now graying. He watches his crew of small-town tactical officers like Wayne's character, commander Mike Kirby in 1968's The Green Berets, analyzing their strategy. He remains silent until after they've completed their mission and neutralized the shooter.

Penwarden takes in the situation from a 360-foot vantage point. He often tells his guys, "I'm training you to take my place one day."

"Remember, every single time you move, whether it's high, low, left or right, you're changing that angle up and you're exposing yourself," Penwarden reminded his team before they entered the center with shields raised, weapons ready.

Locating their target doesn't take long."Don't move," several of the elite team yell as they surge into a room with military-style weapons pointed for the kill. The shooter in the black skull mask has been expecting them, but he's no Punisher.

"Let me see your hands," they yell, some swarming around him, others securing the perimeter. "Put the gun down. Get on your knees. Don't move."

The SWAT team makes tactical moves in a shooter scenario.
The SWAT team makes tactical moves in a shooter scenario.
Danny Fulgencio

Southern Dallas and Ellis county communities formed the tactical group to provide heft to small towns that needed a boost to their "tactical" capability — those armored cops armed to the teeth and trained to handle extreme situations like mass shootings or a barricaded person with or without a hostage. Most local SWAT teams, agency officials said, had severely limited manpower and funding, limited standards for selection, sporadic training and trouble retaining tactical personnel.

After its formation, Southern Regional Response Group leaders established a focus group in 2009, developing the framework for the SRRG Special Response Team. They're one of the largest regional tactical programs in the state.The team comprises 26 officers from police departments in Cedar Hill, DeSoto, Glenn Heights, Highland Park, Lancaster, Ovilla, Red Oak and Seagoville. They go by various code names, some intentionally chosen, others unintentionally. "Yak" earned his name after he vomited during the physical selection process, "Pretty Ricky" got his name because he's just pretty, and "Archie" because of his last name "Archibald."

To make the team, officers must pass a stringent selection process. Becoming a machine gun-toting SWAT officer even includes an essay requirement; candidates have to write one about why they want to join. Next, their family and friends are interviewed. Penwarden says he always tells team recruits' loved ones that unlike patrol, where it's often just you and another person responding to a dangerous situation, there's a sense of control when you show up to a dangerous situation with 25 other guys who are capable and trained gunmen.

After the interviews, the psychological and polygraph exam, the response team's recruits take part in a two-day selection process in which they grind through physical training and evaluations. "They pretty much want to see you can use your mind more than your muscle," says Brett Clifton, a Midlothian police officer who joined the team about a year ago. Then there's SWAT Week, or what the team lovingly refers to as "Hell Week."

"It's pretty much like it sounds," Clifton says.

It's five days of hell starting before sunrise and lasting until long after sunset at a camp in Cedar Hill, learning different tactics, running obstacle courses and evaluations and learning SWAT history. Clifton, who dislocated his shoulder during Hell Week, says that if you can make it through the week, you've got a good shot at making the team.

Some years they'll add a couple of people like Clifton, and other times they may add a half dozen operators. So far none of those operators have been women, who are underrepresented on tactical teams despite a higher number of women working for police agencies than ever before, according to a September 2012 article "Research on Women in Policing: A Look at the Past, Present and Future" in Sociology Compass.

Though women do serve on tactical teams, few try out because of the physical requirements, Penwarden says. One tried out for the SRRG Special Response Team this year, but didn't meet the PT or shooting requirements. "We treat them all the same," he says. "It's about the capability to do the job."

The ideal group size is 40 operators separated into two teams, Alpha and Bravo. They rotate out when the calls for service arrive from the southern Dallas and Ellis County region. But it's been a hard goal to meet because the process is stringent and getting called out at 4 a.m. for a mission on a day off is annoying.

The operators join for various reasons. Midlothian Assistant Police Chief Kevin Johnson, who goes by his initials "KJ," served on another SWAT team at the Mansfield Police Department for three years before joining the SRRG Special Response Team a couple of years ago. He now serves as Penwarden's assistant team commander.

Johnson says he joined because he wanted the additional training offered and the experience to better handle critical incidents on the street. "I think that's what leads a lot of guys to join," he says, "simply the desire for additional training and skills that aren't available otherwise."

A few of the operators are former military, drawn to the team because they want to be part of a tightly knit group. Others like the challenge SWAT presents. Red Oak Police Sgt. David Palmer is one of those guys. A son of a police officer, he used to work on a Florida prison tactical team and the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office fugitive squad, where he'd receive a stack of warrants with the orders to locate the wanted.

"It was always exciting," Palmer says. "People don't want to go to jail."

He joined the team in December 2015 because of an old quote by the parliamentarian Edmund Burke, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

"Being on SWAT, it's the worst of the worst," Palmer says. "I feel better that my actions directly affect the outcome. I put myself between the bad guy and the officer."

Many of the small-town officers who join also want to be part of a specialized assignment with a group of officers who share unique experiences and develop bonds as a result, Johnson says.

Those unique experiences usually involve executing search and arrest warrants for drug dealers and other wanted people. The calls for service and their frequency varies. Sometimes they'll handle a barricaded person, and other times they'll assist local departments in their region on dangerous calls. But more often than not they're working their full-time duties as patrol officers.

"People say they want to hear your stories," Johnson says. "But the stories that stand out in an officer's memories can be pretty gritty and are often just plain sad. They also don't always go over well at parties. Unless you've done the job, it's hard to get a sense of the experience.

"Fortunately there's a lot of discussion going on now about emotional wellness and suicide prevention in law enforcement," he says. "It's something that hasn't been talked about for a long time, and it should be."

Instructors demonstrate the proper method for extracting injured personnel.
Instructors demonstrate the proper method for extracting injured personnel.
Danny Fulgencio

Johnson, Penwarden and other trainers have been running the SWAT operators through various scenarios involving a shooter who's sometimes barricaded with a hostage and knows how to use an improvised explosive device. Today is the second day of the team's monthly 20-hour training session inside the juvenile center. They often train in low-light tactics, rural operations, negotiations and gas and lethal munitions to keep their skills honed since calls for service don't happen frequently.

The trainers normally use cadets fresh out of the police academy to play the bad guys because it helps them to understand how the SWAT team works, but the operator known as "Archie" recently hurt his hand when he dropped a SWAT shield on it. He's been donning the black skull mask for most of the scenarios today.

"When I act, it's a lot of help because I see the flaws that I don't see when I'm running the scenario [as an operator]," says Taylor "Archie" Archibald, who works patrol in DeSoto. "I can see the mistakes, see basically open areas. It's a different perspective, a different mindset because you're thinking more offense instead of defense."

After each scenario, the trainers meet with the team to discuss what worked and what didn't when they capture or kill the shooter in the black skull mask. Penwarden points out that they needed to be mindful of exposure as they change angles.

"Get your point of domination, and get your angle after that," he says. "It's like a football team. Everybody needs to know their plays."

Johnson says they don't train directly with military units or instructors like some other SWAT teams. Instead they adopt concepts vetted and promoted by the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association and the National Tactical Officers Association. Similar to other tactical teams around the country, they also pull some of their training tactics from what they call "after-action reports." It's an assessment of law enforcement's response to certain situations like protests, mass shootings or a terrorist attack and offers recommendations for improvement.

The after-action report from the Washington Navy Yard mass shooting on the morning of September 16, 2013, indicated 76 changes in tactical training.

It was 69 minutes of pure terror for thousands of employees. An independent contractor who worked at the naval yard named Aaron Alexis fired indiscriminately from a shotgun and a handgun he stole from a security guard he killed. By the time it was over, he had killed 12 people and injured several others before a police officer shot and killed him.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department SWAT team responded to the scene shortly before 8:30 a.m. but faced a number of problems, from locating the building to officers talking over each other on different radio channels. Confusion among responders and top officials about who was in charge also didn't help matters. Nor did the U.S. Navy officials failure to tell police commanders that a room just inside the building provided access to 160 cameras in the corridors where Alexis roamed.

The SWAT officers cover each other in an active-shooter scenario.
The SWAT officers cover each other in an active-shooter scenario.
Danny Fulgencio

SWAT officers also struggled with the narrow hallways and maze of cubicles, and couldn't determine the shooter's exact location because of the gunshots echoing through the atrium.

Alexis eventually jumped out from one of the desks and fired at Dorian DeSantis, one of the SWAT operators, but his tactical vest stopped the bullet. DeSantis and two other officers from the U.S. Park Police returned fire and killed him.

The after-action report recommended changes that included using shorter-barrel M4 rifles, limiting radio transmissions and implementing a new tactical formation to address cramped, maze-like spaces.

Johnson says the current after-action report making its rounds among SWAT teams assesses the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Florida that left 49 people dead and 53 others injured. It was a three-hour standoff, with a hundred officers dispatched to the scene and the shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, holed up with hostages in a bathroom.

To get him out, SWAT used explosives to blow a hole in the exterior bathroom wall to reach the shooter, but the hole wasn't big enough. So they drove a BearCat armored vehicle through the wall with 14 SWAT officers following behind. Flashbang grenades distracted Mateen and a gunfight erupted.

They shot 150 bullets and hit him eight times. He died.

Johnson says one of the takeaways from the Pulse shooting included the use of explosive breaching.

"That's something the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association and the National Tactical Police Officers Association have been pushing for years," he says. "They say everybody ought to be able to do this. They're not saying it replaces anything. But it's a capability we should implement."

SWAT members cover a hallway while a remote-controlled robot performs video reconnaissance.
SWAT members cover a hallway while a remote-controlled robot performs video reconnaissance.
Danny Fulgencio

The SRRG Special Response Team plans to implement the explosives training to do things like blow holes through walls to reach the shooter.

They're also waiting for the after-action report from the downtown Dallas mass shooting involving a heavily armed 25-year-old killer and a bomb-carrying police robot. Micah Johnson, who was infuriated by the death of black men at the hands of police, opened fire on police and transit officers after a Black Lives Matters protest led by two local preachers, Jeff Hood and Dominique Alexander, had ended behind the old courthouse downtown on the afternoon of July 7, 2016. Five officers were killed and several others injured before Dallas Police SWAT could corner Johnson in a parking garage.

The standoff lasted several hours, and Johnson was ready for war. Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown made the call, and SWAT sent a robot loaded with explosives to end the situation.

"The use of force for guys like us was almost a no-brainer, and for an administrator to sign off on that was a really big deal," Kevin Johnson says. "It took some big balls from Chief David Brown. I don't want to say it's revolutionary because it's been discussed for a long time. But no one ever had the proper scenario to use it nor the administrative support to do something creative like that."

As for the naysayers who argue Micah Johnson had been cornered and neutralized despite his threats of having explosives, Kevin Johnson says, "When it comes down to it, Chapter 9 [of the] penal code indicates deadly force is deadly force whether you shoot somebody, use a robot to kill them, stab them with your pen or gouge somebody's eyeballs out and choke them in a desperate fight."

SWAT members are debriefed after a training exercise.
SWAT members are debriefed after a training exercise.
Danny Fulgencio

The SRRG Special Response Team doesn't use pens or robots to contain the officers dressed up as bad guys in masks on this Wednesday afternoon in early February. Instead they carry their AR-15 assault rifles they would normally carry out in the field, only loaded with fake bullets. Their Glocks are specially designed to hold 9mm bullets filled with a detergent powder. They call them "the blue guns."

The next scenario involves a barricaded person who's hiding somewhere in the building. Usually when they deal with a barricaded person, they'll secure the perimeter and negotiate with the suspect until they finally have to throw tear gas to smoke him out.

"It's always a bad time and dead ass at night and you got an early meeting when the call comes in," Johnson says.

The criteria to activate the SRRG Special Response Team involves a threat matrix of 18 questions based on a point system. Some questions are worth more points than others. For example, if the person has a history of violence, eight points are added. The higher the points, the greater the need for SWAT.

Shortly after the team formed in 2008, Johnson says they got called out on a barricaded person call in Midlothian. The subject, mid-40s, was upset about a relationship breaking up, holed up in his house and refused to come out. He took the suicide-by-cop route during negotiations with the team.

He took a bedpost, rigged up a belt around it and stepped out on a poorly lit back porch in the middle of night. He pointed it like a rifle. The guys shot and killed him.

But their most common service is warrants, only they no longer kick in the door as often and rush into a gunfight with the bad guy. They surround the home so there's no escape and try to get them to come out. The tactic doesn't always work. On their most recent warrant call, the suspect wasn't at home despite the team arriving on his doorstep in the predawn hours.

They caught him over at a friend's house.

"Speed, surprise and violence of action [are] something we're trying to curtail," Johnson says. "Overwhelming surprise and force, snatch and grab oftentimes work and sometimes it doesn't. But I don't know why we need to get one of our guys hurt [when we don't have to]."

The explosion catches everyone by surprise. It "kills" three officers who struggle to play dead as their team members wrestle them out of the room. Others work to secure the area and watch for the shooter in the black skull mask lurking in the darkened hallways for the third time this afternoon. They weren't expecting Penwarden to set up a flashbang as an IED underneath a chair lying in the middle of the hallway.

"Oh, fuck me," one SWAT operator says.

"You guys just got blown the fuck up," one of the trainers says.

Another SWAT operator rushes past as the guys prepare to start carrying their fallen out of harm's way. "Need some coverage on the way out," he says.

Penwarden stands back at the edge of the chaos, somewhat amused by his idea to set the trap. "If there's one booby trap, there could be another," he says. "You better get some help."

Their training is interrupted by a police helicopter using the same radio channel as the SRRG Special Response Team. This wasn't Penwarden's doing — a real criminal who led police on a car chase, then bailed out of the car, caused the cross-chatter.

"It would be a car chase and a guy bails out, imagine that," Penwarden says as his team gathers around him. "OK, so obviously we're integrating certain things like IEDS that we have to be mindful of. We also don't let furniture dictate too much of our movement. But if we move something, we need to look at it, especially if it slides. So just be mindful when you start moving things around."

One of the SWAT operators says, "For those who got hit by an IED, if you want to see me afterwards, we could talk about a diet plan."

By the end of the day, most of the SWAT operators look tired and sweaty from running multiple scenarios this afternoon. They regroup in the command center located in the middle of the abandoned building and rehash their learning over the course of the two-day tactical response training.

Johnson says while their training does look similar to how soldiers train, they have different objectives. "The military can just throw a grenade into the room, but we have to protect everyone, including the bad guy, if we can," he says.

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