We’ve all heard the line from the movie when Tom Hanks says, “Houston, we have a problem.” When the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team (SERT) gets a page from their commander, Captain Mark McLaughlin, they know there is a situation. It could involve hostages, threat of suicide, a barricaded fugitive, and a number of high-risk emergencies that require a specialized team to take action. Think SWAT. The SERT officers assemble at their staging area, Jail North, and get geared up to deal with whatever comes their way. In coordination with the Crisis Negotiations Unit (CNU), they rush to the scene. The goal is to defuse the situation without harm to suspects, hostages, or the team.
Captain McLaughlin explained to my group (Sheriff’s Office Citizens’ Academy) that the SERT officers are all volunteers due to the high-risk duty involved. They work in other areas at the Sheriff’s Office, but take on their role with SERT the minute they get the call. The specialized unit is made up of officers that meet a certain criteria. They must have a 90% proficiency with firearms, undergo a rigorous physical assessment, a test of their mental abilities under stress, an oral board review with all SERT members, and a recommendation from their supervisor.
We were in for a treat Tuesday night as SERT and CNU practiced a mock scenario of a freaked out individual (off his meds, and on booze) holed up inside his residence who may or may not have two children inside the home with him. When the deputy came to the door, he was hostile, made known that he had a weapon, and would not let the officer inside to assess the situation. The deputy called for help which included SERT and CNU. A team of four officers brought a throw phone up to the door. Then, the CNU, led by Sgt. Scott Clarkson, started a dialog with the man. With a restricted amount of cable, the phone is designed to keep the subject contained to the front of the dwelling. As spectators, we watched the drama unfold. The man demanded that the officers turn off their flashing blue lights, so the negotiators agreed. We learned there is always a little give and take, but it’s essential that the officers try to seem as non-threatening as possible.
Inside the CNU mobile headquarters, a team of three worked on negotiations. One was on the phone with the subject, one taking notes and offering suggestions, and a third taking down key words and adding information to a whiteboard where known information was accumulated about the subject. Sergeant Clarkson told us that once a negotiation episode lasted 36 hours!
Back inside, the man was becoming more unraveled, sometimes saying he had the kids, and other times saying they were elsewhere with his wife. When the CNU was unable to make progress, the order was given to go inside. As Captain Dan Johnson explained to me they operate on a unified command. The decision to take the subject down is not taken lightly and would involve a consultation between the CNU, SERT, and the executive staff: Major Plummer, Deputy Chief McAdoo, or Sheriff Bailey. To create a diversion, a flash bang grenade was set off, generating a bright light and loud bang. In seconds, the team stormed inside to take the subject down by forcing him onto the floor where he was handcuffed. Had we not been sitting off to the side, the flash bang would have been thrown through a window in up to three separate locations. Later, the team set off one for us outside, and believe me when I say it made me jump and my hair stand on end!
In the parking lot, Captain Johnson answered some of our questions and gave us a chance to get a look-see at the Bearcat, the armored vehicle used in operations. Like the military, it has a turret on top that rotates 360-degrees, an apron shield that will fit around the lower exterior, a massive boon that can attach to the front and ram any structure to gain entrance. Of course, the vehicle is equipped with all the technological gadgets you would expect in our high-tech world.
We all joked that we were glad we weren’t taken hostage, or shot, but instead allowed to go inside the Academy where Captain McLaughlin gave us more information and answered our questions. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the equipment. I picked up my favorite, a Remington 700 sniper rifle with a scope and adjustable tripod that can hit a target at a range of 700 to 800 yards. That’s 8 football fields! Yikes! Then, I gently set it down and picked up a lighter gun, a Bushmaster AR-15. I pretended to shoot one of the officers. Good thing it wasn’t loaded. Of course, I probably would have hit the ceiling anyway.
It was a great evening and a good glimpse at what happens behind the scenes. My gratitude and thanks to Captain McLaughlin, Captain Johnson, Sgt. Clarkson, and the dedicated team members of SERT and CNU. Wouldn’t it be nice if these officers were never needed? But since they are, we’re fortunate to have such highly trained, dedicated professionals as found in the Sheriff’s Office.