Elite police unit is ready for duty in Carroll

Crisis Response Team finishes its SWAT training

October 10, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Carroll County might not ever need the services of an elite police unit that can rappel a 60-foot wall upside down and stealthily secure a building where a gunman is holding hostages, but the county will soon have such a team at its disposal.

The last members of the Carroll County Crisis Response Team, a unit capable of handling high-risk hostage and barricade situations, graduated Friday after three weeks of training, ensuring a new level of security for Carroll County, authorities said.

The team would also be dispatched for counter-terrorism maneuvers and executing high-risk search warrants, and to deal with incidents of school violence, chemical weapons and mobile assaults.

"There's not much they won't be able to handle," said Capt. Vince Maas, one of the unit's incident commanders. "I have every confidence in their abilities."

Maas, a former state trooper who retired after 25 years of service, is with the Carroll sheriff's office. He will share incident command duties with Maj. Dean A. Brewer of the Westminster Police Department, a former Westminster CRT member.

The 13-member team will not be on active duty until municipal and county agencies adopt a set of guidelines that dictate when the unit is to be dispatched, said Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding, who came up with the idea of forming a county-wide unit of hostage negotiators and officers trained in Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT.

Spaulding did not say when that is likely to occur. Until then, team members will continue their regular assignments.

Putting together a team

Currently, the county relies on the Maryland State Police and Westminster's Crisis Response Team to deal with high-risk situations. Westminster's team will merge with the county unit.

The Carroll team will be made up of four hostage negotiators, four sheriff's deputies, a Taneytown officer and four Westminster officers, two of whom are snipers.

The training school is offered by the Howard County SWAT team once a year. Spaulding, a former Howard deputy police chief, was able to place five Carroll officers in this year's training class.

Though the training was free, about half of a $193,000 Homeland Security grant issued to the county through the Maryland Emergency Management Administration was spent on equipment and clothing for the team, including semi-automatic weapons, handguns, Kevlar vests, flashlights, knives, helmets and gas masks. Carroll's police agencies have until February to use the rest of the grant funds as part of the Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program.

For three weeks beginning in September, the sheriff's deputies and the Taneytown officer worked as a team on tasks that ranged from nonstop physical training - including hauling a quarter of a telephone pole several hundred yards, miles of running and obstacle-course exercises - to classes, role-playing scenarios and firearms practice. At the end of each day of training, officers were given surprise physical exercises to complete.

"I've gained a new respect for the CRT," said Maas, who participated in the nonphysical training. "It's very mentally demanding and physically punishing."

The team built a strong bond as a result of the adversity they faced, said Sheriff's Department Cpl. Michael Zepp, 34, who came into the training with 10 years Army experience.

"The course breaks you down mentally and physically, but it made us more of a cohesive unit," Zepp said. Rounding out the Carroll team were deputies Gunnar Burdt, 26, and Brian Dayton, 29, and Taneytown officer Jason Logsdon.

Wearing camouflage clothing and a Kevlar vest with a 9 mm Glock handgun strapped to his side, team leader Sheriff's Department Cpl. Robert C. Cromwell, 30, prepared his team for its last night of training Thursday.

One final test

He said training surprises such as "Hell Day" pushed their physical endurance to the hilt after a full day of classes. Cromwell, a former Marine, said he and his team learned to move and think as a unit even with instructors yelling at them and throwing obstacles in their way.

Their incident commander agreed.

"Our team members are disciplined. Their moves are very choreographed, timed and planned," Maas said. "Nothing is done haphazardly, though sometimes you have to improvise as you go along."

Cromwell's Red Team finished its training Thursday night, but not before shots rang out at an abandoned commercial building in rural Howard County - the last role-playing scenario. The members were told only that a jealous husband had stormed into his wife's lover's office and taken the man hostage at gunpoint.

"Andy" the gunman was a Howard County SWAT officer who fired several blank shots and shouted obscenities to police, who were holding their positions while negotiators tried to reason with the man.

The Red Team geared up and moved in pitch-black conditions to secure the building's perimeter after getting as much updated information as they could.

"SWAT is the last resort," Cromwell said.

Added Howard County SWAT instructor Jeff Giroux: "If the bad guy wants to negotiate, we think that's an advantage."

It took nearly five hours - almost until midnight - before the exercise ended in peaceful surrender.

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