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The Gold Standard Dickinson SWAT team conduct less-lethal weapon training

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Jonathan Avalos, a patrol officers for the Dickinson Police Department in mid-drill for crowd control using smoke bombs. Photo by Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press

Outside the rugged building-- four officers lined up against the wall near a back entrance. On the opposing side, two more mentally prepared. Severity and an intense focus evident in their eyes -- eyes veiled beneath the shadow formed by the rim of kevlar helmets -- they await their cue. Moments away from entering a situation where an unidentified man is believed to be under the influence of narcotics and armed with a firearm.

“Police search warrant, open the door,” an officer with the elite Southwest Tactical Team yelled repeatedly between forceful and persistent knocks. Moments later, a less than lethal instrument is thrown into the building and followed quickly by an audible rush of ear piercing noise and a blinding flash of light. Before the dust settled, members of the team had entered the building and subdued the suspect. The entire ordeal lasted a mere 5 seconds and resulted in no fatalities.

While only a training evolution being conducted by the Southwest Tactical Team, at an undisclosed training facility in Dickinson, the life saving techniques and tactics being honed in this evolution is as they say, “why we train.”

Non-lethal training is vital to law enforcement to develop the skills needed for this exact type of outcome -- where everyone goes home, including the suspect.

On July 30, members of the Dickinson Police Department completed annual training that covered less lethal chemical and impact munitions, flashbangs and room clearing They even used the battering ram, which they refer to the ‘key to the city’. The training was for both rookie and seasoned officers alike.

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“Every year we are required to train at least 96 hours to meet state standards,” said Michael Hanel, Lieutenant with the Dickinson Police Department, said. “...So we train at or above that every year which equates to about eight hours per month.”

The training isn’t only on tactics and procedures, but focused heavily on the practical handling of newer advances in less-lethal technology which offers departments the promise of more effective control over resistant suspects with fewer serious injuries.

“These types of munition require a little bit more training and skills so that’s why they fall under the SWAT umbrella,” Hanel said. “Having these types of tools and these types of options allows us to resolve a potentially dangerous situation.”

Pepper spray was among the first of these newer, less-lethal weapons to achieve widespread adoption by police forces. More recently, conducted energy devices (CEDs), such as the Taser, have become popular -- but when it comes to the newest and most advanced non-lethal weaponry, specialized training limits their use to the elite elements of police.

“We train to make sure we listen,” said Hanel

The training was tedious work, but understandably. After every drill, they broke down every step to prepare for the real thing. Without this training and experience, like most hands-on work, options become narrow with each precious second, and can quickly turn into a cornered situation.

“This case we will be focusing on chemical munitions, less lethal impact munitions and flashbangs. Before the proceeding we had a four hour classroom section where both the new guys and seasoned guys go through.” “We go over case-laws, are updated on use of force parameters and the function of the munitions themselves.”

They had two groups that would switch between tactical training with the different equipment and gear. This training was unique for being the first day of cross training with the Local Guard unit.

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“They recently changed their mission concentration to military police.... We felt that making that relationship and connection with the local guardian was really beneficial so we're going to be doing cross training with them.”

Each type of situation they ran through was distinct because even with subtle differences, tactics change, especially in a hostage situation.

“Generally with hostage situation we really try to put time on our side, to make specific decisions...obviously negotiation plays a big part of that.”

When dealing with flashbangs, it was important to make sure that the eyes and ears were protected. Hanel and the other season officers constantly made sure of that. Even from outside the building where the flashbang is fling or projected into, one can feel the volume hit their chest.

“Flashbang is a less lethal means of distracting a subject. It emits a very loud bang,” said Hanel. “Also accompanied with a bright light and a lot of smoke...It’s design to give us a couple of added seconds when we do an entry into a barricade.”

The barrels of the specific munition-launchers can only fit less-lethal rounds.which makes it important for tactical officers to be educated in their designed use.

”Less lethal munition-launcher, it's a 40mm launcher, and we have a couple different rounds we can use it, either crowd control or if there is a suicidal person with an edge weapon of some sort, typically is what those are applied for,” said Hanel. “Sometimes they are effective, sometimes they're not...we assess if its effective or not and we’ll reevaluate out tactics.”

Tear Gas is very distinctive for multiple senses. From the tickle in the throat to the growing burning sensation going through the nostrils. Officers walked out of a room filled with tear gas with eyes red.

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“Couple of the news guys who haven't been exposed to it are gonna get exposed to it, said Hanel. “...with and without their mask on so they know what it's like and how to clear their mask. Anytime we are operating in that type of environment we want to know how our equipment works.”

Jonathan Avalos, a patrol officers for the Dickinson Police Department was really happy to be apart of the training and eagerly accepted every task or lesson they gave him.

“It's good training, I really enjoy it, I'm pretty new so I'm learning stuff everyday, especially today,” said Avalos. “You learn a lot, and it's pretty quick pace so you gotta keep up.”

Success was sound for each officer who endured the entire afternoon training course. They debrief going over what they learned with some offering words to build one another or at the very least to bring positive morale.

“They did a really good job today, there’re always take-aways here and will do an after-action on the whole day today on the different stuff we need to improve on,” said Hanel. “That just makes it all that much better for the next training site and for the real-world offset.”

Southwest SWAT Team
Member of the Southwest Tactical Team, secures room in room clearing training session. Photo by Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press

Josiah C. Cuellar was born in San Angelo, Texas, a small rural community in the western part of the state known for its farming, ranching and beautiful Concho River. A Texas A&M San Antonio graduate specializing in multi-media reporting, Cuellar is an award winning photographer and reporter whose work focuses on community news and sports.
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