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SWAT team dreams

School pushes officers to their limits

Published: Tuesday, April 28 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Members of the Salt Lake police SWAT team don't get paid any extra for being a member.

They have to be prepared at a moment's notice to respond to an emergency regardless of whether they've just completed a 10-hour shift on their regular beat or are attending a birthday party or other special family function. They often put their own lives in harm's way to protect the public.

But still, it's one of the most sought-after positions in the department.

This week, more than two dozen men and women will be driven into physical and emotional fatigue as part of an exhaustive six-day SWAT school training session in hopes of showing their commanders that they've got what it takes to be one of law enforcement's elite crime fighters.

SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics. They are the ones who are called to resolve standoffs, hostage situations and to serve warrants in potentially violent situations. As team members will tell you, they are called out to the worst of the worst incidents. They are required to get the job done because there is no backup to call after SWAT is called out.

Some officers say the Salt Lake Police Department's SWAT school is among the hardest in the state. Those leading the course can't remember there ever being a year in which one or more people didn't drop out before the week was completed.

This year, 39 people signed up, said Lt. Isaac Atencio. Five dropped out before the school even began. Four more dropped out after just the first three hours — including one person that had to be taken to the hospital to be monitored as a precaution.

The school lost one more person Sunday morning during the grueling obstacle course when one officer was taken to the hospital after suffering a possible dislocated shoulder.

Finding the right officer to join SWAT isn't just about the strongest or the most physically fit. It's also about finding the person who is the best team player under the most stressful situations.

On Sunday, with a chilly wind blowing and the threat of rain all around, three vans pulled into the Bountiful Range near the Davis County Landfill. The members of the SWAT school all quickly filed out and lined up. As they were ordered to do several sets of pushups and leg lifts — all while wearing bullet-proof vests and helmets — they were told about the grueling obstacle course they were about to run. This was on top of a 5-mile run the group began their day with at 3 a.m.

"Fatiguing you, your mind and body, that's what we're going to do. We can't shoot at you, so we're going to do it to you this way," was the greeting the group received from Salt Lake Police Capt. Tim Doubt, the division commander over Special Operations, explaining the need to test how people will react under stress.

Doubt tells them that bets are being made as to which person will puke first, saying it in such a way that it's hard to tell how much he's joking and how much he's not.

When a person is completely drained, they can't hide their flaws, Doubt said. If someone in the group has a bad temper or can't get along with others, by the end of the painstaking week commanders will be able to see those characteristics.

The obstacle course involves several aspects that a SWAT officer might do in real life, such as using a battering ram to get through a locked door, scaling a wall, rappelling down a hill and running through mud while carrying the extra weight of protective equipment.

"Brutal. I'm not going to lie," said Salt Lake police officer Tiffany Commagere shortly after crossing the finish line. "I'm pretty much exhausted. But it'll be worth it in the end. It's a good next step in my career."

"Hardest obstacle course I've ever done," concurred Salt Lake police officer Eric Moutsos. "The whole second half you feel like you're going to die. The training they put you through here, there's nothing like it."

Even though Moutsos admitted he didn't know what was in store for him this week, he knew he wasn't going to drop out.

"I believe I have what it takes to be on the SWAT team," he said while emphasizing the teamwork aspect. "You're only as fast as your slowest guy. You're working as hard as you can to be a team."

Instructors say the first day is the hardest physically. On average, there are typically three to six dropouts that quickly, Atencio said. If a person can survive the first day, they usually make it through the entire session. Over the next few days, the SWAT hopefuls will be subjected to tear gas, scaling the sides of tall buildings, a midnight swim and very little sleep.

Last year, the Salt Lake Police Department's SWAT team was called out to more than 65 operations, Atencio said, making it by far the busiest SWAT team in the state. Sometimes they are called out more than once a week.

There were 15 Salt Lake police officers going through the school as of Sunday and 16 from other agencies. At the end of the school, each officer is ranked on how they finished in the class.

But even if a person is ranked No. 1, it still doesn't mean they will automatically be on the SWAT team. They also have to wait for an opening. As of Sunday, there were no openings on Salt Lake's 28-member SWAT team. If no positions open up this year, those taking the training course will have to do it all again next year — SWAT school and all — in order to be qualified for a position.

"It's a position you really have to want to go after," Atencio said. "It's not just a job, it's a lifestyle."

E-MAIL: preavy@desnews.com

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