Dope dealers have been getting to know the Salt Lake Police Department's SWAT team lately.
In fact, some drug suspects are unaffectionately referring to the camouflaged Special Weapons and Tactics unit as the "green meanies."Already this year, the "meanies" have bashed through 18 doors, assisting narcotics officers in serving "no-knock" search warrants.
Already this year, the SWAT team has served 19 no-knock search warrants. That's the same number the team served in all of 1988.
Why the dramatic increase in SWAT-assisted drug raids?
"The big reason is the Metro narcs and the sheriff's office are really cracking down on these drug dealers," said SWAT Lt. Bill Gray, whose office wall is decorated with several pictures of John Wayne.
Another reason is that one of the Metropolitan Narcotics Strike Force sergeants is a former member of SWAT and believes in the value of sending the shock troops in first.
"They are much better trained and have more weapons discipline than we do," said Metro Sgt. Scott Atkinson, who said he utilizes SWAT on 90 percent of Metro's no-knock search warrants.
An officer who draws a gun and knocks down a door tends to get an adrenaline high that sometimes takes up to an hour to come off of.
"It's much easier for us to go in there after SWAT has secured the place. We don't have the adrenaline flowing. We go in there pretty mellow and do our job," Atkinson said. "When you have to stick a gun to some guy's head after he's pointed a gun at you, you really don't feel like trying to communicate with him. And he's not real excited about talking to you."
It's much safer to deploy the SWAT team, he said.
Atkinson pointed to the near-fatal shooting of a narcotics officer two years ago as an example of how a SWAT team might have better handled the no-knock search warrant.
Gray agrees. "Ninety-nine percent of the time we can get up to them and on top of them before they even know what's hit them."
But as the SWAT team's number of responses increases, so does the possibility of a tragedy.
Violence is always a threat, said Gray, who is trying to get funds allocated for upgraded bulletproof vests and assault rifles.
SWAT members constantly encounter suspects with guns and knives. Last month, they confronted a drug suspect who had heroin in one hand and a .357-caliber revolver in the other.
Atkinson said there are no plans to decrease the number of search warrants being served. "My goal is to let (drug dealers) know that as long as they're selling drugs, the little boys in green are going to kick their doors down and we're going to be right behind them."