- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) - Sgt. Brad Rodriguez’ team moved in as darkness fell.

Armed with assault rifles and outfitted with night vision goggles and body armor the team swiftly moved in on the target, taking out hostiles and rescuing a hostage.

Rodriguez observed his 12-man Special Weapons and Tactics team, made up of snipers, ground troops and medics as they advanced through the rural desert north of Carlsbad.

As they reached the building where the rescue would take place, muscle aches from the 2-mile walk disappeared and there was only the mission.

Gunshots could be heard overhead, and officers shouted to the suspects, announcing their presence and demanding compliance.

“We send our guys in there prepared to have to take a life,” said Sgt. Andrew Swanson minutes before the mission. “When things break down they’re ready to go. Once we’re in there it’s up to them.”

Swanson credited the success of missions to heavy planning and the eclectic training of the tight-knit group of officers who volunteer their extra time to preparing for SWAT missions, reported the Carlsbad Current-Argus (https://bit.ly/2jl6qsZ).

“The more time we have the better,” he said. “It allows us to gain (intelligence) and plan what we’re gonna do.”

Bright lights, sirens and loud, stern commands were all used by the team to announce a police presence.

“The days of knocking down doors and charging in are over,” he said. “We’re very certain to make the announcements so people know it’s the police.”

Rodriguez explained that tactical policing has changed in recent years and officers must take a more methodical approach during high-intensity situations.

Tools of the tactical

The group of Carlsbad police officers who make up the city’s SWAT unit meet at a shooting range and mountain training facility just outside of the city at least twice a month for intensive training in a myriad of disciplines and potentially lethal situations.

In addition to the training, city SWAT officers carry assault rifles and are equipped with body armor and bullet-proof helmets. They ride to staging sites in a retired U.S. Army mine-resistance anti-projectile vehicle, fully outfitted to fit their needs.

The vehicle features a gun turret on top and seats eight officers as they travel to barricades and other dangerous crime scenes.

Riding in the passenger seat, Sgt. Adrian Rodriguez works as a negotiator.

He uses several tools not found in holsters or packs carried by officers on the ground.

Instead he uses a notepad and a phone with the aim to get on the subject’s good side - and talk them out of committing a travesty.

“You have to figure out what they like,” Adrian Rodriguez said of negotiating. “I always bring up their family, that they want them to be safe. The goal is to end it. My thing is the safety of everyone involved.”

Using conversational “hooks” such as a worried loved one to garner sympathy from the target and avoiding “triggers” like a messy divorce that can upset them, conversations with criminals are designed to prevent things from getting worse.

“You’ve got to put them at ease,” he said. “They know they’re going to jail, so you’ve gotta say ‘What can we do to help you out?’ I even use this on the streets.”

Training the ‘troops’

Each training day the Carlsbad SWAT team tests a different aspect of the job.

Some days they practice approaching a barricaded building and rescuing hostages.

Other days they learn hand-to-hand combat or borrow a local school for training in a larger environment.

But every session features intense physical training and stressful simulated environments.

“We’ve got to get these guys under stress to train them,” Sgt. Brad Rodriguez said. “They need to be moving as a team, and we stress accuracy. As an officer, you’re responsible for every round you put out.”

At their first meeting of 2017, SWAT officers practiced their marksmanship with primary assault rifles, and their secondary handgun.

Rodriguez created stress by requiring officers to do tire flips between rounds of shooting.

“We’re gonna get their blood pumping,” he said.

After target practice, the team rehearsed approaching a hostage rescue from several paths through a makeshift room built with tarps and wooden posts.

Targets were placed on the walls - a shooter wearing a Kevlar vest, a fellow officer and a civilian holding a phone - to create several situations in which officers would have to judge quickly.

“They have to be able to make those split-second decisions about where to shoot,” he said.

Militarizing the police force?

Rodriguez knows well the concerns of the public.

Media attention and public opinion have recently challenged the heightened tactical gear and weaponry now commonplace in American police forces.

But Rodriguez said the gear and training is necessary for an evolving criminal element, one that has proven handguns and shotguns are simply not enough to stop modern mass shootings.

“You hear about the militarization of the police force, but take our main weapon,” he said referring to assault rifles. “Any civilian can buy anything on this platform. We’re just trying to match what’s available to the public.”

In 1999, a mass shooting using military-style guns and explosives at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, left 13 dead.

Two years earlier, it took officers 45 minutes to fatally stop two heavily-armed and armored gunmen in North Hollywood.

Those tragedies were catalysts in tactical policing, Rodriguez said.

Prosecutors face challenge convicting police officers

In the past, police officers armed with small handguns and a scattering of shotguns dealt with mass shootings and hostage situations by forming a perimeter and waiting for a SWAT team to move in.

Rodriguez said today it’s just not enough.

“(North Hollywood) was kind of the push to put these rifles in the hands of police,” he said. “Columbine changed everything. Now even patrol officers are carrying rifles. It’s just the reality of the job.”

Band of brothers

Tactical medic Earl Phelps said the proficiency of the team is due to its bond.

Like brothers, the crew competed during training, mocking each other’s failures and celebrating successes.

“A lot of the reason we’re as good as we are is that everyone is close. We really bond,” Phelps said. “We heckle each other a lot, give each other crap, but when it’s time to work, we’re all good. We really nitpick each other down to the smallest thing.”

The team is sometimes separated from backup for miles, Phelps said, so members must work well together and complement each other’s skills.

“If we call Hobbs for help, it could take hours,” he said. “We really have to be self-sufficient as a unit. We rely on each other to be good at what we do.”

The closeness of the officers is what drives their dedication, Rodriguez said.

“Because we’re kind of in a rural environment, these guys have to have a working knowledge of all these different things,” he said. “It takes a lot of dedication. These guys are expected to give up whatever they’re doing, or get up and go to a mission when they’re needed.”

On the ride back to the training facility following a successful mission drill, officers joked with each other, poking at their faults but sternly giving feedback and encouragement.

And when their boots were off, their helmets stowed and their guns set aside, the team knew that if a real tragedy struck, they’d be ready.

___

Information from: Carlsbad Current-Argus, https://www.currentargus.com/

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