On an ordinary day in a quiet Murrieta neighborhood about 30 SWAT team members of the Murrieta and Hemet police departments converge on a home with a specially-trained SWAT canine named Frankie.
Under the watchful eye of supervisors, armed officers clear the house — guns trained on bad guys — while Frankie maintains a vigil on rooms already declared secure.
Today, this is just a practice mission on a vacant property, giving officers the chance to brush up on their skills and prepare for any potentially deadly scenario.
Because, in real time, there is just no telling what these guys will face when trying to save the life of a hostage victim or even a suspect.
Murrieta and Hemet combined their SWAT-oriented efforts since 1995 in an effort to provide a response to situations that are beyond the capabilities of normally-equipped and trained department personnel.
SWAT team members’ duties include serving high-risk search and arrest warrants, performing hostage rescues, subduing barricaded suspects and engaging heavily-armed suspects – while always striving for a peaceful resolution.
“(SWAT officers) have to have the right temperament, where they don’t get caught up in the emotion of a moment,” said Hemet police Sgt. Jeff Davis, adding that a patient spouse who understands the rigors of the job is also a plus.
SWAT team members serve in addition to their normal duties as sworn peace officers – the team includes patrol officers, K-9 handlers, detectives, traffic division officers, school resource officers and even local Murrieta fire department personnel.
“We’re actually able to save the city money by having tactically trained officers working in the field. They carry their gear in their cars,” said SWAT team leader Sgt. Phil Gomez, noting that SWAT is a “collateral assignment.”
“The SWAT duties performed by our teams should not be trivialized because they are not called upon full-time,” explained Lt. Tony Conrad, who serves as SWAT Commander.
“Our SWAT officers assigned to the Murrieta SWAT team have undergone special training and have access to specialized weaponry, surveillance devices and equipment beyond standard issue police gear. They are equipped with specialized firearms, breaching equipment, riot control agents, less lethal options as well as Frankie, who is one of five dogs assigned to Murrieta, but the only one that has the temperament for SWAT operations. Officers also utilize heavy body armor, ballistic shields, entry tools, a tactical robot and armored vehicles.”
The team also provides discreet security for city council and school board meetings.
Besides the specialized training that each officer undergoes to become a SWAT officer, applicants undergo a rigorous selection process. Emphasis is placed on not only tactics, but physical fitness.
Physical fitness is stressed to ensure an officer will be able to withstand the rigors of tactical operations.
They must pass stringent physical fitness and agility evaluations, marksmanship qualifications and teamwork assessments along with scenario and oral testing to ensure they are not only fit enough, but also psychologically suited for tactical operations.
After an officer has been selected, the potential member must attend and pass a SWAT academy in order to make them a fully qualified SWAT officer.
Officers train twice a month in all manner of possible scenarios, including at local schools over the summer.
Murrieta SWAT is made up of 20 trained officers and includes four tactical medics who carry life-saving equipment and provide immediate aid to anyone who has been injured. Hemet SWAT adds an additional 10 officers to the team.
Eight crisis negotiators are also assigned to the team. The Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) is available as the goal of a SWAT operation is always for a safe resolution.
“Not every response ends in a shootout,” said Conrad.
“If you don’t know about us, or realize we’ve been in the area, we are doing a good job,” said Gomez, noting that the number of incidents each year can vary widely.
“We take a lot of pride in the team we have created as well as the equipment we have to use,” said Sgt. Gomez. “We consider what we have to be one more level of protection that we can provide the people of our community.”
According to Conrad, partnership with the Hemet SWAT members is a valued one that extends to monthly meetings with other counties’ tactical teams throughout Southwest Riverside to share planning, strategies and support.
As the recent SWAT action surrounding the Christopher Dorner case has shown, the safety of citizens and police officers is at a premium. Lt. Conrad said that a new armored vehicle, bearing the city logo and obtained through the U.S. Department of Justice Surplus Property 1033 Program, will offer an important layer of added protection.
“We want this for our citizens, because anyone who is motivated to do damage can arm themselves. Assault rifle ban or not, the only way to stop (a person like that) is to combat via an armored car,” Conrad said.
The vehicle should be in use sometime this spring, Conrad said, and will be available to any surrounding cities or agencies who call for support.
Conrad said: “Even the safest of cities in this country need to have a prepared response.”
Michael W. Michelsen, Jr. is a local writer and new contributor to SWRNN.
*Kerri S. Mabee contributed to this report.