MOUNT VERNON — The members of the elite Mount Vernon Police Department Emergency Services Unit, more commonly referred to as SWAT officers, work hard to prepare for the most dangerous situations police officers can face.
“You never know what you have behind closed doors,” said MVPD Chief Mike Merrilees. “It’s better to go overprepared than underprepared.”
For members of the ESU team, being underprepared is not an option.
The team, which was formed two years ago, is comprised of eight MVPD officers who each have at least five years experience on the department. A Mount Vernon firefighter is the ninth member of the team, serving as a Tactical Emergency Medic who can render immediate first aid to an ESU team member or suspect, even as an event is still in progress.
Each of the ESU officers has received supplemental training in operations such as firearms and hostage negotiation, on top of their regular police training. The officers train together as a team monthly using different scenarios which simulate the operations the team would be used for.
The ESU team is used more often than citizens might think in Mount Vernon, given the city’s small size and relatively low crime rate.
The assistant team leader, whose name cannot be given for security reasons, said the team is regularly activated to serve drug warrants, and has been used to raid houses where drugs are grown or manufactured.
The team is also called to standby when suspects have barricaded themselves inside a building, such as the standoff last month involving Mount Vernon resident Timothy Dugger.
Dugger, who has an extensive criminal history according to Merrilees, locked himself inside a residence after officers were called because Dugger was allegedly destroying property inside the East Chestnut Street apartment.
When officers heard what they believed to be a shotgun being locked and loaded inside the apartment, they called for the ESU team.
After several tense hours, Cpl. Scott McKnight was able to talk Dugger into peacefully surrendering. Dugger was later charged with inducing panic regarding the standoff.
“The team is not activated on a whim,” the assistant team leader explained. “There are only certain situations that they are activated for. Basically, the team’s activated when there’s an extremely dangerous situation.”
“We don’t have to use them very often, but it’s a peace of mind to be able to have that resource,” Merrilees said.
One of the team members pointed out in a situation such as a school shooting, a perpetrator can shoot those inside very quickly. Having a team here in Mount Vernon versus having to call one even from nearby Columbus, could save many lives.
“The sooner we can get there fully equipped and ready to go, the better,” he said.
Ready to go, means having high-powered firearms and modern surveillance technology at the team’s disposal. Such advanced weapons and equipment aren’t cheap, but they have been obtained by the team without using taxpayer dollars.
Merrilees explained outdated police equipment such as a “Tommygun” was sold by the department to collectors. That money was then used to purchase necessary equipment. More gear and the department’s vehicle were purchased and updated using resources seized in drug raids.
Besides assault rifles and sharpshooting weapons, which can be used by the trained snipers on the team, the officers have other means available to them to stop an offender. “We have other less lethal options such as the bean bag gun,” said one of the officers. “It’s like getting hit with a 100-mile-per-hour fastball,” he said of the weapon’s non-deadly force.
Using flash-bang grenades, which stun and blind the suspects so officers can sweep in and put them under arrest, are another tool the ESU team uses.
The assistant team leader explained tools such as the flash-bang grenades and heavy beams used to take down doors are examples of the resources the officers use to accomplish their job quickly and safely.
“Usually it’s under a minute from when the SWAT vehicle stops to when a suspect is in custody,” the team’s assistant leader said.
“We train hard and work for peaceful endings,” he said. The officers aim to swiftly, and with a great show of force, take the suspects into custody before they have the opportunity to fire a weapon, or barricade themselves inside.
So far, the MVPD ESU team has been highly successful. “To date, we’ve had several SWAT call-outs and we’ve never had a shot fired or had an officer of a suspect injured,” the team’s assistant leader said.