In “The Swat Team Experience,” I discussed the events that might cause a SWAT team to be called to active duty.
Take a look at some of the equipment/gear they might use during an active crime scene:
The ballistic shield on the left is larger and heavier, covering more of the body, and has an armored viewing port. The smaller, lighter weight shield (#2) is preferred by some officers because it allows for an easier reach around it with weaponry. It does cover a smaller part of the body’s core. See #3: Both versions have hand holds on the back and attachments for neck support.
The equipment might weigh 50-65 pounds when fully hooked up. Many team members carry
They wear cargo pants because of the fit and all the practical pockets. Some tactical grade cargo pants have extra lining, allowing the officers to carry additional magazines (ammo), and are made of rip stop fabric. They are similar in weight and texture to several camping cargo pants I have from LLBean. They breathe well and allow sweat to wick away, but mine aren’t tough enough to hold ammo.
A sniper has to be prepared to observe and report the event as it unfolds, so they choose a spot within 50-75 yards of the scene that is good for watching, as well as shooting in case that has to happen. In order to communicate their intel, they use an encrypted digital signal that can’t be picked up on scanners, but can be heard by other members of the team. SWAT team snipers generally work in pairs, rotating positions every 15-30 minutes. Snipers want to be on the same plane as the target(s). The more off a 90 degree angle they are, the more off a straight line the shot will go after it hits glass, etc. that might be between the shooter and the target.
One of the tricky, but essential, parts in gathering information is to find is where in the house or building the target is. The agencies involved identify positions around the house for ease of information sharing, using letters or numbers. i.e.: “I’m at Position A, ten yards out.”
| Back of house
Or, using positions on a clock, an officer might say, “I’m at 12:00, twenty yards out.”
A SWAT team is not the bomb squad, although they are able to call upon a bomb expert if needed. In general, no robots are sent in to surveil the area, because the bad guy could pick the robot up and put it in a closet.
The scary part of breaching a building is not knowing what’s on the other side of the door. The teams get very quiet before entrance, but the ride after the mission can be very loud as they burn off the high intensity of the operation. The job does take a toll.
What is used to force out the bad guys?
Flash-bangs (stun grenades) are one tool, called that because of the blinding flash and ear-splitting bang meant to only temporarily blind and deafen, therefore disorienting the target. The goal is not to kill the suspects, just to flush them out into the open. Teams try not to use this in domestic situations because of the potential collateral damage.
Gas grenades: The s-6 multi-launcher gas rounds can cause pain in the face and eyes. FYI, the gas gets into the clothes of everyone in close proximity and lasts for more than 24 hours, even in the wash.
Remington Ball Camera: This can be tossed into the house, where it will land and take photos in a 360 degree arc. It also records sound.
In order to show you the relative size, an Academy participant held it upright while I took the photo.
The sniper rifle is very loud (308 caliber) and if shot inside a house might cause permanent loss of hearing to those in the room, so handguns or other firearms are used, if needed at all.
Armored vehicles: the teams wait in them while part of the team is working. Not all towns have them at a price tag of from $180K to $630K. Why the hefty cost? At the high end, the armored vehicles can withstand ammo assault from below and to the engine, are bulletproof through continued attack, and have the option of roof mounted gun turrets. The opening scene in Jamie Freveletti’s novel, “Blood Run,” gives a realistic portrayal of a substantially armored vehicle under attack.
This armored vehicle is used by the Neenah, Wisconsin Police Department.
Curious about salaries for doing this dangerous and challenging job?
Nationwide average in the USA: $59,475
Wichita Falls, TX average: $55,164
North Carolina average: $50,575
Thanks go to the Neenah Police Department members who shared their information and experiences at a Writers’ Police Academy held in Wisconsin.
Many thanks to Lee Lofland for organizing this outstanding annual event.
Additional information from:
All except armored truck: Patti Phillips.
Armored truck: Neenah, Wisconsin Police Department
Part 2 of “Underwater Evidence and Recovery” covers some of the search methods available to rescue and recovery dive teams.
Read Part 1: “Underwater Evidence and Body Recovery: Lakes and Bodies” here.
The divers each have different roles. In a three member team, one does the bagging and tagging and the other has primary responsibility to bring the evidence or a body back. The divers try to stay with the bag on the way up, so it doesn’t get snagged on rebar, fish hooks, or other debris known to be present in ponds and swamps. The large pond near my house has castoff evergreen trees around the edges – great hiding places for fish, but tough to work around when moving retrieval equipment near them.
One search method for remains thought to be in shallow, but cloudy, ponds is to form a ‘skirmish line.’ The team members lock arms and walk the area, to see if they can bump into the body. In deeper water, grappling hooks might be used if there is a suspicion that a body is snagged on a log or other large object. Sometimes, people drown in their cars after going off a road, and must be extricated before the car is towed out.
As upsetting as it might be to the families of missing loved ones, searches cost money. The men and women in charge of the searches must weigh their past experience in finding people under different circumstances and decide when to call it off officially.
Highly experienced divers have found bodies and evidence at a depth of fifteen feet, where it is extremely cold and almost pitch black. It’s not always possible to recover anything at that depth, with currents, storms, or toxic waste in the mix.
Searches are conducted with ropes because of the zero visibility. The bottoms of lakes are silky and murky and the divers see shades of dark. Lights don’t help because they bounce off particles in the water. The divers have to work by feel.
During training, already certified divers practice evidence recovery in clear water, then duplicate the exercise in black water. Some practice dives are done while wearing blackout masks. Trainees have been known to close their eyes and hum when getting used to the darkness. As one diver said, “It’s scary down there the first few times.” The job is definitely not for everyone. I certainly couldn’t do it!
The procedure after finding evidence or a body is to bag it while still in the water. The body bag has fine mesh on side to let the water out, but not the evidence. A design improvement created 6 points of attachment to lift the body bag, allowing more stability during the lift.
For a drowning, the divers buoy the body. For a homicide, the divers wait with a body bag and buoy it. Attaching a buoy allows for easier lifting.
Once out of the water, a record of the chain of custody is kept on the outside of the bag by the Medical Examiner.
Experts say that drowning deaths can be avoided by following some simple rules:
“Ninety percent of our fatalities could be prevented if they were wearing a life jacket (while boating),” North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Officer Hannah Shively explained.
If you see someone in distress, try and throw an object towards them, whether it’s a stick, fishing pole, cooler, or life jacket, to pull them to safety. Don’t let yourself or anyone else become a statistic.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at two Writers’ Police Academy events in North Carolina. Many thanks to the members of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department for their informative presentations and to Lee Lofland for organizing the annual events.
Crime scene tape has been posted around your favorite big pond or lake and nobody can get on/in the water until it has been searched. What has happened? Perhaps a body has been sighted underwater by a swimmer, or a fisherman has snagged something suspicious on his hook. A violent crime may have been committed in the area and the police are looking for discarded weapon(s). Or a report has come in to the police station about a missing person, and that missing person may have been seen in the vicinity of the water. Law enforcement is already on the case and if the crime scene tape is up, along with officers conducting an investigation, then a dive team is most likely working your formerly peaceful spot.
The USA has a great many lakes and assorted other bodies of water, both natural and man-made. Just a few examples:
Alaska: over 3,000,000 lakes (yes, 3 million)
Minnesota: 10,000 lakes (it’s even written on the license plates)
New Jersey: 366 named ponds, lakes, and lagoons
North Carolina: 78 named lakes as well as several bays, sounds, and hundreds of ponds.
Texas: over 200 large lakes and reservoirs.
When that many bodies of water are part of the landscape, it makes sense that the Sheriff’s Department (County law enforcement) and First Responders have teams that specialize in underwater evidence and body recovery. Why the Sheriff’s Department? It’s not about deep pockets financing the operations, it’s all about jurisdiction and best use of available resources. Many large lakes cross town lines, and the Sheriff’s Department has jurisdiction in all the towns in its County. No need to duplicate personnel, when prevailing thought is that one or two teams per County will be able to handle the job of underwater evidence and body recovery.
Note: the local Fire Department usually has a First Responder team on the site of any accident – they are trained for rescue. At some point, it will be determined whether it is a recovery or a rescue and/or if there is a need to preserve evidence. It’s usually a recovery rather than a rescue at a lake, because after a person spends ten minutes under the water without air, it becomes a recovery operation.
Are there enough on-the-water deaths to make certified-for-recovery dive teams necessary? Sadly, yes. The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project tracks those stats for the five biggest USA lakes. There were 99 deaths reported in 2016, 88 in 2017, and as of this writing, 47 so far in 2018 in the Great Lakes alone. North Carolina has reported 10 lake deaths so far in 2018.
Most of the time, the lake deaths are accidental, but on occasion, bodies are found because of a homicide.
A body will float after 72 hours, and continue to float for a couple of days. After that, the naturally occurring body gas is expelled and it will sink again. Bodies are often found fairly quickly, but a body gets like jelly if it’s been in the water for a while, complicating the collection process.
Cold water will preserve a body, and warm water will cause more rapid decay, so divers must work carefully in the warmer locales. Cadaver dogs can pinpoint the location of a body to speed up the work. It’s been discovered that the longer the body is in the water, the wider the smell arc for the dogs. It’s a little like a dead fish smell, more concentrated closer to the body.
If no cadaver dogs are available, the divers swim in ever bigger arcs from the chosen starting point onshore and they work in grid patterns. If the search area is large enough, one of the onshore/on boat team members keeps a map/record of the searched areas.
In general, when working in shallow water, the investigation and recovery can be accomplished by dive teams alone. In deeper water, it will be a combination of boats and dive teams that do the search and recovery.
Most dive teams have the same equipment. They dive with aluminum scuba tanks and 3200 pounds of air will last about an hour. The basic dive suit is worn for warmth and protection – below 10 feet, it’s cold, no matter what the weather is up top. They also have hazmat suits to dive with in toxic environments.
Buoys are color-coded and are released to show when the diver(s) need help or when marking the spot.
With the smallest team of 3 people, there are:
With a team of 11 people, at any given time, there are five people in the water.
It is protocol to always keep one diver on the surface, ready to assist under water or switch places with the diver already in the water. The “tender” stays on the surface (whether in a boat or on the shore) and directs the search using a rope. The tender signals by tugs; he/she lets the rope play out, and then gives more when needed.
The “tender” not only controls the line and the search pattern, but keeps track of the air time and the clock time on a log, which becomes the official record of the diver/search activity. If there is a new diver on the team, the tender tracks to see the average air use, an important stat to have when making sure a sufficient supply of air tanks is on hand for each team member. The tender can estimate the time/air left in the tanks in use after observing the previous pattern of intake by the newbie.
After spending time in the water, the divers will be dehydrated, another thing the tender keeps track of.
Stay tuned for Part 2: “Searches.”
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at two Writers’ Police Academy events in North Carolina. Many thanks to Lee Lofland for organizing the annual events, and to the members of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department for their informative presentations.