It is easy to feel safe in a rural area. There is relatively little traffic, the crime rate is very low, and you pretty much know everyone around you or that you run into regularly. You can easily fall into a sense of comfort and ease, thinking that the problems outside your area cannot affect you.
However, nothing can be further from the truth. The real world and all its problems can strike at any time, even in the rural areas and small towns. The deadly attack at Sandy Hook Elementary school brought that reality home in a dramatic and sad way.
When things happen in rural areas, it may be easy to assume that we don’t have all the resources that are available in more populated are to combat these situations. However, an initiative started in west central Minnesota in 2007 has made it possible for rural residents to have the best possible protection and emergency response force available.
The initial talks started several years ago when law enforcement officers were responding to some very dangerous situations and sometimes felt they lacked the training and equipment to do the job safely. They knew that the cost of acquiring this training and the equipment could be one of their biggest concerns. They soon realized that by combining with neighboring agencies, they would be able to make it happen. Thus began the West Central Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) force.
Fifteen cities and entities pay dues to be a part of the West Central S.W.A.T. team. Not all of the dues paying groups have personnel on the team and one entity, Glacial Ridge Hospital, does not pay dues but provides two medics and a doctor for the team.
The cities of Appleton, Benson, Glenwood, Hancock, Morris, Starbuck and Wheaton pay dues for the team as well as the counties of Big Stone, Lac qui Parle, Pope, Stevens, Swift and Traverse. The University of Minnesota, Morris police department is also part of the group. Hancock Police Chief Matt Flogstad is not on the S.W..A.T. team but is a S.W.A.T. board member.
Among the members there are also several specialists trained in specific areas and instruction. The specialists are in Specialty Impact Munitions, Distraction Devices, Chemical Munitions, Surveillance, Breaching, Negotiations, Snipers, Specialty firearms and Communications. There are also the two medics and one doctor on the team. Canine units are also used with this team for tracking, apprehension, drugs and evidence recovery.
The S.W.A.T. group trains once a month and also has several classroom trainings. They need to recertify every year with all the tools used.
The S.W.A.T. commander is Nathan Brecht from Pope County Sheriff’s Office. The assistant commander is Dale Danter from the Glenwood Police Department. Team Leaders are Jason Berning from the Wheaton Police Department and Jason Reed from the Morris Police Department.
If a situation arises within the S.W.A.T. counties, an officer can call out the team. There is some risk assessment criteria that needs to be met prior to being called out. Depending on where the call is, the team can respond quite quickly to a call. The nice part about having a multi-jurisdictional team is that they have team members in various parts of the counties who have the equipment and tools to handle a threatening situation.
Despite the fact that this is a rural area, the same violence and crimes can affect us. Those crimes may not be as frequent but they still happen here. Budgets are tight in many of the city and county law enforcement agencies so having a S.W.A.T. team available in a short period of time with the cost split by several entities, is extremely helpful in fighting crime effectively.
“The communities in this area of the state can not rely on or afford to wait for another S.W.A.T. team to get here” stated Brecht. “Law enforcement here needs to be self-sufficient. It is our job to protect the citizens of these communities and that’s what we are accomplishing here.”
The West Central S.W.A.T. team recently conducted a training session in the Hancock school which involved things such as hostage rescue, building searches and a possible active shooter. The team is attempting to do drills in many of the schools and other public buildings throughout the six counties not only for training but to be familiar with the building layout and contact personnel.
In the last seven years the team has been called out an average of just over five times per year. The majority of these calls are for high threat search warrants. They have also been called to high threat person warrants, barricaded suspects, attempted murder suspect search and armed suicidal persons. These may sound like crimes that frequent more populated areas but sadly, they are not restricted to big cities.
It is good to know that there is a highly trained and outfitted law enforcement group ready for action in this area, even though it is hoped they don’t need to be called out too often. Even if they don’t receive many calls, there is the added benefit of getting to know neighboring law enforcement agencies and working together in all types of situations.
“It is nice to know your neighbor,” Brecht added, “and nice to know that we are ready for anything.