“We don’t want the average person up here,” said Sgt. Cullen Dodd, Napa County Sheriff’s SWAT Team Leader.
But this particular Saturday was different as a bunch of “average” Napa County residents were invited to go onto the team’s training ground and experience a super show-and-tell.
The Sheriff Office’s SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) demonstration was the sixth session of the Napa County Sheriff Citizen’s Academy, a series of 13 classes open to residents interested in learning more about the department. The academy is usually offered twice a year — once in the spring, and again in the fall.
Students who showed up to the special Saturday SWAT demonstration were able to see what a forced entry might look like, what a flash-bang sounds like and how to shoot Sig Sauer 1911 Pistol and a Sig Sauer AR15. Each person wore a vest, glasses, and ear protection. They also had a SWAT Team member showing them how to use the weapon and standing beside them, helping if needed, while shooting at the targets.
“It was pretty cool and intimidating to get to shoot the pistol and rifle,” said Angelica Perez Rodriguez. “I would do that again any day.”
Perez Rodriguez said she loved getting to learn about the SWAT Team and that it was great getting to see them as everyday people. “It really does take centered people,” she said, “people who can hold their ground under stress and (changing) circumstances.”
“The experience is so awesome it defies description,” said academy participant Carolyn Hamilton.
Although the morning spent hanging out with the SWAT Team was fun for the students, being a SWAT Team member is actually serious business.
“It’s not easy,” Dodd said, noting that members are put in dangerous situations and suffer from back, knee and shoulder injuries. The equipment they carry alone can be hard on their bodies – one vest, which students were allowed to try on, weighs 40 pounds.
Not just anyone can do it, Dodd said.
To get on the team, a deputy must be off departmental probation, be in good standing, show up to work on time and be reliable as well as physically fit.
Potential candidates must pass a physical fitness test in which they run two laps around a track, do pull ups while wearing a bullet-proof vest and helmet, be able to drag a team member of equal weight – a “dummy drag,” and sprint a zigzag course through cones, doing a burpee at each one – all within a few minutes, of course.
They also participate in a shooting assessment in full gear and go before a board to explain why they want to be part of the team. Their families must also be OK with it and they have to be able to show up when called.
“The phone rings and we have to go,” Dodd said.
Once you get on, though, it’s kind of hard to leave it, he said. Members become close-knit and feel a “sense of belonging,” Dodd said.
The 12 men on the SWAT Team are all volunteers – each one works a full-time position at the Sheriff’s Office and trains an average of 12 hours a month with the team. They can be called in any time, but they don’t get any extra pay, train on off days and, if someone is slacking off, they get the “boot,” he said.
Although a few of the team members served in the military, they don’t see their work on the SWAT Team as “militarized,” Dodd said.
“What we do on the streets is much different than what we did in the military,” he said. Their gear is specialized, their car is armored, they carry scary-looking weapons and they’re trained in special tactics, but they’re a necessity, he said, even in an area like Napa County, which doesn’t have many violent crimes. If something big happens – liked the recent armed robbery chase in Calistoga – the SWAT Team is the last local line of defense before other outside agencies, like the FBI, get pulled in.
In those high-pressure situations, the SWAT Team is the “group of people that are coming to save you,” Dodd told the class.
Just this year, team worked with crisis negotiation teams to successfully talk out two people who had barricaded themselves in their homes, Dodd said. In those situations, the team is usually standing by as a precautionary measure waiting for negotiations.
“We’re not coming in violent,” Dodd said. “I’ve never seen a tank on the street in the U.S. that’s being used as a tank.” The SWAT Team’s armored vehicle – a Ford F550 named “Jiffy” like the peanut butter – is used as a rescue vehicle, he said.
When the class toured the vehicle, it was like getting into a “party bus,” one student said. Although there were holes to point guns out of, there was also a bat symbol on the front of the truck.
“Did you get a picture of the bat? Make sure you get a picture of the bat,” another student said.
Dodd explained that, although members need to have special skills, they’re human just like the rest of us. The life of a SWAT Team member, he said, is “a lot fancier in pictures.”
The SWAT Team demonstration and the Sheriff Citizen’s Academy as a whole is about transparency, said Capt. Keith Behlmer. “We open up the whole department to show you this is what we do.”
The Napa County Sheriff Citizen’s Academy, which is usually offered twice a year – once in the spring, then again in the fall – also teaches residents about the department’s structure and hiring process, patrol and civil operations, Problem Oriented Policing Program, K9 officers, crime scene processing, use of force and allows students to take a tour of the jail, the dispatch center, and participate in a use of force simulator.
For more information, visit countyofnapa.org/Sheriff/CitizensAcademy.