Yellow Springs is SWAT member
- Published: August 6, 2014
In recent years, there has been increased awareness of the growing number of SWAT team raids in this country. Since the 1980s, police departments’ use of SWAT has risen about 1,500 percent, resulting in about 148 SWAT raids daily, according to University of Eastern Kentucky criminal justice professor Peter Kraska in a June 9 New York Times article.
Those concerned about the increased SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) presence in American policing have included the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU. In a recently completed study of 260 law enforcement agencies, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” the ACLU concluded, “American policing has become excessively militarized through the use of weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield” and that this militarization “unfairly impacts people of color and undermines individual liberties, and it has been allowed to happen in the absence of any meaningful public discussion.”
Critics also contend that the increased police militarization has harmed, and sometimes killed, innocent people. The ACLU study documents seven cases of civilian deaths and 46 injuries, although it states the actual numbers are likely higher.
Others believe that SWAT teams are necessary because, according to Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer in a recent interview, more people are highly armed.
“We do go on high-risk calls,” Fischer said. “We have to be prepared to defend ourselves.”
And critics aren’t considering that more harm might have occurred had SWAT not intervened, according to Major Kirk Keller of the Greene County Regional SWAT team in a recent interview.
“We get paid to put our lives on the line and when there’s a potential for mass casualities, our officers are trained to meet it head on,” he said.
SWAT team proliferation in recent years appears to be linked to a Department of Defense program, 1033, in which weapons and equipment from this country’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are offloaded to local police departments, according to the June New York Times story. Tens of thousands of machine guns, more than 200,000 ammunition magazines and hundreds of armored cars have found new use with police, according to the article.
And the military equipment comes at little cost.
“Lots of it is free,” Major Keller said of the Greene County SWAT team’s acquisition of two SWAT vehicles, long guns, automated weapons, a robot and other special equipment through the 1033 program.
Yellow Springs is a contributing member of the Greene County SWAT team that Keller leads. The team was one of two SWAT groups that responded a year ago, on the night of July 30, 2013, to the home of Paul E. Schenck. The resulting shoot-out, during which Schenck fired 191 shots and the police six, ended in Schenck’s death from a SWAT sniper bullet.
Yellow Springs joined the Greene County team in early 2013, soon after Police Chief Anthony Pettiford was hired to lead the local department. Yellow Springs is one of five contributing members of the team, along with Xenia, the Greene County Sheriff Department, Wright State University and the Kettering Health Network, according to Major Keller. While other larger municipalities, such as Fairborn and Beavercreek, have joined a separate regional SWAT team, Yellow Springs is the only Greene County village to become a member of a SWAT team.
As a SWAT team member, Yellow Springs provides at least one officer to the team; until he resigned in April of this year, Officer Pat Roegner was that member.
While Yellow Springs has been a SWAT team member for over a year, three out of four current Council members interviewed recently said they were unaware of the local police involvement. Former Council President Judith Hempfling, who presided over Council when the Village joined SWAT, said she was also unaware that the Village had aligned with SWAT and that the decison should have gone to Village Council to take place in a public venue.
“Absolutely,” Hempfling said, regarding the need for a public discussion. “Village Council has the right to make policy and this is a policy issue.”
Why join SWAT
However, when Chief Pettiford came to former Village Manager Laura Curliss to express interest in joining SWAT in early 2013, she didn’t see the SWAT issue as one that required Council or public discussion. Lots of municipalities are members of SWAT teams, Curliss said recently, stating that she also saw the SWAT involvement as an opportunity to increase police training. So she approved the request. Neither Pettiford nor Curliss reported the fact to Council, though it was the first time the Village joined a SWAT team.
In a recent interview, Chief Pettiford said there are several reasons he wanted the local department to join the Greene County SWAT. First, he said, while communities don’t need SWAT very often, it’s important to be a part of the team “in case we need it.” Also, he saw joining SWAT as a way to make sure local officers would be able to communicate with SWAT commanders about a crisis situation should the need arise. He also said it’s important that Yellow Springs support regional law enforcement activities.
However, according to Major Keller, being a member of SWAT does not affect the team’s response to a Yellow Springs crisis, nor would it affect the local department’s ability to communicate with SWAT regarding the crisis. Due to no-cost mutual aid agreements between departments, the SWAT team will respond to any request from a Greene County police department, whether or not that team is a member. And the SWAT commanders make a point of gathering information from local officers when they respond.
“We don’t just go in and take over,” Keller said. “Our bottom line is that we’re assisting the local department. We still need the local officials to guide us with the information they have.”
However, the SWAT team leader on the scene is considered the highest in command, Keller said.
When former Police Chief John Grote headed the local department, he understood that the Greene County SWAT team would respond if there was a village need, whether or not the village was a member. Because joining the team involves time and expense and the department was already a member of the Drug Abuse Task Force, Grote did not join.
“It was not on my radar or wish list,” Grote said in an interview. “At the time the police department seemed stretched too thin.”
The financial contribution to SWAT is not large, but there is one. The initial cost of equipment was about $3,000, although that amount came out of the police forfeiture fund, according to Pettiford. The department also pays for the SWAT team member to take part in eight hours of monthly training. At Roegner’s wage of about $172 daily, the cost was about $2,000 a year, without factoring in overtime.
Earlier this year Chief Pettiford presented to Council the 2013 annual report on police department activities.
“We strongly believe that each of you have the right to know what type of law enforcement services and activities have occurred within Yellow Springs and more importantly, the resources being devoted to providing an appropriate police response to local problems and concerns,” the report states.
However, the report does not mention the Yellow Springs membership in the Greene County SWAT team, nor Officer Roegner’s appointment as a team member.
The omission of the local department’s connection to the SWAT team was an “oversight,” Chief Pettiford said, that will be corrected in this year’s report.
In recent interviews, current Council members expressed different viewpoints regarding whether SWAT involvement should involve public discussion.
Current Council President Karen Wintrow, who was unaware of the Village police participation in SWAT, said she does not see the need for public discussion, unless the community calls for it.
“At this point, I consider this a departmental decision,” she said.
Brian Housh and Lori Askeland said they would like more information regarding the SWAT team participation. For instance, Housh said he would like to know more about the team’s training and if local involvement contributes to village safety. And while Askeland also said she wants to know more, she questioned the involvement in the light of Yellow Springs policing priorities.
“Is this appropriate when we’re trying for a community policing approach, is a question to ask,” Askeland said.
Council member Marianne MacQueen believes Council and the public should definitely be involved in the decision of whether to be a part of a SWAT team. MacQueen said she’d like to see a public discussion of Village involvement in both the SWAT team and the Greene County Drug Task Force, which is a separate entity.
“While the police have a critical role in the safety of our community, the public has an even more critical role,” MacQueen said. “The more that community members are in conversation with each other about this, the greater the safety.”
What SWAT does
While SWAT teams, which began in response to urban riots in the 1960s, were initially used to establish a perimeter in crisis situations, that strategy changed after the Columbine school shooting in the 1990s, according to Keller. Following Columbine’s relatively large loss of life, SWAT teams were instructed to move quickly to enter buildings where there was, or might be, an active shooter.
SWAT teams are intended for use in crisis situations in which there are hostages or a barricaded shooter, according to Keller.
However, critics say that SWAT teams are increasingly used in routine warrant situations, making those events more deadly. In the ACLU study of 260 police departments, researchers found that only 7 percent of SWAT raids nationally were hostage or barricade situations.
The Greene County Regional SWAT team formed in 2006, and was initially part of the Xenia police department. But the regional approach makes sense as a way of procuring more resources than are available to a single department, Keller said. And given the real but very occasional need for highly trained crisis teams, it’s most efficient to train only a few officers in crisis tactics.
“It doesn’t make sense economically to train and equip every officer,” he said.
Yellow Springs police joined the Greene County team in April 2013, when Roegner, on the local force since 2007, became assigned to the team. Selection to SWAT is based on a variety of criteria, according to Keller, including an officer’s physical condition and proficiency with firearms. The selection includes an interview that determines if the officer is “the right fit,” Keller said.
“We don’t want people who have disciplinary issues or use of force issues,” Keller said.
However, Officer Roegner, while rated highly in his first years on the force, was placed on extended paid leave twice in recent years, first in 2010 and then in 2013, for disciplinary issues, according to his personnel file. Roegner resigned from the force in April of this year.
After an initial 40-hour training thar includes the use of firearms and other special equipment and strategies for dealing with crisis situations, Greene County SWAT team members continue to train for a day each month, but are actually called out to crisis situations very infrequently.
“We train and train but rarely go out,” Major Keller said of the team.
In 2013 the team was called out only twice, and has not been called out this year. In March of 2013 SWAT was called to a Xenia residence where a man, after assaulting a girlfriend at a different location, had returned to his home and barricaded himself inside. The Xenia SWAT team responded, bringing one armored vehicle to the scene, and made phone contact with the man, who threatened to shoot any officer who came close but did not actually fire a weapon, according to a Dayton Daily News account. The man threatened to take a large amount of medication and at the final phone contact sounded lethargic; after another six hours, a SWAT robot entered the home and the man surrendered.
It was appropriate for SWAT to be called even though no shots were fired, Keller said, because the man was known to have access to guns and he had threatened police.
“If there are weapons involved and a high risk they’ll be used, we’re not going to put ourselves or the community in harm’s way,” he said.
The Schenck incident
On July 30, 2013, dispatch received a call regarding a domestic disturance from Paul E. Schenck, who was known to local police for stockpiling weapons along with problems with mental illness and alcohol abuse. After several officers responded and two attempted to open his door, Schenck began firing shots, at which point police put out a Code 99, which means an officer is in distress. Any officer available will respond to that call, Keller said, and in the Schenck situation, 83 officers, two SWAT teams and three SWAT armored vehicles ended up at Schenck’s North High Street residence.
Schenck fired 191 shots in all, and police responded with six shots, one of which killed Schenck about four hours after the standoff began. Alison Maier, a neighbor of Schenck who lay on the floor of her next-door apartment during the four-hour shootout, believes strongly that the intensive paramilitary presence, including SWAT tactics and equipment, contributed to what she sees as Schenck’s unnecessary death.
“They were military from the moment they got here and remained military,” said Maier, who could overhear police conversations below her second-floor apartment. “Their presence automatically escalated everything.”
Conversations Maier overheard indicated that police were not communicating well with each other, nor with the community, she said. For instance, had police attempted to gather information about Paul from neighbors, they might have chosen a less aggressive strategy of waiting him out.
Instead, several hours into the standoff, police drove a large, frightening armored SWAT vehicle up to Schenck’s house, which Maier believed escalated the chance of a violent outcome. Shortly thereafter she heard the final volley of gunshots, which ended with Paul’s death.
“They weren’t looking to guarantee public safety. They were looking to take down a threat,” she said.
However, the armored vehicle was necessary so that SWAT team members would be safe in their attempts to negotiate with Schenck, who was intermittently shooting, according to Major Keller, who was the command officer. And in general, SWAT teams do not attempt to wait out a shooter.
“It’s hard for the public to understand that lethal force needs to be met with lethal force,” Keller said.
SWAT teams also don’t attempt to negotiate with active shooters, Keller said.
“You won’t find a training program in the country that teaches you to talk to someone who’s shooting at you,” he said.
While friends and family members have stated they could have talked Schenck down if given a chance, that was never an option, Keller said, because using family to negotiate “is not protocol.”
Those critical of the SWAT team response and massive police presence should consider that no one other than Schenck was harmed during the evening, and others were also in danger from his gunfire, Keller said.
He also regrets the night’s tragic outcome, but he believes that police and SWAT teams did their jobs, given that Schenck shot at them almost 200 times, putting the whole neighborhood in danger.
Still, a year later, several neighbors continue to question how the presence of two SWAT teams and a large number of police affected the outcome of the Schenck tragedy.
Said a neighbor who asked to be anonymous, “You have to wonder, would Paul have fired 191 shots if there was no SWAT team?”
While Yellow Springs currently does not have an officer on the Greene County SWAT team, an officer currently employed has expressed interest, Chief Pettiford said.