SWAT school in session

By Ryan Harris
The Chattanooga Times Free Press

WALKER COUNTY, Ga. — About a dozen Northwest Georgia police officers this week searched dark woodlands, were bombed with tear gas and rappelled headfirst off a 35-foot wall.

Next week they will swarm through empty buildings with weapons drawn.

The rigorous regimen is part of an 80-hour training course teaching the basics of SWAT, a police acronym for special weapons and tactics.

Officers from Walker County, Dade County and LaFayette are participating in training exercises at sites across Walker County.

"We don't live in a bubble. The facts are that the world is ever changing, and it is getting ever more violent," said Sgt. Pat Cook, commander of the Walker County Sheriff's Department special operations team. "As it does, we need officers trained to respond to whatever the situation might be."

The specially trained officers serve high-risk warrants and respond to hostage situations, among other responsibilities. Walker County's team most recently raided a moonshine still on the banks of Cane Creek.

Tactical teams are scarce in Northwest Georgia.

Walker County's 14-man team is the largest in the region and is about to grow with a merger with LaFayette's squad, Sgt. Cook said.

Officers in 1998 asked Sheriff Steve Wilson to create the team.

"I choose to because I felt like it would be an asset to the sheriff's office, it would complement the work we are trying to do and for the professionalism that it would bring to the department," Sheriff Wilson said. "It's very rare we have to mobilize the unit, but I feel confident knowing these men are well-trained and will carry out their duties in the manner they are trained."

The ongoing two-week SWAT school is the most extensive ever for the officers.

Sgt. Cook said most training sessions are 40 hours, but he wanted officers to have an entire week to learn to sweep through a building. School facilities will be used for that exercise next week after students are dismissed.

This week the officers have combined a mix of classroom lessons and hands-on application with exercises that included nighttime reconnaissance missions on a rural farm.

Walker County Sgt. Anthony Gilleland said that lesson will help officers sneak up on marijuana growers, meth labs or escaped convicts.

"Let's say you get an escaped convict from one of the prisoners and they send up a helicopter. He's encamped here, we know where is and they give you coordinates on a map, you figure out how to go in and do a snatch," Sgt. Gilleland said.

Joining the police officers in the training are paramedic Charlie Murray and Dr. Patrick McDougal. Both men volunteer to provide "tactical medicine."

"If you've got to go into a situation where you can't bring (someone) out safely, but you can get into them and treat them and save lives, that's what we are there for," Mr. Murray said. "The team is going to get us inside where we can treat our victims."

Maneuvering around hostile situations can be an "invigorating" experience, Dade County officer Josh Powell said, after his first decent down a rappelling wall Thursday.

"It's definitely a rush when you get to the edge and don't know what's behind you," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Chattanooga Times Free-Press

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