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Hancock school custodian Aaron Solvie, right, gave a tour of the school to members of West Central SWAT before a training exercise at the school in Hancock. Forum News Service photo

Regional SWAT trains for dangerous calls in rural areas

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HANCOCK — A December shooting at a Connecticut elementary school brought home the reality that crime can strike in rural areas and small towns.

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Some may assume these areas don’t have all the resources available in more populated cities to combat such situations, but an initiative started in west central Minnesota in 2007 has made it possible for rural residents to have the best protection and emergency response force available.

The initial talks started several years ago when law enforcement officers were responding to some dangerous situations and sometimes felt they lacked the training and equipment to do the job safely. They knew 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 (SWAT) force.

Fifteen cities and entities pay dues to be a part of the West Central SWAT team. Not all 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 to 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.

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. The team also has two medics and one doctor, along with canine units used for tracking, apprehension, drugs and evidence recovery.

The SWAT group trains together once a month and has several classroom trainings. They need to recertify every year with all the tools used.

The SWAT commander is Nathan Brecht of the Pope County Sheriff’s Office. The assistant commander is Dale Danter of 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 SWAT counties, an officer can call out the team. Some risk assessment criteria must be met prior to being called out. Depending on where the call is, the team can respond quite quickly. A benefit of a multi-jurisdictional team is that it has members in various parts of the counties who have the equipment and tools to handle a threatening situation.

“The communities in this area of the state cannot rely on or afford to wait for another SWAT team to get here” Brecht said. “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.”

West Central SWAT recently conducted a training session in the Hancock school that involved scenarios such as hostage rescue, building searches and a possible active shooter. The team is trying to do drills in many of the schools and other public buildings throughout the six counties 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. Even if they don’t receive many calls, there is a 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.”

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