MONTROSE – All I was told was to bring gloves, a heavy coat "and something to protect your junk." Those instructions didn't really intimidate me; I've been looking for a gunfight with the police for some time, and now I was preparing to reap what I’d sowed.
Last week I was invited to participate in Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) training with the Montrose Police Department. The Montrose Police Department and the Montrose County Sheriff's Office each field a SWAT team comprised of officers tasked with handling and defusing the most dangerous situations, wherever and whenever they happen.
For the safety of the officers, and to preserve the integrity of their training, I could neither divulge nor photograph any tactical details about the exercise.
The training took place in a cold and empty commercial building on Montrose's north side. The Montrose Police Department holds SWAT training exercises here each month, according to Montrose SWAT team leader Sgt. Tim Cox.
I was given a special helmet and mask apparatus designed to protect my head and throat area and a blue and black colored 9 mm "Simulation" pistol with two magazines of ammunition.
Simulation is a manufacturer of non-lethal training munitions used by law enforcement and the military.
Up until this point, I was not too nervous. I have participated in similar training at Ft. Bragg, near where I grew up in North Carolina, using a Simulation rifle. And as a teenager I used to play paintball with my friends – before they went on to careers in the Army and U.S. Marine Corps.
But now, in the first exercise, I am tasked with hiding in a room while the SWAT members work to clear it and disarm anyone they find. I am told to "take a shot" at the officers if I "want to," something that, for me, is not all that easy in the first place.
After a few moments of waiting, I notice my mask is beginning to fog, due to the cold temperatures in the empty building.
I can hear footsteps coming around the corner. Peering out from my hiding place, all I can see is a black shield with the word POLICE displayed prominently. I raise my pistol and fire, and then exhale, completely blinding myself in the process.
Now I start to panic. Blinded by my mask, I turn around to flee, running face-first into a wall that I haven’t seen, and fall to the floor.
At this point I think about surrendering, but because I haven’t let go of my gun, I start firing random shots, instead. Soon the officers swarm in, taking a few shots of their own that strike me in the upper thigh area, and proceed to arrest me.
At this point, I am bruised, blind and filthy – and it’s only the beginning of the exercise.
While we wait for defogging solution for our masks, the SWAT team members run through several other scenarios using "DTs" – defense tactics.
This is the classroom for their once-a-month training exercise designed to hone their skills and gain new perspectives on offense and defense.
Cox said the team has used buses, vehicles, empty buildings and planes in training for every type of scenario possible, from hostage situations to barricaded suspects.
Following each exercise, the team huddles together to dissect what they did and discuss what they could do better. It's not about just capturing the suspect, but also about learning to be as safe as possible – not only for the members of the team, but those they are trying to protect.
In one scenario, I am taken hostage by an armed suspect. The officers move in, and my “captor” decides to take aim and start shooting. The officers return fire and I dive to the floor through a hail of gunfire. This time, the “suspect” is hit multiple times by the officers. I am not hit at all. “And that's what we’re going for, that human element. You simply can't recreate that with standstill targets," says Cox. “It's the human factor that we're responding to – a moving target. It's the closest thing we have to reality.”
What I remember most is watching the eyes of the police as they enter the room. It reminds me of watching hockey players, and how their eyes stay focused on the opponent and the puck.
The Simulation guns are designed to simulate the shooting action of similar police service weapons. Cox said the goal of performing the tactics with the guns is to create "muscle memory" so that team members can better perform their duties in a real emergency.
The officers also don't fully suit up in all their pads and gear for the exercise – because, Cox said, the sting from the simulation rounds is a good “tool” to get officers to behave as if they are hit.
"The goal is not to get shot," Cox said. "But if they do get shot, it's the stress of being shot we want them to feel, so they can continue to focus on the job at hand.”
I've personally always had deep respect for law enforcement officers. My grandfather, Robert Bradley, was chief of Police in Sheridan, Wyo., for many years. I've never served in the military, nor have I been in combat; I have, however, been shot at in my job as a reporter. I was reporting on a standoff in Littleton, N.C., when a bullet from an AK-47 missed me by about a foot. I'll never forget the sound that bullet made as it whizzed by.
For a time, I photographed crime-scene pictures for the local police department where I grew up in Roanoke Rapids, mostly breaking-and-entering scenes. I came to respect what the officers did for a living, and what they endured on a daily basis. If some training each month means the possibility of saving lives, let me be the first to say thank you to the men and women of the MDP-SWAT team, not only for their service, but for those bruises they take for the team.