Just in case

When situations turn dangerous, Special Response Team is ready


It's pitch black inside the second floor classroom, and only the ticking of a wall clock interrupts the dead silence.

Negotiations have broken down and the gunman, standing behind his hostage, doesn't know they're coming.

The hostage taker scans around the room and looks outside the windows. He hears nothing, sees nothing.

Tick, tock, tick ...

So his hunters move closer, stalking him with deliberate movements.

Tick, tock ...

Their pace quickens and they rapidly approach the doorway.

Tick ...

And then it comes -- a flash of bright light ... a blur of black silhouettes moving inside shadows ... barked out orders -- "down, down, down." Finally, both gunman and hostage are on the deck, gun barrels pointed at both.

"We don't actually know which is the good guy and which is the bad guy," a member of the three-man search team said. "So we have to consider both of them dangerous."

While two members keep their weapons drawn on the gunman and hostage, a third member sweeps the rest of the room. Remaining squad members comb the rest of the second floor, searching for a threat they can't immediately see.

They shout out, "All clear."

If this had been a real operation, it would have been successful. No gun shots, no fatalities. Everyone --ood guys and bad guys alike -- is safe and unharmed.

As it happened, this was just another practice run -- a hostage rescue -- by the team, an exclusive group of local law enforcement officers.

Meet the Special Response Team, or SRT. They'd rather you not know who they are.

The team, comprised of officers and deputies from the Craig Police Department and the Moffat County Sheriff's Office, practices about 10 hours a month and is used with much less frequency.

On Wednesday, they trained at Craig Middle School, making practice runs through various atypical scenarios.

They're careful about revealing too much about themselves or their tactics and, after about 20 minutes of an insider's view, they politely ask the spectator to leave them to their business.

There's a certain number of team members, but tactical commander Brian Soper politely declines to comment about how many. The same goes for their identities.

"I think people here really don't know a lot about us," he said. "We kind of want to keep it that way."

What is known about SRT is this: Team members work on a "strictly volunteer" basis, are called in to diffuse difficult situations and are highly trained.

"If you're on there," Soper said, "you have to meet a high standard and maintain it."

Those situations may include potentially dangerous scenarios when there are armed suspects, multiple suspects, when surveillance is involved and when an operation is deemed high-risk, Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta said.

The team was last called out in October 2006 to assist the Greater Routt and Moffat Narcotic Enforcement Team with arresting methamphetamine suspects.

A situation has to meet certain criteria and then the decision to send out SRT rests with either PD or sheriff's office administrators.

"We'll use it in any circumstance that requires resources more than what a normal patrol officer might have," Vanatta said. Essentially, SRT is utilized in times when suspects have "(weapons or surveillance) that makes the situation dangerous for officers without special equipment.

"It's one of those things where we're just big enough that we need that kind of resource available," the police chief said.

Soper, a Craig Police Depart--ment officer and Iraq war veteran, has been a SRT member since 2000 and became tactical commander in 2005. He saw violence while serving in Iraq and is thankful there's been no gunfire exchanged during the about 10 operations he's carried out with SRT.

He explains SRT's existence is based on just-in-case possibilities.

"I explained it like this one time," he said. "It's kind of like the military. You don't shut it down just because it's peace time."

Judging by its equipment, SRT is prepared for a multitude of situations that could turn nasty.

Team members are stacked with Kevlar body armor, a helmet, long rifle, sidearm, radio and other equipment. There is some leeway as to what each member will carry, but generally the gear ranges anywhere from 40 to 70 pounds.

Vanatta said more and more money is budgeted for SRT each year to improve the team's equipment. More frequently, SRT is being used as a first and second option because of the equipment it boasts and the training members have had.

Soper, who's been the first team member through the door on a few occasions, said he's thinking about one thing only when going through:

"You need to get through the door," he said. "The whole team depends on it."

There's that safety thing again.

That was the overwhelming common thread to all the practice runs Tuesday -- safety for the team, the hostage, even the fictional gunman instigating the captive scenario.

With quick, calculated movements, the team continues time and again to practice its response to the rescue operation. After all, practice makes perfect, and in a real-life situation, there's little room for error.

"We can't always predict what criminals are going to do," Soper said. "The safety of everyone involved, that's my No. 1 priority.

"We have a motto -- 'as long as everyone comes home safe.' That's always the best outcome for us."

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