Up to 120 individual crimes occur each day in DeKalb County, according to CRIMETRAC, the crime statistics website used by county police. With those numbers, it’s only a matter of time before one situation becomes too volatile to handle with regular patrol officers.
Luckily, it doesn’t happen often. And when it does, they call in the SWAT team.
DeKalb County actually has a few SWAT units–the acronym stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. The DeKalb County Police Department has a full-time team of 20 officers, while Dunwoody, Brookhaven and Sandy Springs have a joint unit with officers from each team. And Doraville has a force made up of patrol officers who undergo specific training.
“SWAT is a term that is used a lot haphazardly,” said Assistant Chief B.C. Harris, commander of DeKalb County Special Operations. “To be a true team you must be certified by the NTOA (National Tactical Officer’s Association). You have to have negotiators, you have to have a full entry team, you have to have snipers and you have to have containment. A lot of agencies will say, ‘We have a SWAT team,’ when they are a tactical team, but under the national SWAT guidelines they are not a SWAT team.”
Harris said that was not a criticism of smaller tactical departments and that the joint training could be a net benefit for the departments.
That’s how Officer Gene Callaway of the Doraville Police Department (DPD) sees it. Doraville’s SWAT force is made up of patrol officers who also train for high-stakes operations and are certified through the NTOA. The DPD has one unique vehicle in its arsenal, too–a M113 armored personnel carrier.
“It is a tool,” Callaway said. “Just like when we go out on a call, we make sure we wear our vests. We want to make sure our officers go home at the end of the day. The 113 is a tool to move around like that.”
Callaway said the vehicle isn’t used very frequently but has been employed with success during armed standoffs and barricaded suspects.
“The last time the 113 was used was during the snowstorm when we were pulling 18-wheelers out of ditches,” he said.
SWAT units usually respond to the highest-risk warrants issued, such as those for drugs or known shooters. Recently, the DeKalb SWAT unit was called for a hostage and robbery incident at a Chamblee AutoZone.
“You’re not supposed to use a SWAT team for things that can be done by a uniformed officer,” Harris said, “But that was an appropriate use. He had already taken hostages and he hadn’t been cleared. You don’t know how many gunmen there are. Could a uniform officer do it? Absolutely, but it wasn’t a misuse at all.”
The DeKalb force also has several armored vehicles, including a Lenco BearCat. Armored vehicles, like the BearCat or M113, are usually either purchased through grants or granted by the government in exchange for upkeep.
“You apply for it and you get it, so it comes to the department at zero cost,” Callaway said. “We have to maintain it – what we had to do with [the M113] was find rubber tracks so it could run on the road. It’s been a great tool. Because it’s zero cost to the department, we don’t mind having it.”
A recent article by the New York Times states that as military operations oversees wind down, surplus is directed to local law enforcement. There are about 25 military-grade surplus items in Georgia, including vehicles and ammunition, according to the article.
Calloway said the department hosts citizen police academies at least once per year, so residents can learn about what the officers do. He said it’s important for the community to understand what the department does.
But, Calloway says, it seems like crime in Doraville has tapered off at least partially because of the SWAT force and its sturdy M113.
“We’re going up against a more sophisticated criminal,” he said. “When you have a criminal who has an automatic rifle, the police officer’s action is we will take the level of force just above to subdue the suspect. If you pull a knife on me, I’m going to pull a gun – there’s an escalation there. And when they’re pulling out automatic weapons we have to be able to respond in an appropriate manner to subdue that situation rapidly.”