Southwest Washington SWAT team swamped

2011 holiday season shaping up as a typically busy one for its members

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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First-person account

Reporter briefly swaps pen for assault rifle

The holiday season isn’t just the busiest time of year for shoppers — it’s also peak season for Southwest Washington’s SWAT team.

In the last week-and-a-half, the team has been on at least five calls, including a standoff with a man who allegedly shot his girlfriend on Nov. 15 at a home near Lucia Falls, and a bank robbery on Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard on Nov. 19. As of last Wednesday, the team’s annual total was at 46, meaning they were on track to crest at well over 50 calls for the year, said Tim Bieber, a sergeant with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and leader of the SWAT team.

“We usually see a spike right around the holiday season,” Bieber said, standing under a shelter from the rain during the team’s latest training session. “Domestic violence calls go up. There’s drug dependency and alcohol — all those things start kicking in around the holiday season.”

During the 13 years he’s been with the team, at least four or five calls have come on Christmas Day.

Though the team — whose 24 members also hold different assignments in their respective departments — gets plenty of real-life action, they still take time once a month to return to the basics. And on the day before Thanksgiving, that meant lying prone in the rain while wearing nearly 60 pounds of safety gear and firing their M4 Colt Commandos at targets up to 100 yards away.

Vancouver police Cpl. Bill Pardue reminded the dozen or so men gathered at the English Pit Shooting Range on Northeast 192nd Avenue to settle their breathing before they fired. To close their eyes and reopen them before firing. Soon, smoke floated into the air as the hot guns spat out empty casings.

When the firing ceased, targets made of small paper plates with red dots spray painted in the middle, mounted some 50 yards away, held five clustered bullet holes each. By the time they finished their round of shooting practice, at least 2,000 rounds were spent.

“Our goal every time is we have to be better shooters than anybody,” Pardue said. “In order to do that, we have to shoot.”

Shootings by the SWAT team are infrequent, but in situations that often involve close-range or suburban firing, it’s important to keep sharp, said Pardue, who leads firearms training. The team meets once a month for two days to practice shooting and tactical skills.

“Shooting is a perishable skill. If you don’t constantly work at it, the skill goes away,” Bieber said.

But he said their work on tactics — different scenarios and practice — is as important, or more important, than being a sharpshooter. Working in close cooperation with negotiators, skillful tactics help keep officers from having to resort to lethal force, Bieber said.

“Ultimately, we don’t ever want to have to shoot and (we hope) everyone leaves without firing weapons,” he said.

SWAT officers are the types who like to be in the thick of activity, but they realize that often people they are called to deal with are experiencing a mental health crisis, said Beiber, who has been on the SWAT team for 13 years and with the sheriff’s department for 19. “Suicide by cop” is a disturbing growing trend, he noted.

“We’re very conscientious of those people who are in a mental crisis,” he said.

And as holiday-related stresses mount, Bieber said it’s something his team keeps even more readily in mind.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall