No serious crime -- but SWAT trains to prepare for it

Police conduct drills in two vacant houses in North Salmon Creek neighborhood, surprising some residents

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Wednesday afternoon, a young couple walked down Northeast 149th Street, pushing a baby carriage past police tape, patrol cars, two armored vehicles and a pair of cops dressed in green tactical gear. It was sunny and quiet, save for the random pop-pops of practice explosive rounds coming from the white house on the hill.

"Can we ask what's going on?" said a woman driving by in an SUV.

SWAT training.

Though the regional team trains two days each month, their presence at two homes near the busy North Salmon Creek neighborhood intersection of 149th and Northeast 10th Avenue has drawn attention from neighbors and passersby.

"We realize when people drive down the road, this is out of the ordinary," said Sgt. Tim Bieber, training commander for the Clark County Sheriff's Office.

The houses used for the training — 903 and 911 N.E. 149th St. — are owned by Clark County Public Works. The houses are slated for demolition as part of the 10th Avenue improvement project that will extend the road to Northeast 164th Street and build one travel lane in each direction, bicycle lanes, sidewalks and facilities to collect and treat polluted storm runoff.

In July 2012, the county acquired 903, and the tenants moved out four months later, said Public Works spokesman Jeff Mize. The department got 911 in December 2012 after the tenants vacated in the summer.

Habitat for Humanity volunteers recovered reusable materials from the houses last week, cutting out cabinets, light fixtures and toilets.

The materials are typically sold to the public at the Clark County Habitat for Humanity Store, 5000 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., said Mark Haley, manager for the Portland Metro Re Stores.

"There's plenty for everybody," he said.

Neighbors were concerned that residents weren't notified of the Tuesday training or a K-9 training that occurred at the same site last week, leading people to believe a serious crime occurred.

"It's just kind of unnerving to see that many police officers in one place," said Jeff Waters, who lives 21/2 blocks away. "In my background, it means something horrendous has happened."

Many of his family members work in law enforcement. His father was a cop, his uncle is a police chief in California, and many of his cousins are police officers and prison guards.

Waters used to own a security company before moving to Salmon Creek in 2007. He writes crime novels and screenplays.

"You don't know what's going on," he said, pointing out that a large sign could have prevented panic. Waters was concerned for his family's safety when he saw the special operations vehicles that packed the driveways of the two houses.

"Letting everyone know about the training would be impossible," Bieber said. "There are security concerns about people knowing where and when the training is happening."

The team has to consider the safety of its officers and the community when holding trainings. Bieber looks to have bigger, clearer signs made by next month's training that they can place around the site. Not every person can read the police-training-in-progress signs posted on sandwich boards. A 911 call to residents went out Wednesday, alerting about 300 in the area that there would be loud noises from the training.

"Our intention is not to be secretive," Bieber said. "Certain things we can't share with the public because it affects our tactics."

A building that's set to be demolished provides the perfect training venue. Officers don't have to worry about making a mess — scratching the floor, breaking glass or getting paint on the wall with Simunition paint pellets.

"They usually leave damage wherever they go," said sheriff's Sgt. Duncan Hoss.

Officers tailor their training around what facilities are available. That prevents team members from getting used to the same scenario or scenery. Each new location provides opportunities to refine skills, resulting in a cadre of cops who can respond to just about any dangerous situation, whether it's high-risk warrants and apprehensions, hostage situations, active shooter situations or barricaded subjects.

"You simply cannot train enough because of all the variables you can come up with," Bieber said.

Each team member trains in a certain speciality, whether it's ropes, sniper shooting, gas or less-lethal weapons. He describes the team as a bunch of type-A personalities who like to work hard. After all, officers participate in SWAT on top of their everyday duties.

Officers train the exact way they deploy, wearing full tactical gear. They have to get used to wearing extra weight and knowing where their equipment is. It's taxing on the body, especially as the temperatures rise, but necessary.

About 24 SWAT members trained Wednesday afternoon after spending their morning at the firing range, doing live fire drills.

The windows at the 911 house are boarded up to keep people out. Officers practice clearing the house with night-vision equipment.

Over at 903, you could hear the pop-pop of practice rounds as cops worked on breaching doors with explosives.

"We're hot!" an officer yelled out the window, moments before the crack of an explosion. The house shook and sheetrock dust puffed out an open window. Officers wore masks to keep the dust out of their lungs.

"You usually don't have the nice training facilities you see in the movies," Bieber said.

Instead, the team typically deals with old, dilapidated buildings or vacant homes around the county. The agencies use shooting ranges, malls, local businesses or areas near the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds, and they may run scenarios with C-TRAN buses — it all depends on training priorities.

SWAT, composed of officers from the Vancouver Police Department, the sheriff's office and one officer from the Battle Ground Police Department, trains twice each month, typically 16 to 20 hours on a Tuesday and Wednesday.

The scary situations happening around the country could happen here, Bieber pointed out. Clark County isn't immune to danger. SWAT averages 40 to 50 missions every year.

"I think that the community as a whole wants a well-trained SWAT team," Bieber said. "Everything we do is for their safety."

When the SWAT team finishes with the site, they'll hand it over to Fire District 6 for training burns, tentatively set for March 27 at 911 and April 9 at 903. During the burns, firefighters basically set fire to different rooms and attack it as they would a real fire.

While the trainings and the burns disrupt neighborhood normalcy, they save taxpayers money, Mize said. Burning down the houses makes it easier to remove rubble, lowering demolition costs anywhere from 25 to 50 percent. The officers and firefighters use the resources they have to keep the skills they need.

"We're all just normal guys," Bieber said.

Minutes later, another explosive boom rattled the house.