A police officer lay motionless on the stairs as his fellow officers carefully moved toward him, guns drawn as they checked corners and holes in the ceiling for a gunman.
Two picked him up and made their way to the exit, protected by two other watchful officers holding shields. “Moving. Snug it up,” said one as he tried to keep everyone tight behind the protective shields. “Everybody shift right.”
“That looked good,” said team leader and Airway Heights Police Officer Brian Newman as he watched to see how much of the officers’ bodies were exposed.
The officers from the Airway Heights, Liberty Lake and Medical Lake police departments on the small city Special Response Team spent Sunday morning training in an empty office building on the West Plains, practicing rescuing downed officers and clearing rooms. The team also includes a medic from the Airway Heights Fire Department.
The team got its start in 2005 when Airway Heights Police had a high-risk warrant to serve. A warrant is considered high risk if the suspect has a lengthy criminal record, is violent or might be armed. That usually requires a heavy police response to ensure officer safety, which is hard to pull off with a small department. “It was difficult to get assistance,” Newman said.
As a precaution, the Airway Heights police chief gave Newman the task of putting together a team that would be able to help with similar situations in the future. Although the team trains for “active shooter” scenarios and hostage rescues, they are only used when a high-risk warrant needs to be served in one of the participating cities.
“In this day and age, it’s hard for a midsize department to field their own team,” he said. “There’s no way we could do this without the participation of the smaller agencies.”
The team has been used four times in the last two years. “I believe that’s going to pick up in the future,” Newman said. “It just comes with the growth.”
The eight team members who turned out Sunday spent four hours repeating the same tasks over and over. It went fairly smoothly as they took turns filling different roles on the team until it came time for Mike Ziegler of Airway Heights, a tall muscular man, to be the man down. To test their skills, Newman gave an incorrect location for him over the radio. “I’ll make them look for you,” he said to Ziegler.
After finding Ziegler and picking him up, they shuffled out of the room with effort. “OK, put him down before (Airway Heights officer) Leland (Varain) drops him,” Newman said.
The words hadn’t finished leaving his mouth before the two men carrying Ziegler collapsed in a heap, dropping him on the floor to a round of laughter.
A good portion of the morning was also spent “clearing” rooms. They gathered outside closed doors and loudly shouted “Police! Search warrant!” before bursting through the door, each officer fanning out in a different direction and declaring the room empty of threats. They worked on being quick and staying together so that no man was alone and exposed. “Make sure they don’t have time to arm themselves,” Newman said.
Team member Tom Ledgerwood, a fire marshal with the Airway Heights Fire Department, was first in the door during one room check. He swept the door open and then tripped over a raised door sill, falling to the ground. With no hesitation, another team member grabbed him by the back of his vest and dragged him from the room as the other officers continued on.
When Liberty Lake Officer Darin Morgan was first through a door, Newman immediately grabbed his shoulder and pulled him down. “You’re dead,” he said.
“I knew I shouldn’t have been first,” Morgan joked as he lay on the cold floor in the unheated building.
They also spent time practicing being slow and stealthy, peering around corners and trying to muffle their footsteps.
Team members must meet physical requirements, have three years law enforcement experience and their membership has to be approved by their police chief. The team also interviews prospective members.
Morgan has been with the Liberty Lake Police Department and on the Special Response Team for one year. He previously worked for Kootenai County for seven years, where he was on the SWAT team. “I was really happy to hear we had a small agency SWAT,” he said. “It’s time well spent. I really enjoy it.”
Team member Shane Brickner is a Liberty Lake Reserve Officer who doesn’t get paid for his police work or his SRT work, but he still enjoys being on the team. They meet once a month for training. “It’s just extra training,” he said. “It makes you that much better in your day to day activities.”
Liberty Lake police Chief Brian Asmus said he’s glad to have two of his officers on the SRT even though he has never had to use the team in Liberty Lake. “Having multiple agencies involved is always a good thing,” he said. “Our two officers are involved to get top notch training. They enjoy the training.”
Having two officers with special skills could be useful if an incident happens and is resolved before the geographically scattered team can be called in. “That’s good for us if we have to go into a situation in a hurry,” he said. “There could be a situation where we need them.”