Albert Lea police officers train for the worst of situations

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 5, 2006

First there was darkness.

Then flashlight bursts revealed two camouflaged men carrying M-16s, ropes thrown in a corner, wallpaper peeling from the walls of an old, abandoned building and an inch of dust and dirt on the floor. With them are four young men, all dressed in black. They are in the vacant Freeborn National Bank Building in downtown Albert Lea.

The group walked down the hallway to meet five more camouflaged men with lighted zippers blinking white, green and blue and flashlights attached to their M-16s.

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After a quick huddle, the four young men went to the third floor.

Albert Lea police Lt. Tim Matson gathered his team of seven officers in a large room on the second floor. They had a job to do.

&8220;A lot of the things we do are the same things Marines do in urban combat,&8221; Matson said.

Since 2001, members of Albert Lea Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactical &045; SWAT &045; team have practiced maneuvers one night each month, typically from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., in vacant buildings. They practiced in the old Albert Lea High School before it was torn down this winter. They now practice in the Freeborn National Bank Building on South Broadway Avenue.

With the permission of the school district and county government, they also practice responses to a school shooting in the existing Albert Lea High School and at Southwest Middle School. They’ve already practiced responding to a courtroom shooting in the Freeborn County Government Center downtown.

Matson has been the team’s commander and crisis negotiator since November 2003.

When the team met for training Monday, they practiced five different scenarios in the Freeborn National Bank Building for about five hours before moving to the high school for two more hours. Police Explorers, dressed in black, played the criminals, dutifully hiding around corners and resisting arrest when told to and facing down the officers’ unloaded M-16s in a mock drug haze.

Police Explorers, young adults and teens with an interest in police work, are sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America &045; though Explorers don’t have to be Boy Scouts.

&8220;You notice none of the Explorers have flashlights,&8221; noted a SWAT team member. &8220;What’s that Boy Scout motto? Be prepared?&8221;

SWAT team members must complete one week of training through the National Tactical Officer’s Association, offered in Minneapolis. Officer Darren Gangruth will complete sniper training through NTOA in May. It will mark the first time the team has had a trained sniper. Officer Jason Sage-Taylor will be training in the deployment of less-than-lethal projectiles such as the bean bag used to knock down Barry Tolbers, the Albert Lea man who fired 69 shots at police in 2003.

The SWAT team’s secret weapon is officer JD Carlson, a sergeant in the Marine Reserves who is stationed at Camp Fallujah in Iraq. Carlson trains other Marines and brings that training home to fellow officers on the SWAT team.

The Albert Lea Police Department’s first involvement with a SWAT team came in 1987, when they joined with police officers and sheriff’s deputies from Rice, Steele and Faribault counties and the cities of Owatonna and Northfield to form a SWAT team as a division of the South Central Drug Task Force.

In 2001, Albert Lea withdrew from the task force’s SWAT team and formed their own.

&8220;We pretty much do the same things we did with the drug task force,&8221; said Matson, &8220;but we’re doing it all in Freeborn County. A lot of it is money. Why not keep our guys in Freeborn County, train them here and form our own team? In the long run, I’d say the community is getting more coverage and better service with the SWAT team here locally.&8221;

The team is made up of Matson and seven ALPD officers. Four deputies from the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office train regularly with the team, but have not been able to fully commit to the team because of budget constraints.

&8220;We’re here for the safety and preservation of the citizens of Albert Lea,&8221; Matson said. &8220;We’re a support unit to law enforcement. We’re here if you do a warrant and you want stealth and you want speed and you want to get to your location before they know you’re there. We do things the police department just can’t do alone.&8221;

The camouflaged men, mostly young men in their 20s, joked around for a while while Matson, who is 46, organized materials. Then, slipping seamlessly into character, Matson began whispering instructions: The team had an arrest warrant for the &8220;suspect,&8221; John Smith in Apartment 13B, for possession of weapons. He is a known felony drug user who has used weapons on police in the past. No other information was known at the time.

The camouflaged men pulled ski masks down over their faces. One picked up a battering ram. Another referred to it as their skeleton key. The ram is only used on no-knock warrants, according to Matson, issued by a judge only if there is a high likelihood of weapons behind the door.

&8220;The ram is such a strong force. You can take the door off the frame in one go,&8221; said Matson. &8220;The only problem is with a steel door like a factory door. Then we’d attack the hinges or pry it open with a crowbar.&8221;

The team crept up a narrow staircase to the building’s third floor, keeping low, traveling softly, heel-to-toe, with weapons at the ready, each man as close the man in front of him as possible.

&8220;A lot of the stuff we do is muscle memory,&8221; said Matson. &8220;Practice enables you to not think about what you do, but just do it. When I say &8216;entry,’ you know exactly how to enter a room, how to carry your weapon. I tell the guys it’s like dancing,&8221; he said.

&8220;Professional dancers go through the same routine over and over again. When they’ve got to do a waltz, they’ve done the same movements 100 times. There’s not much difference between dancing a waltz and going down a hallway in step.&8221;

When the team reached the door they paused. The last man tapped the back of the man in front of him, signaling he was ready. The taps moved up the line until they reached the front. The two men holding the ram broke the door open with a loud crack, then hung back as the other officers rushed into the room, fanning out in a &8220;dynamic search&8221; formation to all corners of the room.

The room became cacophonous with shouts. &8220;Police! Search warrant! Down on the ground! Show your hands! Face down! Keep your face down!&8221; One officer handcuffed the suspect, who was lying on the floor, while the others searched, small room by small room, yelling all clear each time a room was secure.

Interspersed with the shouts, soft clicks could be heard from the other side of the room, the sound of an M-16, triple checked to ensure it was not loaded, firing at a suspect who had drawn a gun.

As soon as the room was secure, everyone relaxed.

&8220;I shot you first,&8221; said the explorer to an officer.

&8220;No way, dude,&8221; he replied.

Matson, who was listening to the exchange offered his two cents. If a suspect is hovering over his gun, as the explorer was, he might have gotten his round off first. In a real situation, the team might have thrown a flash-bang, a concussive firecracker, into the room stunning and blinding the suspect for at least 10 seconds and ensuring he was handcuffed before he ever reached his weapon.

All in all, the first scenario was a good one for the team. If the event had been real, they probably would have all walked out alive. In later scenarios they were not so lucky, especially after moving from the Freeborn National Bank Building to the wide open hallways of Albert Lea High School that offered little cover from a school shooter hiding in a utility closet.

&8220;If someone has their mind set to take someone out,&8221; said Matson, &8220;it’s going to happen.&8221;

(Contact Joseph Marks at or at 379-3435.)