|Sgt. Reiff describes the SWAT team uniform|
If your neighborhood is swarming with police officers running around in heavy jumpsuits and helmets, chances are there’s a SWAT team operation in progress. They could be dealing with a barricade situation, home invasion, or some other type of tactical mission.
The officers won’t have time to chat with you; they’ll be too busy securing the perimeter, rescuing the victims, and apprehending the bad guys.
At a recent session of the Fairfax County Citizen’s Police Academy, Sgt. Jeff Reiff described the activities of the county’s full-time SWAT team, which is part of the Operations Support Bureau based in a nondescript building on Woodburn Road in Annandale.
The SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team takes part in about 150 operations a year, including 12 to 15 missions involving someone armed and barricaded in a house or car, Reiff says.
The most traumatic incident Reiff has been in involved a 26-hour ordeal where a man had barricaded himself inside a home on Lisle Avenue in Falls Church in 2009 with his estranged wife and eight-year-old son. The boy witnessed his father shoot and kill his mother, then turn the gun on himself.
The SWAT team serves two or three search warrants a week for high-risk suspects, usually involving drugs or violent crimes.When serving search warrants, the Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit (bomb squad) blows the suspect’s door open, then the SWAT team rushes inside. The team also works closely with the hostage negotiation team, logistics unit, medical staff from the fire department, patrol officers, and K9s.
When there’s a barricade situation or door-busting operation planned, the SWAT team passes out warning notices to people who live nearby advising them to stay inside or evacuate their homes. “When we’ve got a critical mission to do, we can’t interact with residents,” Reiff says. “We may ask to use your home as an observation point. You can deny the request. That’s happened only once.”
The team has a number of tools at their disposal, including two robots fitted with cameras and various accessories; a Recon Scout “throwbot,” a small device with a camera that can be thrown into a window; and an armored truck with a platform allowing easy access to a building’s second floor or a bus window.
“Our priority is saving people’s lives and reducing risk,” Reiff says. The team’s objectives, in order of priority are rescuing hostages, protecting innocent civilians, protecting the police, and capturing the bad guys.
Training is critical for the SWAT officers, and a full 25 percent of their nonoperational time is taken up with training. They must remain calm and in control in any situation. They never know what they will face from day to day—they could be threatened by an armed suspect or dropped from a helicopter onto the roof of a building.
If possible, they use buildings about to be torn down for training. In July 2010, they practiced at the Lacey Center in Annandale before it was demolished to make way for the new Mason Crest Elementary School.
Members of the SWAT team are the only Fairfax County police officers who have to maintain physical standards and must pass a fitness test twice a year. To make the team, they have be able to bench press their body weight, do a pull-up with 35 pounds, do a vertical leap of at least 17 inches, run a half-mile in 12 and a-half minutes, complete an obstacle course, and meet certain sharpshooting standards.
Of the 53 applicants for the current team, only four actually made it. Among the team’s 12 members, there is one woman and one very fit 53-year-old. Surprisingly, only two are military veterans.
The Fairfax County SWAT team has attained “National Tier 1” standing, the highest level, based on its staffing and capabilities.