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Armed with element of surprise

A Chester County SWAT team member enters a doorway during training.
A Chester County SWAT team member enters a doorway during training.

CHESTER -- A drug dealer dressed in camouflage fatigues stood near a bare window in a two-story Chester house.

Aaron Slaughter peered to the left. He glanced to the right. Nothing seemed out of place from his corner in the vacant house.

"You won't know they're here until they come through the doors," said Slaughter, a police officer of eight months with the Chester County Sheriff's Office who agreed to pose as the bad guy for a SWAT training in mid-February.

Slaughter rubbed his hands together in the bone-chilling cold of the dark house.

He waited.

Outside, Commander Scott Thompson and the SWAT team parked two dark-colored SUVs about 100 yards from the house. Thompson, flanked by Sgt. Henry Hamacher and 1st Sgt. Rod Killian, quietly inched their way to the house and positioned themselves outside a door.

Then, an explosive filled the dark house with bright flashes of white light and smoke as the SWAT team knocked the door open and stormed into the house with guns drawn.

"Sheriff's office," Hamacher said as he peered into the room and rounded a corner.

After a litany of "sheriff's office," the SWAT team found its target: A startled Slaughter.

"Put your hands up," another SWAT team member commanded as Slaughter threw his hands up in the air.

"Get down on the floor," a lone voice boomed as the men circled Slaughter and handcuffed his wrists before pulling him to his feet.

"Scene secure?" Thompson asked.

Seconds later, the Chester County SWAT team followed Slaughter out the front door and hiked back to the SUVs.

"The whole idea is to hit them with the element of surprise," said Thompson, a 12-year SWAT veteran who joined the Chester SWAT team in 2006 after serving 10 years on a SWAT team in York County. "Superior numbers and surprise usually catch people off guard so they don't fight or run."

Chester County's SWAT team was formed in 2000. The 15-member team, which includes a woman who is a hostage and crisis negotiator, practices maneuvers once a month during two-to-10-hour stints, Thompson said. On this night, the group practiced entering buildings and rooms, conquering steps and apprehending a suspect. The group has practiced techniques aimed at capturing high-risk suspects such as drug or gun dealers in houses or cars.

Team members also have honed their skills in hostage rescues, responding to shooters in workplaces or schools and canine training, where SWAT members track suspects with dogs in wooded areas.

Making the cut

Killian, a police officer who has worked for multiple police agencies for nearly 24 years, was on pins and needles until he learned he made the SWAT team.

"I didn't want to fail," said Killian, a SWAT team member of nearly nine years and a 12-year officer with the sheriff's office. "I wanted to make it because SWAT is a team of elite officers. We are the best at what we do."

But the elite group doesn't do the extra training for money.

"It's prestige," said Slaughter, the Chester County sheriff's deputy, who aspires to join the SWAT team. "It takes a lot of time, dedication and hard work. People respect that."

Then there's the thrill of being part of a team that's more like family, Slaughter said.

"It's a lot of excitement," he said. "You serve high-risk warrants. When you call the SWAT team out, you aren't talking about somebody petty. Usually, it's somebody big."

So far this year, the SWAT team has had 24 missions, Thompson said. In 2007, the group had 80 missions, up from 52 in 2006, he said.

"The majority of the missions are serving high-risk drug warrants or arrest warrants from anything ranging from robberies and burglaries to wanted felons and jail escapes," Thompson said.

Tonight's drill was Slaughter's first SWAT training. Earlier in February, he completed police academy training. He hopes to join the SWAT team after passing a physical and agility test, obtaining a recommendation from his supervisor or a SWAT team member and serving a minimum of two years with the sheriff's office.

For now, he's content with the SWAT training: It will help him do a better job as he patrols countywide streets, he said. Others agreed.

"We have guys with tactical training to take care of incidents that the average police officer hasn't been exposed to," Thompson said. "That gives us a whole lot more experience on the street."

Hamacher said SWAT teams are vital parts of law enforcement.

"We're the first line of defense in foreign and domestic terrorism, whether it be a local guy who decides to make pipe bombs, or the radical person driving up and down the road looking for a target like our schools," he said.

Potential for danger

During tonight's drill, the SWAT team practiced its tactics in an older, vacant house -- a haven to those who vandalize property or drug dealers, Thompson said. Authorities busted some people on drug-related charges about four months ago, he said.

The homeowner is allowing the SWAT team to train in the house. Doing so keeps the wrong element away and offers at least one other advantage.

"These old houses are the best to train in because they have so many doors," Slaughter said. "There are points of likely opposition. You don't know what's behind those doors. You have no clue."

The downstairs level seemed empty except for a lone dresser someone could hide behind.

"After they clear it, it's no longer a threat," Slaughter said. "They have to clear it before they move on in the house."

There's at least one other threat: During a recent real SWAT mission, some people tried to flee.

"They ran out the back door," Killian said. "Our people caught them at the back door as they ran out."

Any mission has the potential to turn deadly. Thompson recalled an incident in Columbia, where a suspect shot a man with an AK-47 before hiding in a Chester County hotel.

"Some of his friends brought him to a hotel in the Richburg area," Thompson recalled. "We had to secure the hotel and the restaurant across the street. That makes for a hostile situation."

In that case, authorities also worried about motorists who traveled along S.C. 9 and Interstate 77, Thompson said.

"After a few hours, the guy left his room, and he was walking in the parking lot with the bullet casings that he shot the guy with," Thompson said. "With that high-power rifle, if he ever found out we were there and started shooting, it would have put a lot of people in danger."

The SWAT team has seized AK-47s, sawed-off shotguns and other assault weapons -- guns used by some drug dealers to protect their assets, Thompson said.

"That's why it's crucial to have specialized training and guys who can go in and apprehend the suspect without people getting hurt," Thompson said.

Despite the danger, Chester SWAT team members say they have no regrets about being on the team.

"It's just a job that needs to be done," Killian said. "I'm proud to be on it."

SWAT-- Special Weapons and Tactics -- is a group of men and women who are available at a moment's notice to combat high-risk criminal activity. The group also serves high-risk search warrants.

Chester County SWAT team

• Commander: Detective Scott Thompson.

• Composition: 14 men and one woman, who is the hostage and crisis negotiator.

• Prerequisite: Serve as a police officer for a minimum of two years.

• Other requirements: Potential members must pass a physical with agility drills and obtain a recommendation from a SWAT team member or supervisor.

• Funding: No money is allotted in the county budget. The team is funded through the county drug enforcement unit, part of the sheriff's office.

• Awards: None. The team does not participate in competitions.

York County SWAT team

• Commander: Capt. Glenn Williams.

• Composition: 25 men.

• Prerequisite: Serve as a police officer for a minimum of 18 months.

• Other requirements: Potential members must pass a physical and undergo a selection process.

• Funding: The team is funded in part through grants and money from the York County budget.

• Awards: None. The team does not participate in competitions.

Rock Hill SWAT team

• Commander: Capt. Charles Cabaniss.

• Composition: 17 men.

• Prerequisite: Serve as a police officer for a minimum of two years.

• Other requirements: Potential members must pass a physical with an obstacle course and go through a selection process.

• Funding: The team is funded in part through grants and money from the city budget, as well as through drug assets forfeiture.

• Awards: Won the Southeastern SWAT competition in 2002 and 2006.

SWAT-- Special Weapons and Tactics -- is a group of men and women who are available at a moment's notice to combat high-risk criminal activity. The group also serves high-risk search warrants.

Chester County SWAT team

• Commander: Detective Scott Thompson.

• Composition: 14 men and one woman, who is the hostage and crisis negotiator.

• Prerequisite: Serve as a police officer for a minimum of two years.

• Other requirements: Potential members must pass a physical with agility drills and obtain a recommendation from a SWAT team member or supervisor.

• Funding: No money is allotted in the county budget. The team is funded through the county drug enforcement unit, part of the sheriff's office.

• Awards: None. The team does not participate in competitions.

York County SWAT team

• Commander: Capt. Glenn Williams.

• Composition: 25 men.

• Prerequisite: Serve as a police officer for a minimum of 18 months.

• Other requirements: Potential members must pass a physical and undergo a selection process.

• Funding: The team is funded in part through grants and money from the York County budget.

• Awards: None. The team does not participate in competitions.

Rock Hill SWAT team

• Commander: Capt. Charles Cabaniss.

• Composition: 17 men.

• Prerequisite: Serve as a police officer for a minimum of two years.

• Other requirements: Potential members must pass a physical with an obstacle course and go through a selection process.

• Funding: The team is funded in part through grants and money from the city budget, as well as through drug assets forfeiture.

• Awards: Won the Southeastern SWAT competition in 2002 and 2006.

SWAT-- Special Weapons and Tactics -- is a group of men and women who are available at a moment's notice to combat high-risk criminal activity. The group also serves high-risk search warrants.

Chester County SWAT team

• Commander: Detective Scott Thompson.

• Composition: 14 men and one woman, who is the hostage and crisis negotiator.

• Prerequisite: Serve as a police officer for a minimum of two years.

• Other requirements: Potential members must pass a physical with agility drills and obtain a recommendation from a SWAT team member or supervisor.

• Funding: No money is allotted in the county budget. The team is funded through the county drug enforcement unit, part of the sheriff's office.

• Awards: None. The team does not participate in competitions.

York County SWAT team

• Commander: Capt. Glenn Williams.

• Composition: 25 men.

• Prerequisite: Serve as a police officer for a minimum of 18 months.

• Other requirements: Potential members must pass a physical and undergo a selection process.

• Funding: The team is funded in part through grants and money from the York County budget.

• Awards: None. The team does not participate in competitions.

Rock Hill SWAT team

• Commander: Capt. Charles Cabaniss.

• Composition: 17 men.

• Prerequisite: Serve as a police officer for a minimum of two years.

• Other requirements: Potential members must pass a physical with an obstacle course and go through a selection process.

• Funding: The team is funded in part through grants and money from the city budget, as well as through drug assets forfeiture.

• Awards: Won the Southeastern SWAT competition in 2002 and 2006.

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