Though most police departments have SWAT teams ready when needed, they rarely get called into action. Fullerton, for example, hadn't suited up SWAT--the Special Weapons and Tactics team--in more than a year.
So when Fullerton joined three other cities in north Orange County to form a regional SWAT team, its members knew it might be months before the new concept was tested.
It turned out to be just about a week. Then a second SWAT call came less than a month later.
Both September incidents involved several hours of talking suspects out of barricaded houses, one in which a parole violator held a knife to a hostage. No shots were fired in either case.
"Our response was flawless," said Brea Police Chief William C. Lentini. "It shows what you can do when you pool your resources and give your people the right training."
In August, the four cities--Brea, Fullerton, La Habra and Placentia--formed North County SWAT, one of a growing number of regional SWAT teams in California.
The formation of such regional teams was recommended earlier this year at public hearings by state Atty. Gen. William Lockyer's blue ribbon commission on SWAT performance. Lentini and Fullerton Police Chief Patrick McKinley both serve on the commission.
McKinley was an original member of the nation's first SWAT team, for the Los Angeles Police Department, the one on which Hollywood based the old "S.W.A.T." TV show.
Lockyer created the panel after an 11-year-old boy was fatally shot by accident last fall in a SWAT raid on a Modesto home thought to have a methamphetamine lab.
When chiefs in the four north Orange County cities decided to put a regional team together, Lentini said, they agreed not to proceed if it couldn't be done right. "We wanted to make sure our people didn't get substandard training just because we are smaller cities," Lentini said.
Fullerton had a SWAT team; the other three had tactical response teams. But North County SWAT members all headed to San Jose for a new round of training and then to Camp Pendleton in August for a week of intense tactical lessons, including high-level physical agility testing. They also got to know each other.
"Everybody got along really well," said Lt. Geoff Spalding, a SWAT leader from the Fullerton Police Department. "We really became a team, not just four police departments put together."
Fullerton brings to the team a SWAT van lined with rifles, flak jackets and other equipment for quick deployment. Placentia soon will have an armored personnel vehicle known as a "Peace Keeper." Because it can withstand bullets, the Peace Keeper can rescue injured officers from a dangerous scene or send a team into an area where there is gunfire.
Paramedics also are involved. Dr. Mark Song, a 25-year emergency room veteran from St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, has volunteered to oversee the regional team's medical response. He gets a helmet and flak jacket but serves without pay.
Specialty Personnel Also Serve on Team
Altogether, the new team has about 80 members, counting specially trained dispatchers, hostage negotiators and medical personnel.
Fullerton Police Sgt. Doug Cave designed his department's SWAT van four years ago and calls it "my baby."
"When I first came here, I knew I wanted to do two things: either motorcycles or SWAT," said Cave, who has been with Fullerton's SWAT team since it was formed 19 years ago.
SWAT gives him a chance to see police work at its most intense but also at its best, he said. While most emergencies end with good results, some are sobering experiences.
Two years ago, fellow SWAT Officer Gary Potts was shot by a man firing from a garage. (The man then was killed by SWAT gunfire.) Potts was part of a team that had broken out a garage window so SWAT could see the man inside. Potts was saved by his protective vest, but one inch higher and the gunman's bullet would have struck an unprotected spot.
Potts is still on the SWAT team. But it's something Cave says you don't forget.
"It certainly affected me," he said. "It was a real reminder how serious these situations can be."
Suspects in the two September incidents may have been surprised at the police turnout. More than 60 SWAT members were at both scenes, most armed with rifles and handguns. Some carry shotguns that fire beanbags, meant to stop suspects without killing them. Others carry sniper rifles, for deadly shots at a tight target from long distances.
But in the team's first two cases, it was the hostage negotiators who brought matters to a successful conclusion.
When the suspects walked out with their hands held high, SWAT officers said, there was both euphoria and relief that no one was hurt.
"We're all relieved," Cave said, "but mostly, we're just all tired."