Tactical response? Island force now ready to react

Steve Myrick

A Miami convenience store robber and his criminal friends carjack a vehicle, flee to Martha’s Vineyard, break into an empty Katama summer home, and begin shooting up the neighborhood.

An armed Boston bank robber hiding out on Martha’s Vineyard barricades himself in an apartment in Tisbury’s Main Street shopping district.

Local police departments get an alert to watch for a violent drug dealer with a record of assaulting police officers, and a promise that he will “never be taken alive,” who is bound for Martha’s Vineyard.

These are scenarios, you might imagine, that could require hostage negotiation skills, specialized equipment, and a coordinated response – all beyond the usual training of patrol officers.

Except that these are not imagined scenarios. Each of these incidents happened recently on Martha’s Vineyard, and had any of them turned just a bit more in a dangerous direction, they might have ended in tragedy for the suspect, for the responding police officers, or others who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“You never want to confuse good luck with good tactics,” said Edgartown police officer James Craig, who announced this week that after two years of planning, recruiting, testing, and intensive training, Martha’s Vineyard has a new tactical response team, ready to react if incidents like those above take a turn for the worst. Mr. Craig, a United States Navy veteran with experience in tactical operations and command, leads the new unit.

Policing perception

In a news conference on Monday, Mr. Craig, along with Martha’s Vineyard police chiefs, was eager to diffuse any concerns about tactical response team operations. “There is the perception that the cowboys show up with guns, and things get worse,” said Mr. Craig. He pointed to a number of studies he said refute that perception.

According to Mr. Craig, a study conducted by the National Tactical Officers Association and the National Institute of Justice show that when tactical units are deployed, 96 percent of incidents are resolved without a shot being fired. Another study conducted by Dennis Stevens, a former University of Massachusetts researcher widely recognized for his work on criminal justice issues, concluded of the incidents he studied, 71 percent of those handled by tactical units were resolved without the use of deadly force. Incidents handled without a tactical unit were resolved without deadly force 44 percent of the time. The same study concluded that police officers were injured in two percent of the incidents handled by tactical units, while 13 percent of those handled without tactical units involved police officers getting hurt.

“Patrol officers run out of tools sooner,” said Mr. Craig. “Tactical officers show up with a professionally trained negotiator, efficient containment, teargas, less lethal options – all kinds of tools they can use to try and handle the situation without deadly force. It’s safer for everybody.”

Tough training

The tactical response unit includes 12 officers from Martha’s Vineyard’s six police departments and the sheriff’s department. They were chosen after a rigorous selection process that included physical strength and endurance testing, as well as weapons proficiency testing, and peer evaluation.

“There’s no friction, there’s no animosity,” said Officer Craig. “There’s no room on my team for politics. There’s no way I’m going through a door with a guy that has an attitude.”

Among those chosen were Captain David Murphy of the sheriff’s department, and Officer Chris Oteri of the Oak Bluffs police department.

“It’s something I saw myself doing,” said Officer Oteri. “Something I wanted to be a part of, to give back to the community.”

“I have a military background,” said Captain Murphy. “I just wanted to be able to assist my brothers and sisters in law enforcement, with any problem that might arise, that a regular patrol officer wasn’t trained to handle.”

The team went through an intensive one-week course on Martha’s Vineyard this past summer, conducted by two training officers from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit. They continue training 8 to 16 hours per month. The officers are not paid directly for their extra time in training, but receive time off later or conduct training as part of their regular work week.

“Everyone on the team has taken time off instead of money,” said Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake, who added that forming the tactical response unit would have been impossible otherwise. “We have to thank all the officers who are doing this. They saw a need, and are helping out with the financial aspect.”

The team was originally funded with approximately $30,000 in funding voted by Island towns at 2007 town meetings. The team has won more than $30,000 in grants from various sources, and has received donations of equipment from other sources.

“We’ve done this in a very frugal and careful way,” said West Tisbury Police Chief Beth Toomey, who congratulated Officer Craig for organizing the effort. “It’s amazing what you’ve done with very short money,” she said.

When and how

Officer Craig stressed that the tactical response team will not take over from the incident commander on the scene of a critical incident.

“We just show up as a tool in the toolbox,” said Officer Craig. “We simply say we’re here, what do you need from us, how can we help you.”

Incidents that would require a response from the new unit include a barricaded suspect, a hostage situation, or a sniper. The unit could also get involved in serving high-risk searches, where a warrant has been issued and the suspect is believed to be violent or likely to use weapons.

Officer Craig said it would be a mistake to think that a tactical response unit is not needed on Martha’s Vineyard.

“Any officer can tell a story about a situation that just… just worked out,” said Officer Craig. “It can happen anywhere. Just the fact that it takes a boat ride to get here doesn’t insulate us in any way.”

When those Miami carjackers barricaded themselves in a Katama home, it was Officer Craig who responded to a report of gunshots in the area. After a thorough check of the area, he could find no suspicious activity, but to this day he wonders what might have happened if he had knocked on the wrong door. Instead, as soon as he left the scene, the suspects fled back to Miami, where police spotted the stolen car. After a high-speed chase, they were finally apprehended – by the Miami SWAT team.