Martha’s Vineyard Tactical Response Team sharpens its skills

Oak Bluffs Police Officer Jeff LaBell, left, and West Tisbury Police Officer Jim Neville take aim at targets from behind cover. — Photo courtesy of Offshore Kinet

As Islanders prepared for the holidays, nine members of the Martha’s Vineyard Tactical Response Team (TRT) took part in advanced training designed to prepare the specialized team for an emergency response that all hope is never needed.

Led by Lt. Tim Williamson of the Oak Bluffs Police Department, the team participated in a six-hour advanced rifle course on December 17 hosted by Michael Blake, the founder of Offshore Kinetics, a Vineyard-based company that provides firearms and tactical training to Cape and Islands law enforcement agencies, as well as programs for licensed civilians who may want to acquire new skills.

The training took place on the Jeffers property on Chappaquiddick. The agenda included rifle manipulation, firing from various stationary and moving positions, and team drills such as positively identifying and engaging threat targets, and extracting downed officers, Mr. Blake described in an email to The Times in last week.

“Despite a heavy snowfall, TRT operators remained upbeat, receptive and professional, executing all training evolutions with speed and precision,” Mr. Blake said in his email.

The team participants took part in a 25-second qualification drill. They shot five rounds standing, five rounds kneeling, and five rounds in the prone position at a reduced-sized silhouette target with an eight-inch scoring area, at a distance of 50 meters. Edgartown Police Officer James Craig, the TRT’s executive officer, scored the highest with 100 points, which earned him an Offshore Kinetics tee-shirt and bragging rights until the next training event sometime in January, Mr. Blake said.

The TRT was formed in 2009 under the auspices of the Martha’s Vineyard Law Enforcement Council (MVLEC). The team was originally funded with approximately $30,000 in funding voted by Island towns at 2007 town meetings. The TRT subsequently won more than $30,000 in grants from various sources, and received donations of equipment from other sources. All of the Island towns continue to contribute funds to the MVLEC for the team’s training and equipment costs, and can call upon the TRT when needed.

The team currently includes 12 officers from all Island police departments except Tisbury’s, which has contributed an officer in the past and will do so in the future. The same is true of the Dukes County Sheriff’s Department. Officer Craig, a U.S. Navy veteran with experience in tactical operations and command, led the TRT at its start. Lt. Williamson is currently the team’s commander.

Officers chosen for the team undergo a rigorous selection process that includes physical strength and endurance testing, as well as weapons proficiency testing, and peer evaluation. “We try to model our standards against the national standards of the National Tactical Officers Association [NTOA],” Lt. Williamson said in a phone call with The Times. “We do eight hours of training a month. About a year ago the NTOA suggested 16 hours a month, which is something we’ll strive to do, but with budget constraints, it’s tough.”

Lt. Williamson said although the TRT officers are not paid directly for their extra time in training and get comp time, their departments still have to fill their shifts.

The TRT’s purpose is to provide Island communities with a flexible and effective response to unconventional and high-risk law enforcement incidents to increase the likelihood of a safe resolution, according to the Edgartown Police Department’s (EPD) website.

Incidents that would require a response from the team 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.

Over the last few years the team has responded to a variety of incidents, including a double shooting in West Tisbury in 2012 and several searches for weapons and drugs. Last April, members of the TRT were deployed to the Boston area twice, to help support tactical police units who responded to the bomb attack on the Boston Marathon.

Police officers from departments across the Island went to Boston on April 17 to work a 12-hour overnight shift and help relieve law enforcement teams that had been working around the clock to investigate the bombings and provide security at the Boylston Street crime scene. The Island TRT was called back two days later to help assist in the search for the at large bombing suspect in Watertown neighborhoods.

Mr. Blake, an Island native and a U.S. Army veteran, founded Offshore Kinetics. The son of Bertha and Daniel Blake, he grew up in Oak Bluffs and graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Mr. Blake spent 16 years in the Army in various combat arms duty positions in six global operational deployments that included Iraq and the Balkans. On his return to civilian life, Mr. Blake worked as a law enforcement firearms instructor in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where he trained personnel from five agencies.

In talking with personnel in other small law enforcement agencies on the Cape and Islands, Mr. Blake said he realized they had a void in their training options. That led him to the idea of returning to Martha’s Vineyard to start a new training agency, using a mobile training team concept. It involves bringing all instructors, training aids, and training support products to a client’s training location of choice, which requires little agency support and keeps the cost low. Mr. Blake said he recently launched Offshore Kinetics on Martha’s Vineyard with the help of fellow Island combat veteran and Oak Bluffs paramedic Matt Bradley.