Vineyard Tactical Response Team hones emergency readiness

Edgartown Police officer Jamie Craig, leader of the Martha's Vineyard Tactical Response Team, walks through a theater at Edgartown Cinemas with fellow officers during an evaluation exercise Thursday. — Photo by Sam Moore

On a warm summer day, or when the cold northeast winds blow in the winter, Martha’s Vineyard may seem far removed from the types of public safety threats, including terrorism, rattling communities across the United States. Despite the Vineyard’s geographical isolation, a team of Island police officers maintain a level of preparedness that rises above the day-to-day challenges of local policing so they will be ready to respond to any eventuality.

The Martha’s Vineyard Tactical Response Team (TRT) is similar in style to the more commonly known SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams seen in larger community police forces. The TRT is made up of 12 police officers from all Island towns but Tisbury, which currently does not have an officer on the roster. Team members participate in 8 to 16 hours of additional unpaid training a month.

On Thursday, team members walked through Edgartown Cinemas on Main Street in Edgartown as part of an ongoing and regularly scheduled training and evaluation session. Officer Jamie Craig of Edgartown, who recently took over leadership of the team from Oak Bluffs Lieut. Tim Williamson, said that while the TRT is paramilitary in nature, the primary objective is to defuse dangerous situations and avoid violence.

“We negotiate people out of most everything,” Officer Craig said, as he stood inside Entertainment Cinemas, supervising the exercise.

The end goal of Thursday’s training was to create a guide for responding to any emergencies in the building, which will be kept on file in the cinema and at the Edgartown police department. The exercise was not out of the ordinary, and was unrelated to recent news events, Officer Craig said.

The TRT works to develop and maintain emergency preparedness plans for many, if not most, gathering places on the Island, so-called “big soft targets,” and venues where activities could get out of hand.

“We’re pretty prepared around here,” Officer Craig said.

The team is always looking for new venues. Because there was no emergency plan on file for the Edgartown movie theater, Officer Craig worked with management to coordinate a time that would best suit the needs of the business and the TRT. Thursday was the only day there was no afternoon matinee.

The team gathered late in the morning and began an evaluation of the building that would last nearly four hours. Dressed partially in uniform but without vests, TRT officers meticulously examined the building and consulted with one another and with Officer Craig.

The team members physically simulated how they would walk through the building when responding to an emergency. For this exercise, Officer Craig instructed them to use “finger guns” only — placing their hands together in the shape of a gun.

In other training situations, the officers may use replica guns that shoot plastic pellets, which pack a punch. Officer Craig said the simulation ammo heightens caution during training, because the potential for pain is still very real.

In some training scenarios, an officer may be shot and require medical attention from team members. The idea is to treat training as seriously as a real incident, Officer Craig said, so that team members know how to handle the stress of a real situation and learn how to navigate its physiological effects.

Officer Craig said the team relies heavily on peer pressure to correct any underperformance. On the firing range, officers are expected to be 90 percent accurate.

Negotiation focused

TRT members are trained in negotiating. Within the group there is a specialized three-person crisis negotiations team that can be called upon to help navigate a surrender, for example when a gunman in a building decides to give up.

Officer Craig said that in some situations just the presence of the team, in their specialized gear and

appearance, can help to diffuse a situation. In addition, the TRT is equipped with an arsenal of weapons, both lethal and nonlethal, that the average patrolman does not carry, giving TRT officers more options when responding to violent or potentially violent situations. Officer Craig said that having a wider variety of options lessens the risk of a lethal clash.

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. Officer Craig said that they intend to recruit new members next month.

Perform as needed

Typically, the TRT is called upon to respond and answers to the officer on scene and in charge. “We serve at the bidding of an incident commander,” Officer Craig said. Though they may sometimes prepare for special events, Officer Craig said that event detail is not their job.

The last time the TRT was mobilized was in September, when a 27-year-old California man was accused of raping a 30-year-old woman in Katama. The assailant had previously posted on Facebook that he would kill police officers by “blowing their brains out.” The TRT went to the house and assisted in his arrest.

The TRT has also assisted in regional emergencies, such as the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. Officer Craig said the team piled into their own cars and drove up to the city to assist Boston Police.

Until the establishment of the TRT, Officer Craig said, there was a general mindset that the Massachusetts State Police would respond to any major emergency on the Island. However, the state police barracks is staffed with only four year-round troopers, and specialized teams are hours away.

The TRT was formed in 2009 under the auspices of the Martha’s Vineyard Law Enforcement Council (MVLEC). All of the Island towns held fund the team’s training and equipment costs at annual town meeting, and can call upon the TRT when needed.

Officer Craig said that proper preparation “makes a world of difference.”

“The idea is to plan for as many things as possible and then have a contingency,” he said.