A flash of light, then smoke fills the entrance to the practice building at the Tony Canale Training Center in Egg Harbor Township. Even with earplugs, it sounds like someone blew a hole through the door.
The distraction does its job. From the other side, the Atlantic City SWAT team members move in. A splash of color shows the “suspect” is hit while two team members grab the “hostage,” each hooking an arm as she’s led out backward.
“You’re OK, we’re the police,” they repeat over and over again until everyone is outside.
The helmets come off, earplugs out. The training scenario is over.
* * *
SWAT’s image is a strong one: The first in, often battering down a door, shield up, guns ready.
But the job of the Special Weapons and Tactics team is not about force, explains Lt. James Sarkos, who helps lead Atlantic County's only municipal team.
“It's about saving lives,” he said during monthly training. “That's our mission. Period.”
Atlantic City’s team answers about 90 calls a year, from serving warrants to backing up operations to potential barricaded gunmen or hostage situations. The number increased after Sept. 11, 2001, as the team is also called to high-profile events with large crowds.
“You need a group of guys that are specially trained just to handle those situations,” said Dennis Munoz, who was on the team from 1980 until retiring in 2009. “Everything about SWAT is tactical. They train to deal with situations that develop right in front of you and then handle it.”
While there are county SWAT teams, Atlantic City is unique in that it is the only municipality in Atlantic or Cape May counties to have its own SWAT team, which proves an asset in situations like Tuesday’s predawn raid that took down several members of an allegedly dangerous city gang.
The Atlantic City Task Force uses law enforcement from state, county and local levels, but chose Atlantic City’s SWAT team as its backup for Operation Blok Buster that targeted the 800 Blok gang.
“While all SWAT teams are well-trained professionals, the Atlantic City team is infinitely familiar not just with the geography of the city, but with the people and the parties involved,” said Deputy Attorney General Jim Ruberton, of the Atlantic City Task Force. “When (the team goes) into a dangerous situation, we want people protecting them that don’t just know the maneuvers and tactics, but know the players and the dangers.”
The officers are split among the department’s three, eight-hour work shifts in a variety assignments, and always have their basic gear with them, including long rifle and helmet.
"This results in the added capability of having SWAT-trained personnel and equipment on the scene of rapidly escalating critical incidents that may unfold in Atlantic City within minutes," Sarkos said.
That wasn’t the case back in 1974, when the team began, says retired Sgt. Bill Hurley, who was a member of the team in its early years. Leaders didn’t want semiautomatic weapons on the street, so those had to come out only when the team was called, he said.
“We didn't even have uniforms,” Hurley recalled. “If you wanted uniforms, you went out and bought them on your own.”
So, team members would show up in sweatshirts, jeans, sneakers, boots, “whatever they had on.”
Now, it takes about $8,250 to outfit each SWAT member, including an encrypted radio, tactical ballistic vest and uniform, estimated Deputy Chief Bill Mazur, a SWAT member for 15 years.
The police budget does not break out the exact amount spent on each unit, but the majority of SWAT’s equipment was purchased through grant money, Mazur said, including $310,000 for the BearCat armored rescue vehicle and $75,000 to purchase 30 ballistic vests.
“You can’t expect police officers to perform such a high-risk task and not be equipped appropriately,” he said. “This is the cost of doing business in our post-9/11 society. It’s paramount that you provide the correct equipment to get the job done.”
* * *
In the early 1980s, SWAT was utilized on a near-daily basis.
One of those days around 1982, a gunman had hostages inside a home on the unit block of South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Munoz recalled.
An officer was trapped on the street, lying on the ground as the suspect fired out the window.
A police car drove up on the sidewalk to get him out.
Meanwhile, Munoz and Robert Flipping were on the second floor of an adjoining building waiting to throw a tear gas canister into the suspect across the way when there was a blast and their window shattered.
“He was shooting at us,” Munoz said. “We came down just in the nick of time.”
* * *
While the old SWAT team got more practice, this one is more highly trained, Munoz said.
That includes monthly refreshers at the Canale Center, where simunitions — nonlethal training ammunition — that is loaded into guns that cannot take real bullets as a safety precaution. In-house and outside training also includes courses in things such as counterterrorism, officer-survival, ballistic shields, and medical preparedness and response to bombing incidents. Water rescue is also part of it, even though Atlantic City no longer has a dive team. Because the team members keep in good shape — and many are former lifeguards — it’s a natural fit, Sarkos said.
Many also are firearms instructors, since they already are required to be accurate shooters. Four members are snipers who work in pairs, with one acting as a spotter. That team is handpicked and must have been on SWAT at least five years, said Sgt. Rob Dodson, the unit’s leader.
There are currently 29 SWAT members led by Capt. Glenn Abrams. The nine added in the past year are nearly double the whole first-year team, when there were five officers, including the commander, Hurley said.
Candidates must first be on the department at least three years and pass physical tests, including a one-mile run in full gear, which weighs about 50 to 60 pounds.
One of those members is James Hurley, Bill's son, who has followed his father's footsteps from the Marines to the city Police Department and now to the SWAT team. But the younger Hurley works on a whole different team when it comes to equipment.
A Tactical Mobile Command Post used to be the Bomb Squad’s truck until that unit got a new one courtesy of money made available for Homeland Security. The mobile post is fully packed with things such as air hoses and a computer.
They can even bring up floor plans for many buildings in the city -- including casinos and schools -- that show up on a big screen: a seizure made in a drug arrest.
And the team has some high-ranking support in the city: Public Safety Director Will Glass is a former commander.
“It was a rewarding time,” he says.
* * *
Shield up, guns drawn, the Atlantic City SWAT members move together in one group, a barking dog leading their way.
The “suspect” — played by Sarkos — isn’t giving up. K-9 Grip continues barking, lurching forward as the team closes in. Sarkos backs up slightly as they descend on him, but he says he isn’t backing down.
Then, Grip gets the go-ahead and bites down on Sarkos’ arm — covered in a protective sleeve. After the “bad guy” is down on the ground, Grip is told to release. The suspect is in custody.
* * *
“You can see how intimidating the dog is,” Sarkos says later as the teams other four-legged member, Clancy, goes into full bark mode. That itself took training. Clancy became an Atlantic City K-9 after training as a Navy SEAL for a special operations mission that didn’t come to fruition. Quiet dogs are a necessity there. But here, where a loud dog can scare a suspect into surrender without a bite, barking is part of the arsenal.
“We had to train him all over again,” partner John Devlin says.
Like the team members, a dog and his handler have to be intuned. Adams demonstrates this as he walks with Grip — the veteran’s third K-9 partner — the dog nearly attached to his leg. Then, as Adams raises his arms to point his gun, the dog gets down, ready. Step, step, stop. No verbal command, only what has become instinct.
In the early years, there were no dogs. Hurley, a K-9 officer when the team formed in 1974, wasn’t allowed on the team because he already had a specialized skill. Now, the dogs are a welcome asset.
SWAT is part of the city's Emergency Response Team, which also includes the Crisis Negotiations Team, Mobile Command Post and Bomb Squad.
But it's not just other parts of law enforcement that aid the team, they also train with the city's Fire Department for the times when the rope set up to make a high-air rescue has a SWAT member at the end of it, not a firefighter.
* * *
Aug. 14, 2008
Atlantic City police receive word a woman called her husband in Pennsylvania to say she was in the city, and she was going to hurt herself.
A short time later, she was found, sitting on a 12th-story ledge at Caesars Atlantic City, threatening to jump. As members of the crisis negotiating team talk with her, Sarkos and Officer Joe Corson drop down on harnesses. Before she even realizes they are there, she's plucked from the ledge.
“Joe was the one who grabbed her,” Sarkos says. “I grabbed Joe.”
* * *
The team members need to know one another’s moves, Sarkos explained. Focusing on what he needs to do, the member must trust that the guy next to him is covering his area.
“That’s what makes the SWAT team effective, having that cohesion,” Sarkos said. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That’s why we have to train together.”
They also train with other teams as well, all part of the city’s emergency response.
“We support them,” said Lt. Jerry Barnhart, head of Bomb Squad. “The whole country’s going toward a Bomb Squad and SWAT situation.”
As people watched in horror as two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, it was something emergency responders knew could happen.
“We’ve been training for these types of things, knowing potentially they’re coming down the road,” Barnhart said.
Working with the Bomb Squad also gives Atlantic City’s SWAT team something other teams don’t have: robots.
The Bomb Squad has access to six robots, which can be used to clear an area
* * *
Seven hours into the negotiations outside the Showboat Casino Hotel that stretched into the early morning hours of Nov. 14, 2007, SWAT came in and took the suspect into custody without incident.
Hostages had been released. The area cleared for threatened bombs.
That was after hours of discussions with a crisis negotiator, who spoke to suspect David Bracken Kilkeary through a phone brought to the man holed up in a shuttle bus by a Bomb Squad robot.
"I was convinced bad things were going to happen on this one," said Capt. Tim Friel, who heads the negotiators.
* * *
If SWAT does decide to go in, they won't mention it to the negotiator, Friel said. Although the team does rely on negotiators for gathering intelligence and assessing a situation.
"What are the percentages this person is going to do something? How do we feel about it?" Friel said. "They do rely upon our input."
But the also won't give warning if they decide to go in.
"They might tell me so I can guide my negotiator in a different way," he said. "But you can never relate that (SWAT coming in) to the negotiators."
It could consciously or subconsciously affect their voice or change their tactics, he explained:
"Psychologically, they can't know that all of a sudden they might hear a flash bang on the other end of the phone.
For negotiators, SWAT is often "the last resort when negotiations are breaking down or not successful," Friel said.
But it sometimes helps knowing they're there as backup -- or even mentioning them in certain situations.
"There are times you might slip it in there and mention, 'We don't want to have to be forced to turn this into a physical confrontation."
"We have found that individuals who in the past have been combative with the police choose not to resist the SWAT team," Sarkos said.
"It's a comforting feeling to know that if this doesn't go well -- and the potential of it going bad is always there -- that they're trained to react," Friel said. "Any incident that ends without someone hurt or a shot being fired is a success."