Summit County police departments work to establish emergency response team
Local law enforcement agencies are working to start a Municipal Emergency Response Team to respond to critical incidents within the county, which will serve as something of a replacement for the Summit County Combined SWAT team that was dissolved earlier this year.
The SWAT team had been operating since 1999 as part of an intergovernmental agreement between the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments in Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne. In general, the group was specially trained to handle some of the most dangerous situations that could potentially pop up, including barricaded armed individuals, hostage situations, the execution of high-risk warrants, terrorists threats and more.
In April of this year, the Sheriff’s Office chose to withdraw from the agreement. Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said he’d been planning the move for some time but was forced to put it off due to the pandemic. He said he felt the SWAT team historically had difficulty maintaining adequate staffing. Instead of having to mobilize officers from five jurisdictions — some living outside of the county — FitzSimons said his office could provide just as good of a response, if not better, by dedicating the time and money that went into training SWAT team members to his own deputies.
“I’ve got patrol deputies that are able to respond from their houses with their equipment in their cars that can be called anytime day or night and respond in force if we had some critical incident,” FitzSimons said. “So my philosophy is if I can train everybody to a basic tactical response that we would be able to resolve most incidents ourselves, and incidents that we wouldn’t be able to resolve anyways we’d be able to hold and call in a team from a surrounding sheriff’s office.”
In the event of a critical situation, local police currently would stabilize the scene and wait for help from more robust and better-equipped teams out of Jefferson or Eagle counties, unless the situation required them to act more quickly.
FitzSimons said the county’s combined SWAT team was not dispatched in 2020 and responded to 10 calls between 2017 and 2019. He said his office currently has 32 deputies, who have all been trained in “small team tactics” and who carry their tactical equipment in their patrol vehicles at all times.
“It’s an immense amount of training and time and equipment and money that you’re putting into (the SWAT) team — for what benefit?” FitzSimons said. “Now if I take that money, time and training and I spread it out over all of my staff, it’s a better bang for the public’s buck. For Summit County, it’s a safer, more direct response.”
The Breckenridge Police Department is taking a similar approach. Chief Jim Baird said that when he took over the department in 2018, the SWAT team existed largely “on paper only,” noting attendance issues, inconsistent training and regular turnover among members.
Once the Sheriff’s Office decided to withdraw from the program — and with other SWAT members planning to leave from his own department — Baird said he didn’t believe the team still made sense.
“A tactical team is something that you really have to make sure you’re doing it right because if you deploy a group that’s not properly equipped, not properly trained, they could actually make a situation worse,” Baird said. “So I had to reevaluate whether or not I was comfortable with the makeup of the group, the size of the group and if I thought it could continue to go forward. In my estimation, it wasn’t going to be successful.”
Baird shared a similar sentiment as FitzSimons, saying that instead of providing highly specialized training for a few individuals, it made more sense to give some advanced training to all of the department’s officers. He noted that in any event where officers would be compelled to act immediately — such as an active shooter — they wouldn’t have time to wait for a SWAT team to be deployed anyway, so patrol officers should be better prepared to act.
Baird said his officers would undergo the same training as the Sheriff’s Office deputies later this month.
But several jurisdictions in the county do feel that it’s a necessity to have a specialized team ready to respond to any critical incidents, especially in an isolated area like Summit County, where a winter storm could prevent an out-of-county SWAT team from arriving in a timely manner.
In comes the Municipal Emergency Response Team, which will be composed of officers from the towns of Blue River, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne, though the police departments say they’d welcome members from the Sheriff’s Office and Breckenridge police should they decide to join in the future.
“The bottom line is obviously communities from time to time have a need for these services,” Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor said. “We’ve been surrounded over the years by incidents that have occurred, so we felt it was necessary to have some sort of tactical response in our community where we can share resources, and this seemed like the right thing to do for our community. So we’re going to explore it and see where we go.”
Despite few deployments of the former SWAT team historically, Minor said he felt like a critical incident in the county was a matter of when, not if. He said the county’s law enforcement had an obligation to try to put a specialized team together, pointing to tragedies like the 2004 Granby bulldozer rampage, the 2006 Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis in Park County and the Boulder King Soopers shooting earlier this year.
The process is still in the early stages. Frisco Police Chief Tom Wickman said Frisco has already drafted a new intergovernmental agreement for the team, which is being reviewed by town attorneys in Blue River, Dillon and Silverthorne. Once the new agreement is in place — likely by early next year — officials in each jurisdiction will agree on its structure, put a commander in place, recruit members and start training.
The team will likely be composed of 15 to 20 members. Both Wickman and Minor said they were hoping to have five officers involved initially, Dillon Police Chief Cale Osborn said he was planning on having four, and Blue River Police Chief Ahmet Susic said his department is hoping to contribute another officer or two.
The timeline on when the team would be operational is still unclear, but the consensus among members seems to be somewhere between six months and a year.
“It’s a pretty daunting task of getting any type of unit like that together, just because there are so many moving parts to it,” Osborn said. “You’re talking about policies and bringing together four different agencies. … I think six (months) in a perfect world and 12 pretty realistically.”
Wickman said the most crucial aspect of the team is allowing the officers to regularly train together so they’re on the same page when a critical incident emerges.
“The key component to a municipal response team is that they need to train together over and over to get the repetitions in to know what they’re going to do with one another in a given situation that is stressful,” Wickman said. “We cover each other a lot in the county, and you’re not really sure what the other person is going to do. … This team provides a forum so that the repetition is there, and they’ll know how to work with one another.”
The police chiefs taking part in the program likened it to a tool in the toolbox you rarely use but one you hope you have when it’s needed.
“It’s critical we have this team,” Wickman said. “We have a backup team with Avon and a backup team with Jeffco, but can you imagine if something of a serious nature goes down and both passes are closed in the wintertime? We’ve got to be responsible. … I’m not doubting the officers’ abilities to handle this type of thing, but it certainly would be nice to have a team that’s trained together, is well prepared and has all the necessary equipment. … We’re dedicated to making this team work, and we will make it work.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.
Now more than ever, your financial support is critical to help us keep our communities informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having on our residents and businesses. Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.
Your donation will be used exclusively to support quality, local journalism.