Driving along Route 1 on his way to the liquor store, the man realized he’d missed the turn into the parking lot.
So, already heavily intoxicated, he did what seemed logical: he stopped in the middle of the road and threw his car into reverse, heading back to the store, located not far from the Conowingo Dam in northern Harford County.
As other drivers frantically swerved around him, the driver turned into the liquor store and provided the punchline to the story, hitting the clutch instead of the brake and plowing into part of the building. When Harford County Sheriff’s Deputies arrived, the man already had a bottle of vodka on the counter.
Even more incredibly, according to DFC Nick McGowan of the agency’s traffic unit, the man was still upright despite blowing a 0.40 on the breathalyzer, an astounding five times the legal limit and plenty high enough to kill the average human being.
Most cases are nowhere near as extreme, but it’s the job of the Sheriff’s Office Traffic Unit to monitor county roads and write citations, work DUI checkpoints, and use radar and other technologies to catch speeders. The unit also handles traffic control for events such as parades, funeral details, and conducts crash investigations.
Last year, the Sheriff’s Office issued 37,369 citations, which include tickets, warnings and repair orders. Among them were 375 DUIs, and 1,503 radar details, including 173 requests from members of the community—any citizen can ask that the Sheriff’s Office run a radar detail if they notice speeding in their area.
The traffic unit also investigated 1,991 traffic crashes, including three fatal crashes—though several more fatalities were investigated by the Maryland State Police and are not included in those statistics, McGowan said.
Citizen’s Academy members had a chance to try their hand at using radar and LIDAR guns during the class, standing outside the Sheriff’s Office southern precinct on Route 40 Tuesday evening. The readings weren’t used to pull anyone over, and even getting a clear reading wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Deputies receive dozens of hours of training in the use of radar, LIDAR, and the unit’s other tools, including laser mapping systems for crash investigations, and tint meters to determine whether a vehicle’s window tint complies with the law.
The author, right, using a radar gun on Route 40 Tuesday evening. (Photo by Mark Elloff)
–Being a member of the Sheriff’s Office Special Response Team isn’t just about brawn, according to Cpl. Bryan Oleszczuk—it’s mostly about brain.
“SWAT is all about here,” Oleszczuk said, pointing to his forehead. “It’s 90 percent up here. I can give any muscle-bound idiot from any gym a gun and tell him to go clear a house, but I guarantee he can come in here and I can shoot him dead. It’s about knowing how to play the game, bring the situation to an end, and save lives.”
Those last two goals are the mission of the SRT team—once upon a less politically correct time known as the SWAT team. Oleszczuk, team leader for the squad, described the group as “911 for deputies”—SRT serves high-risk warrants and is called out in barricade or hostage situations.
The highly-trained unit currently comprises 17 individuals, including a medic and, rare among such teams, a physician—a medical doctor who is also trained as an SRT operator.
Nationally, special weapons and tactics teams have their roots in the mid- to late-1960s, when officers wielding six-shot revolvers and the occasional rifle began to be overwhelmed by the firepower available to criminals. The Harford County Sheriff’s Office team was established in 1968 as the “tactical section,” Oleszcsuk said, and reorganized into a 20 member squad called the SWAT team in 1975.
For the first 15 years of its existence, the team suffered the same problems found among SWAT teams nationwide. There was little formal training available and no “industry standard,” Oleszczuk said, and the equipment available was often makeshift or military surplus. Worse, he said there was a “lack of administrative understanding” about the role and uses of a SWAT team.
Those trends began to change in the mid- to late-1980s, as Oleszczuk said operators began sharing best practices, better training became available, and police-oriented equipment hit the market. Following the shooting of a suspect in an incident in the late 1980s on Spesutia Road, the Sheriff’s Office squad’s name was changed to the less aggressive “SRT.”
SRT members undergo months of training in more than three dozen training areas, Oleszczuk said. The team is part-time, meaning their weekly training and monthly qualifications for snipers come in additional to their regular duties with other Sheriff’s Office units. Even then, it takes years of experience for a member to become a trusted expert, he said, and all SRT operators are on call 24-7.
The Sheriff’s Office SRT responds to about 50 incidents each year, according to Oleszczuk. Approximately 85 percent are high-risk warrant services, 10 percent are barricade situations, and five percent are other incidents requiring a tactical response.
To handle these calls, SRT members have at their disposal an array of weaponry, from submachine guns to gas launchers to “pepper ball guns” (don’t call them paintball guns), devices which fire a paintball-sized pellet of pepper gas. Deputies can also use remote-control robot and other electronic devices to provide reconnaissance of an area without putting officers at risk.
In addition to a marked utility vehicle to carry supplies and an unmarked van to transport SRT members, the squad also has access to the TRV or Tactical Rescue Vehicle. The angry-looking, 10-ton armored truck was acquired by the Sheriff’s Office through a federal grant in 2005, replacing an ancient Air Force surplus Dodge truck from 1978, according to DFC Brad Crossley, an SRT assistant team leader.
Though he’s intentionally vague on the vehicle’s capabilities to protect the deputies who use it, Crossley said the vehicle can transport 10 to 12 SRT members in full kit, has a turret, spotlights and even an attachable battering ram, and despite its size, “rides like a Cadillac.”
Despite the new tools and training available, Oleszczuk said the agency has seen interest in joining SRT wane among newer deputies, due to the commitment required outside of their regular duties.
But, if those same deputies find themselves in over their heads one day, Oleszczuk’s team will be the ones who get the call.
“When cops call 911, we’re it,” he said. “The buck stops here.”
NEXT WEEK: A tour of the Sheriff’s Office firing range in northern Harford County, a demonstration of the K-9 unit, and a presentation by the dive team.