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Police, sheriff eye regional special response team

The Greenfield START team is seen in this photo from 2005.
Recorder file photo

The Greenfield START team is seen in this photo from 2005. Recorder file photo Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — Police special response teams, known colloquially as SWAT teams, have recently been decried by the American Civil Liberties Union for overuse and “military” tactics — but local police departments have no such teams of their own.

Greenfield’s Special Response Team was quietly disbanded in December and a regional replacement for a specialized weapons and tactics squad is in the works.

“I put a hold on the team in December because I wanted to look at what we have, where we’re at and revamp the whole system,” said Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr.

The Greenfield SRT team was formed in 1994 and has been used on drug raids, weapons-related search warrants, hostage situations and other operations.

While a state police Special Tactical Operations Team can be called in to assist local police when needed, Haigh said the option is used sparingly and saved for high-risk situations.

Haigh is working with Sheriff Christopher Donelan to put together a regional special response team. The Sheriff’s Office maintains its own Tactical Response Team, which can be used for incidents both inside the jail and out in the county.

“We found that both teams were having a great deal of difficulty maintaining the appropriate training schedule because of overtime costs, and both had sorely outdated equipment,” Donelan said.

Donelan said his team’s equipment showed its age in 2011 when a riot broke out in the jail and the Tactical Response Team used tear gas to subdue participants. “A lot of the guys were coming back in from the (cell block), gagging because their gas masks had leaked,” he said.

Donelan said Haigh is the only Franklin County chief currently signed up to work on the new team, though others might join later.

A collaborative team, he said, could cut equipment and training costs to all departments involved.

“We’ve found that if we take a regional approach, there are funds available for equipment and training,” Donelan said. “The goal would be to serve all of Franklin County and work cooperatively with other departments.”

The Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council has committed approximately $86,000 for equipment and $30,000 for training, said Donelan. He expects the funds to be disbursed by late winter or early spring.

Donelan said the money will go a long way toward replacing equipment such as expired ballistics vests and helmets, gas masks, radios and other gear.

The sheriff said a similar team is in use in Berkshire County, and he will use that regional team as a model in planning the Franklin County counterpart. The teams would also train together, he said, cutting costs and fostering collaboration.

“One of the goals of the grant is to have teams situated throughout the state that have knowledge of each other’s workings and train together. They would also be able to respond to all parts of the state if needed.”

Montague Police Chief Charles “Chip” Dodge said a multi-department team would allow access to more resources at less cost to each department.

“Because of a lack of funding and equipment, our special response team was disbanded years ago,” Dodge said. “When I became chief (in November 2012), one of the first things I wanted to do was reinstate our SRT, because it’s helpful to have a dedicated, committed team for very serious situations.”

When he began to crunch the numbers, though, Dodge realized such a team was prohibitively expensive. He said he will consider joining the effort to form a regional team once more research has been done. Until then, he will continue to rely on state police for tactical assistance.

Dodge said the state police STOP Team can respond at short notice.

“A lot of the STOP Team members live right in the county,” Dodge said. Team troopers take their gear home with them, so they’re able to go straight to the scene without stopping at the barracks to suit up.

Tactics criticized

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized SWAT teams nationwide for their use of assault rifles, battering rams and military special forces tactics.

The ACLU analyzed more than 800 SWAT raids conducted by law enforcement agencies in 20 states, including Massachusetts, and the agencies’ acquisition of military weaponry, vehicles and equipment.

“We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel with the national ACLU’s Center for Justice. “This unnecessary violence causes property damage, injury and death.”

The ACLU recommended that state legislatures and municipalities develop criteria for raids that limit the deployment of militarized police teams.

But local chiefs said the STOP team is used sparingly, and only when the situation warrants.

The STOP team is called in for high-risk operations like hostage situations or certain drug raids where police believe armed suspects may be present, according to Dodge.

He said he last called in the STOP team in November after a Turnpike Road man allegedly threatened to shoot his roommate. Dodge said the team arrived within minutes, faster than the he thought possible.

It ended without incident, as the suspect surrendered once the STOP team was able to contact him.

Those incidents don’t always end so peacefully, though.

On July 3, 2013, the STOP Team was called in to assist the Northwestern District Anti-Crime Task Force with a drug raid at 18 Mechanic St. in Orange.

Suspected drug dealer Corey Navarette, 23, was shot dead by a trooper when the suspect pointed an assault rifle at him, according to a report from the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office. A subsequent investigation report deemed the shooting justified.

You can reach David Rainville at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 279 On Twitter follow: @RecorderRain

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