Black Mountain's Special Response Team keeps police in constant state of preparedness

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News|USA TODAY NETWORKS

A door swings open in the stairwell at Black Mountain Elementary June 7, well after everyone has left for the day. A tight formation of police officers, clad in heavy olive-green armor, makes its way up the steps with weapons drawn.

The maneuver is part of a training exercise for Black Mountain’s new Special Response Team, and the scenario for which it’s preparing is unimaginable for most, but all too real, making the unit a particularly important new addition to the police department.

Black Mountain's Special Response Team participates in a training exercise inside of the elementary school on June 7. The unit allows the department to respond quickly to life-threatening emergencies in town.

On this day, in the empty halls of the local school, the 10 officers who make up the team are simulating a situation in which they must clear each room on the second floor methodically. Their goal in any scenario requiring their response is to save lives, said Black Mountain police chief Shawn Freeman.

Shortly after taking over the department in May 2017, Freeman saw the need for a team of officers trained to respond quickly to a crisis in town. By the following fall, the team started to take shape after more than half of the department volunteered to undergo the rigorous training required to qualify for the Special Response Team, or the SRT.

Officers with Black Mountain's Special Response Team perform training exercises at the department's range on June 7. Members of the team are required to hit targets with 95 percent accuracy.

“The whole point of this team is for our department to be able to respond to a dangerous situation quickly,” Freeman said from the department’s training facility as the team performed drills with live ammunition. “But even though the team is trained to respond tactically, the focus is on preserving life.”

In early June the team responded to a call of a man firing a gun in town limits. The team was dispatched to the scene and disarmed the suspect quietly and without incident, Freeman said.

“That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work,” he added.

Officer Jon McDonald, a Black Mountain native and 12-year veteran of the department, is the team’s leader. His prior training and experience, which includes time as a marksman and a stint on a similar unit, made him a natural fit for the role.

“We went through an in-depth selection process,” he said. “We put officers through exhausting physical tests, mental stress and weapons competency drills.”

A team of specially trained officers participates in a drill inside Black Mountain Elementary on June 7.

Members of the team were then selected based on the specific skills they brought to the team.

“It’s similar to football,” said the former Owen High Warhorse. “You play defensive end or quarterback based on your specific attributes. Together, the officers who make up this team have decades of experience and thousands of hours of tactical training.”

That intensive training places officers in high-stress realistic scenarios, where the repetitive drills are designed to make the motions feel like second nature.

“As many pictures as your eyes allow you to take into your brain, it helps you establish muscle memory and visual aids,” McDonald said. “The more time you can expose yourself to situations that require you to focus on those skills, hopefully, you’ll know more than the bad guy does.”

 During the course of an investigation, police detective Chris Kuhn often talks to suspects, victims and witnesses for hours. Many of the skills he relies on to perform those duties lend themselves to his role as the negotiator on the SRT.

Members of Black Mountain's Special Response Team perform drills on on the department's shooting range on June 7.

“Since this team enters into situations with the goal of saving lives, the negotiator plays an important part in that,” Kuhn said between drills at the firing range. “Honestly, I’d like it if we never had to use force. My goal is to de-escalate the situation and get everyone out of it safely.”

To help achieve that objective, Kuhn has completed training aimed  at resolving incidents peacefully. He can also assist with the tactical response if those efforts fail.

Lt. Rob Austin, a 10-year veteran of the department, described the SRT as another tool to help the agency protect the community. 

"Just like having a K-9 at the department is useful in situations, it's also helpful to have officers on a shift who are trained to assist in a wide variety of scenarios," Austin said. "It's a valuable resource."

Six members of the SRT were on shift during the floods brought about by torrential rain at the end of May. Their training helps them cope with stressful situations, Austin said, and they were able to provide additional support as the town was under a state of emergency.

"The team makes the department more versatile," Austin said. "It's another example of how it has evolved under Chief Freeman."

The fact that the tactical equipment necessary to outfit the team was funded at no cost to the town should not be overlooked either, Austin pointed out.

"There was no taxpayer money used to do this," he said. "Every dime has come from seizure or forfeiture money and donations from private citizens in the community."

That support of the people who live in the town has been essential to many of the changes in the department, Freeman said. 

"The people here love this town and want to keep it safe," he said. "They support us in doing just that, and that motivates us to do everything we can."

Having officers on every shift who have undergone extensive training to prepare them for the worst-case scenario is the most effective way to keep the community safe, McDonald said. As team leader McDonald is responsible for assessing a situation and determining if a response from the SRT is warranted. If the team needs to respond, he initiates the call to members of the team. 

Prior to the formation of the Black Mountain Special Response Team, the department could merely secure the perimeter of the scene of those kinds of emergencies and await a response from neighboring agencies with similar units. 

"It makes a huge difference in how quickly we have trained officers on the scene to respond to a major incident," McDonald said. 

The training received by his team, according to McDonald, is above and beyond what's required by the state. 

"The state of North Carolina requires 24 hours mandatory in-service for patrol officers," he said. "SRT does two six- to eight-hour training days monthly. We also qualify (on the range) twice a year with a passing rate above 95 percent in full armor."

Fully outfitted, the tactical armor weighs 55 pounds.

Minutes before the team began its recent training exercise in the elementary school, McDonald let a group of young kids try on the heavy vest. The children filmed each other with their phones as their friends tried to run in it. When they left, McDonald encouraged them to do well in school and pursue their dreams. 

As a native of the town he serves, he said it's humbling to be on a team tasked with keeping it safe. 

"We really appreciate the support and trust the community puts in us," McDonald said. "I'm personally honored to lead this team and provide a higher level of service to our community. This is a team of above-average, highly motivated officers, and I'm proud to be a part of it."