Brookhaven is part of the North Metro SWAT Team. Sandy Springs owns a Hummer. Dunwoody’s police department has its own armored vehicle.
Although images of violence and riot-gear-clad police in Ferguson, Mo., reverberated across the country, raising questions about the “militarization” of community police departments, local officers say that while that kind of gear is seldom, if ever, used here, they believe it is necessary to keep up with the criminals they confront.
Sandy Springs Police Chief Ken DeSimone points to a case of weapons in a conference room at police headquarters that was pulled off criminals. DeSimone says he has a Thompson submachine gun in his office.
“We’re not outgunning the bad guys,” DeSimone said. “We’re just staying even with them.”
Dunwoody Chief Billy Grogan says distinctions should be made between police gear and military gear. The BearCat armored personnel carrier Dunwoody owns, he said, is a not as strongly armored or “weaponized” as the military version of the vehicle.
“It’s not as offensive as the military would have,” Grogan said, noting that military gear and police force gear is often similar, but while the military has a grenade launcher that launches actual grenades, some police units have grenade launchers that launch tear gas.
Dunwoody’s BearCat has been used only a half-dozen or so times since the city bought it, Grogan said. It’s mostly deployed “to transport the [North Metro] SWAT Team in safety” during confrontations with hostage-takers or other dangerous situations, Grogan said. “We think it’s a good tool to keep officers and citizens safe,” he said.
And Sandy Springs’ Hummer is used only for parades and community events, including the recent National Night Out, SSPD Sgt. Ronald Momon said.
Still, there are many similarities between police and the military when it comes to training, preparedness and discipline, local police officials say.
DeSimone, who retired from the United States Marine Corps Reserve at the rank of colonel after 32 years of service, said he believes a military background is good for local police officers because the training acts as an equalizing experience.
“People from all races, all walks of life and all economic classes,” work together in the military, DeSimone said. “You have the rich people coming in and the poor people coming in. It’s the great equalizer.”
Momon, who has 15 years’ military experience, says law enforcement agencies act as para-military organizations and model themselves after the military in rank structure, grooming and uniform appearance, physical fitness and discipline.
“The main aspect of the military training as it relates to law enforcement is mainly the discipline aspect,” Momon said. “Military members are trained very heavily in discipline. In my opinion, this prepares you better to handle the dangers and stress of law enforcement.”
Grogan agrees. “The military is a structured environment, and structure transfers well into a police environment,” Grogan said.
But applying a military mindset to policing local communities sometimes can get police officers into trouble, Grogan said. While he doesn’t have military experience himself, he believes it’s good to hire officers who have been honorably discharged from the military.
Regarding the question of local police officers being “too military,” Grogan said the difference lies in whether a group is policing a group of people or an individual. Grogan said police have to make sure their response to any given situation is appropriate.
“Common sense is the number one trait of a good police officer,” DeSimone said, noting good judgment follows closely.
Grogan says police must stay engaged with the communities they serve. “In general, it’s important for the police department to have a good relationship with the community,” Grogan said, adding that when a relationship is developed between police and the community as in Dunwoody, then a crisis, if one were to occur, would be better worked out.
“You can work through that crisis in a well-thought-out, collaborative way, where police can respond appropriately,” Grogan said, adding that trust is a key component in building a relationship between police and the Dunwoody community.
Training makes a great difference when it comes to police use of military gear, said Sandy Springs police Capt. Rob Stevens, commander of the North Metro SWAT Team. The SWAT Team’s main functions include drug raids and executing high-risk warrants, Stevens said. He said Sandy Springs has had three hostage rescue situations since 2006.
“We [SSPD] have a specialty unit for riots,” Stevens said. “When you mix units to do the same job, you create issues. Long guns and SWAT teams don’t need to be in a
Patrol officers have riot-control training and the “mobile field force,” a 30-man force of officers trained by larger agencies to quell riots and maintain crowd control who would act as the frontline, Stevens said. They’ve been taught by larger agencies in formations and in civil unrest, Stevens said.
Stevens, who began his career with the Fulton County Police Department more than 20 years ago, joined the Sandy Springs department in 2006.
In 2009, he helped create the North Metro Multi-jurisdictional SWAT Team, which includes officers from Brookhaven, Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and other communities, and he now commands its more than 50 members.
“They are cross-trained in active shooter situations,” he said, adding that the SWAT Team is “not there for offensive, but defensive; to rescue.”
Stevens said the SWAT Team doesn’t want to be portrayed as a bunch of tattooed tough guys scaring the community. “We want people to know we’re there to help,” he said.