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Athens County Sheriff's Office Lt. Aaron Maynard observes a truck advertising $5 rides to 14 Fest. Starting in 2017, deputies from the Athens County Sheriff's Office will wear body cameras. (EMMA HOWELLS | FILE)

Athens police officers to join county SWAT team

Athens Police Department officers will soon join the Athens County Sheriff’s Special Response Team, increasing its size by nearly a third.

An agreement between the departments permits five officers to join the Special Response Team, commonly known as a SWAT team. Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said the main criterion for officers to participate is a willingness to put their safety at risk.

“It’s not for everybody,” he said. “It’s high-risk stuff.”

The officers must also be experienced and have certain technical skills. Pyle is holding two officers back from participating until they have spent more time on patrol.

Although the officers will operate as deputies, the city will pay their overtime. Pyle said he did not know how much that would cost, but the team sometimes responds to calls within the city and county, and resources are stretched thin.

“That is the 21st century way of doing public safety and public service — to do more with less,” he said. “The only way to do that is by combining forces.”

Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith said the team probably responded to 12 calls last year. Two of those were inside Athens city limits. It currently costs the county from $1,000 to $2,000 in overtime for each Special Response Team call. Smith said the team has specialized equipment for its role, including ballistic shields and an armored vehicle.

The team is equipped and trained to handle high-risk situations. Smith said most of those involve drug trafficking, but the team might also respond to hostage situations and carry out search and arrest warrants for people suspected to be armed or violent.

But the special response team members would not be “the go-to people” to respond to an active shooter situation, Pyle said. The regular patrol officers would be able to arrive at the scene before the Special Response Team could respond.

That approach puts the lives of less-equipped patrol officers at risk, but delaying the response to wait for a special response team could result in more casualties for ordinary people.

“That’s the unfortunate byproduct of being in this position,” Pyle said. “There’s an active shooter situation, you’re paid to go confront it.”

Smith said the team isn’t necessarily understaffed, but having Athens police officers on the team will defray some of the cost and make responding easier. The team currently has 16 members, and the five Athens police officers would increase that number to 21.

“They will normally drop everything when they’re needed,” he said. “But having said that, there are times when they’re on vacation, there are times when they just can’t respond.”

Smith said that Athens is a fairly safe county, but it’s important to be prepared.

“Just because these things don’t happen every day doesn’t mean they won’t happen or don’t happen,” he said. “I don’t want to be that sheriff … and when something happens, be like, ‘I’ve got nothing. We have nothing.’ ”


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