During hours when most Silicon Valley residents slumbered Aug. 3, members of the Mountain View-Los Altos Regional Special Weapons and Tactics team were positioned outside a Palo Alto home, awaiting signs of a gunman.
Although domestic violence suspect Adam Allen Smith didn’t surrender during the team’s approximately six-hour watch, their presence relieved the Palo Alto Police Department’s SWAT team amid a 29-hour standoff that would have otherwise drained its members’ mental and physical faculties.
“These situations are very taxing, emotionally and psychologically,” said Katie Nelson, Mountain View Police Department spokeswoman, “and obviously if you’re in one place for a long period of time, you need to essentially call in backup and have people relieved so people can rest, they can get food, they can take some time away so they can come back refreshed.”
The Palo Alto SWAT team ultimately returned to the scene and with the use of chemical agents ferreted Smith, 29, from the Tennessee Lane home where he barricaded himself after allegedly attempting to strangle his girlfriend. Officers arrested him on charges of domestic violence and assault, resisting arrest, possession of a large-capacity magazine, failure to register a handgun and, for shooting at a tactical robot used to assess the situation inside the home, felony vandalism and malicious and willful discharge of a firearm at an inhabited dwelling.
Assisting with the Palo Alto incident’s peaceful resolution is just the latest accomplishment attributed to Mountain View-Los Altos SWAT, a team of individuals whose work often unfolds quietly behind the scenes. In June, they successfully intercepted and apprehended three auto burglary suspects through a high-risk operation that involved surrounding the trio’s vehicle and forcing it to stop as it traveled along San Antonio Road toward the El Camino Real intersection.
They’ve also served search warrants related to gang and illegal firearm activity in East Palo Alto, protected Super Bowl 50 attendees and provided security detail for former President Barack Obama when he visited the Mountain View Walmart in 2014. And that’s all in addition to their day-to-day work as police officers and detectives.
“It’s very comforting for me – and it should be comforting for the community also – we have a group of very dedicated, well-trained, well-equipped individuals that in the event of some type of major event, something beyond normal calls for service, we have that pool of people that we can draw on that work with us locally,” said Andy Galea, chief of the Los Altos Police Department.
Making the team
Making the Mountain View-Los Altos SWAT team requires much more than doing “lots of push-ups,” as Field Operations Capt. Jessica Nowaski of the MVPD joked.
Nowaski, who oversees the SWAT and Crisis Negotiation teams and serves as incident commander during operations, and Lt. Michael Canfield of MVPD, SWAT tactical commander, described the process of joining the ranks: If there’s an opening on the max 20-member team, candidates undergo a physical agility test encompassing skills including running, balance-beam walking and rope climbing. Next comes an oral board interview with Canfield, two sergeants from the Mountain View Police Department and a ranking member of the Los Altos Police Department to gauge tactical decision making as well as policy and procedural understanding. Supervisors and past work evaluations are consulted and psychiatric and psychological assessments commence. Selected candidates must complete 80 hours of a state-sanctioned SWAT school.
The challenges don’t subside upon membership either; the team trains at least once a month, and members complete weeklong educational sessions sporadically throughout the year. Often these involve the team’s tactical robot, an approximately 8-inch-tall, remote-controlled device that resembles a miniature tank with tractors, paddles and rollers. It features a video camera and is capable of climbing stairs and opening doors.
“Our robot really enables us to create a much more tactically sound plan and slow things down and get much more information so we can present a plan to Captain Nowaski,” Canfield said.
Due to the relatively small size of most Silicon Valley law enforcement agencies, it’s common for them to assist each other as in the Aug. 2 Palo Alto incident; in addition to the Mountain View-Los Altos SWAT team, the Palo Alto Police Department thanked the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety, the Palo Alto Fire Department, the Santa Clara County Specialized Enforcement Team, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, the Stanford Department of Public Safety and the Palo Alto Utilities Department for their help.
“One major event, one call, much like the event in Palo Alto, will drain all of your resources quickly,” Galea said. “On top of that, you have to remember that there are still 911 calls and regular calls for service. The phones don’t stop ringing because you have a major event.”
“Law enforcement doesn’t operate very successfully in a vacuum, and we rely on our neighbors and our county partners at the state and federal level and the local level to really respond and identify and solve crimes and prosecute suspects,” she said.