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In Kanawha, SWAT use stable despite violent crime

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In May, a Vietnam veteran called a Veterans Affairs crisis hotline, told them he had taken too much medication and said he was going to shoot himself and anyone who tried to stop him. A Kanawha County Sheriff's Department SWAT team entered the man's house and detained him, without incident, as he sat on his couch, a loaded gun beside him.

In June, a State Police SWAT team working with federal drug agents shot and killed 65-year-old Richard Dale Kohler at his Maysel home, while serving a search warrant. Police believed Kohler was trading prescription pills for stolen merchandise. They say that Kohler pointed a rifle at them, but Kohler's family said he was disabled, walked with a cane and was too weak to raise a rifle with one hand.

In August, a Charleston Police SWAT team, using a search warrant, raided Miss Sylvia's Sandwich Shop at 5 a.m., alleging that it was operating as an after-hours bar and a "continuing criminal enterprise." The SWAT team had about 20 officers, and there were dozens of other officers from other units involved in the raid.

Across the nation, SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team use has exploded in recent years. Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University, estimates that there were 50,000 SWAT team raids in 2005, up from about 3,000 per year in the mid-1980s and a few hundred per year in the 1970s.

But, recent episodes to the contrary, law enforcement in Kanawha County have not been using SWAT teams more often in the last few years, despite what they call an increasingly dangerous environment for officers.

"It's amazing how much things have changed. It used to be that if a deputy found a gun on a person it was the talk of the department," Kanawha County Sheriff Johnny Rutherford said in a recent interview with the Gazette. "It's an everyday occurrence now."

Instead of using its SWAT team more often, the Sheriff's Department is putting its deputies through more thorough, SWAT-like, training and giving them more specialized equipment.

In addition to better-equipped deputies, the Sheriff's Department also said that SWAT use has not increased because the team's approximately 45-minute response time is often too slow for developing situations.

The Sheriff's Department SWAT team has been deployed seven times so far in 2013, excluding training days, according to data provided by the department.

The SWAT team was deployed seven times last year and 13 times in 2011, the highest number since 2005, which is as far back as the department's data goes.

The SWAT team has been deployed about eight times per year, on average since 2005, with no discernible trend of either increasing or decreasing SWAT use.

The vast majority of SWAT team use over that time, nearly 80 percent, has been in the service of "high risk warrants." That's the classification that Richard Kohler's killing and the sandwich shop raid (neither done by the sheriff's department) would fall under. The SWAT team has also been used for barricaded or emotionally distressed suspects or persons.

The Charleston Police Department has used its SWAT team at least six times so far this year, according to data provided by the department. It didn't use it at all in 2012 and used it once in 2011, the earliest year for which the department provided data.

The relatively stable numbers belie a situation that features more and more threats to officers, officials say.

"Every deputy is now training for what SWAT used to do 10 years ago," Lt. K.A. Vititoe, who's in charge of training for the sheriff's department said. "As we get a more highly trained patrol force the need for SWAT decreases."

And with that training, deputies are being deployed into situations that they might not have been sent to in the past.

"Every deputy is responding, they're not waiting on a SWAT team," said Cpl. Brian Humphreys, the Sheriff's Department spokesman.

To that end, every deputy now wears a bulletproof vest any time they leave the building on department business, even in low risk situations, like eviction notices.

Every Sheriff's Department cruiser is equipped with an AR-15, an assault-style rifle similar to an AK-47. And every deputy carries a "go bag" with a medical kit, including tourniquets and a CPR kit.

"If you would have said 10 years ago that we'd be doing life-saving first responder-type things, we would have said you're crazy. But it's gotten to that point," Chief Deputy Mike Rutherford said.

Mike Rutherford, who was sheriff from 2004 to 2012 and has been in law enforcement for 41 years, also said that the county's declining murder rate is not necessarily an indication of a less violent society.

He said that improvements in medical care and the county's EMS system have saved lives that 30 or 40 years ago would have ended up as another data point in the murder rate.

Sheriff Johnny Rutherford (the sheriff and chief deputy are brothers) also credited Metro 911, which is able to dispatch first responders much more quickly and efficiently than it used to. Dispatchers also now stay on the line to talk people through first aid procedures.

Many of the changes that the Sheriff's Department has made in recent years are in preparation for an "active shooter" situation -- like recent ones at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., or at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

Sheriff's Department officials characterized the active shooter threat as a new world for law enforcement, one in which they must be prepared for the unknown and expect the unthinkable.

"Who would have thought 10 years ago that we'd have police officers in schools - elementary schools, not to break up fights in high schools," Johnny Rutherford said. "And the schools would be asking for more officers?"

As the Gazette's interview with Rutherford ended, he was leaving for a meeting with the security specialist for Kanawha County Schools, a position that never existed until it was created just a few weeks ago.

Staff writer Travis Crum contributed to this report.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.

 


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