When Capt. Matt Hester joined the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office in December 2016, he had a vision to reinstate the special weapons and tactics team, or SWAT. Now, after a year of assembling the team, Dawson County has a functioning SWAT presence for the first time in nearly 10 years.
“We’re just excited to have it. It’s a benefit to Dawson County,” said Sheriff Jeff Johnson. “It’s a benefit to our people and now we have the ability to rapidly respond and assemble a team in hopes of saving lives.”
Johnson and Hester worked throughout 2017 to get the program up and running once more after previous teams had disbanded years ago. Both are unsure why the county no longer had a SWAT presence but agreed that having a local unit is critical for the growing county.
But setting up a new team from the ground up wasn’t an easy process. Though the DCSO had some specialized equipment like shields and battering rams left over from previous teams, Hester still needed to find the best personnel for the job along with establishing the procedures and equipping each individual officer with new gear to protect them in dangerous situations.
Officers from other departments in the sheriff’s office were eager for the opportunity to become SWAT members in addition to their full-time positions in the agency.
“I think we did a really good job pulling some of the absolute best officers who have great work ethics, who are very driven and motivated to be the first members of this new team,” Hester said.
Candidates went through a rigorous selection process and had to complete a physical fitness assessment, firearms proficiency assessment and pass a psychological examination along with successfully completing Hester’s 50-hour SWAT school.
After the members of the team were selected, the challenge became ensuring each officer received specialized equipment like ballistic vests and outfitted vehicles to be used as mobile command centers.
Working within the department’s budget, Hester and Johnson looked for ways to ensure the efficiency of the team without breaking the bank by utilizing resources they already had available.
Among the fleet of DCSO vehicles were two vehicles sitting unused with very low mileage. They were retrofitted to be used by the SWAT team, including an old ambulance now used as the semi-command center.
Uniforms, ballistic vests and other protective gear was purchased with seized funds from drug busts.
And the nine members of the SWAT team are full-time officers in the agency, so when they aren’t called out for an emergency situation, they are still serving the roles in their departments.
“We have not overextended ourselves, broke the bank, anything, to get this thing up and running,” Hester said. “We’ve really done well at operating at the most allowable resources we could to fund what we’re doing.”
In the past, Dawson County has called upon neighboring counties of Forsyth, Hall and Lumpkin to assist with SWAT situations, but Hester said he realized that it wasn’t an efficient strategy for high risk situations.
“The time that we spend waiting for someone to get here to provide us those resources, you know, in a SWAT type situation or those critical incidents where we need that specialized training and those personnel, time is of the essence,” Hester said. “Lots of times those particular incidents we can diffuse those situations a lot sooner if I’ve got the personnel that have the proper training and equipment on the ground as opposed to waiting on mutual aid.”
The primary function of the SWAT team in Dawson County will be serving high-risk warrants to individuals who pose a threat either to officers or those around them, though the team is also equipped for barricaded gunmen and hostage situations.
“We want the public to understand this is – SWAT is a very specified, specific type of enforcement tool but we want the community to know that it’s there and it’s for their safety,” Hester said. “This is their taxpayer dollars and we want them to know ‘hey this is what we have available just in case things go really bad.’”
Though the team hasn’t been called out to assist in a SWAT situation as of Aug. 6, both Johnson and Hester view the team as insurance for the growing county, saying they would rather have the team and be prepared than to not have one in place.
This also means that the SWAT team will be able to help other regional agencies, should they need the extra assistance.
But in the meantime, the SWAT team has been busy continuously training every month to keep their skills sharp and getting involved with the community by visiting the cadets of the Junior Law Enforcement Academy and the children of White Oak Academy to show the team in a positive light.
The team will continue to expand and evolve as Hester works to establish the negotiations team that will accompany the SWAT officers that should be in place in the next few months.
Dawson County Emergency Services wants to get involved as well, as Fire Chief Danny Speaks expressed interest in having some of the county’s paramedics come aboard as SWAT medics.
“Having the medics on scene and being a part of the team and being able to administer first aid to any injured officers and/or suspects – that’s a big one for us,” Johnson said.
It’s been a collaborative effort since the beginning of 2017 and Hester and Johnson are excited to continue to grow the program.
“When Captain Hester came to us from Forsyth County he brought with him just a wealth of knowledge and experience and training… I can’t speak highly enough of him and what he’s done with this SWAT team and where he’s taken it,” Johnson said. “I think that we’ve just got a great recipe there and I’m proud of what they’ve done. I’m excited to see what they do in the future.”