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The sudden impact from the forced entry startled mostly everybody who was inside.
A team of SWAT team officers burst through the door in search of a wanted criminal suspect. There was no advance phone call. No knock at the door. Just a group of masked authorities armed to the hilt and a flash bang.
Though such stealth operations happen in Lancaster County more often than you’d think, this particular scenario was a simulation performed for participants in the Leadership Lancaster program.
As readers of The Lancaster News probably know by now, a group of local professionals have been meeting periodically since November to learn more about a particular segment of the community.
The last regular day of the program, May 8, centered on law enforcement.
The group convened at the city of Lancaster’s 15th Street Operations Center, which is used as training space for emergency personnel.
Capt. Scott Grant of the Lancaster Police Department walked the Leadership participants through the training area, which is on the building’s top floor. The area includes mock streets and buildings. As the participants stood inside a replica house listening to Grant speak, a real-life Lancaster County SWAT team busted through the doors without warning.
If it were real life, the entry mission would have been to detain a suspect believed to be armed. Amazingly, these officers are trained to walk quietly, even though they’re carrying pounds of gear.
SWAT is an acronym for special weapons and tactics. The local high-risk operations team is comprised of members of the police department and Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, as well as Lancaster County Emergency Medical Services.
Such entry missions are mapped out well in advance. Many hours are devoted in preparation to see that the operation will succeed, Grant said.
“There’s a lot of planning that goes into it,” he said. “We try to hit ‘em early (in the day) and we try to get the element of surprise on ‘em.”
The training facility also includes an obstacle course and rooms for firefighters to hone rescue tactics.
“It’s a huge benefit to the county as a whole,” sheriff’s office Maj. Matt Shaw said of the facility. “We’re really fortunate to have it. It’s something to be proud of.”
Lancaster Police Department
After visiting the operations center, the Leadership group stopped by the Municipal Justice Center on East Arch Street, which houses the Lancaster Police Department.
Police Chief Harlean Howard, Grant and other lead officers spoke about the various functions of the department. Some Leadership Lancaster members asked about the policing of drug and gang activity.
Contrary to the belief of many locally, Grant said Lancaster County has a gang problem.
“Ignoring it doesn’t change the fact that it’s there and we have to deal with it,” he said.
A challenge facing law enforcement agencies is the time it takes to get physical-evidence testing results back from the S.C. Law Enforcement Division.
Expect an evidence sample to take at least eight months to return, Howard said.
Given that, officers depend heavily on vigilance and tips from residents, and, of course, the investigative work of detectives.
“It still boils down to human interaction,” Howard said. “That’s how we get things done.”
Detention center, sheriff’s office
The next stop for the Leadership group was the Lancaster County Detention Center on Pageland Highway, a facility built more than 30 years ago that continues to experience overcrowding.
Leadership participants walked the hallways leading to many of the jail cells. Though the detention center is structured for 121 beds, last year, the daily inmate average was 145, said Debbie Horne, detention center administrator.
The tour then led to the adjoining building that served for many years as the sheriff’s office. It’s now the sole headquarters for the county’s 911 operations.
The Leadership group then went a short distance down Pageland Highway to the sheriff’s office’s new home – a campus featuring six buildings.
Sheriff Barry Faile spoke to the group inside the agency’s main building. The participants got a chance to peek inside the building used as evidence storage. They also saw some of the high-tech investigative tools on hand, such as fingerprint-identification software.
Toward the end of the afternoon, members of the S.C. Highway Patrol talked about the efforts to help deter vehicular fatalities throughout the state. Lance Cpl. Billy Elder showed a sobering video that graphically illustrated the real-life consequences of irresponsible driving.
Elder said alcohol, speeding and lack of seat belt use remain the top three contributors to highway accidents in the Palmetto State.
After that, Shawn Hanna of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources spoke to the group. His job includes investigating hunting and boating accidents, responding to calls about injured wildlife and enforcing regulations on game hunting.
“It’s the most interesting job in the world,” Hanna said.
After a full day of learning about the world of local law enforcement, Leadership participant Derek Harper – like mostly everyone else – was exhausted, but excited, about what he learned that day. The SWAT team demonstration was impressive, he said.
“The fact that a city our size has something like that – that was a surprise to me,” Harper said.
Contact reporter Jesef Williams at (803) 283-1152