SWAT team training for the unimaginable
When shots rang out in the secure hallway of the Hubbard County courthouse Tuesday morning, a security drill became all too real: Two bailiffs had been shot at and a judge had been abducted and was being held hostage.
The Hubbard/Wadena SWAT team conducted the mock exercise to bolster courthouse security and train the team's 14 members.
Judge Robert Tiffany and several court clerks were taken "hostage" in a reality-based drama that was surreal at times.
Rural counties believe they're too remote for hostage situations to occur, said Wadena County sheriff Mike Carr. They're not.
And because there's always that possibility, that is the reason to conduct such training, Carr said.
SWAT team members come from both county sheriff's departments, Wadena Police Department and the Park Rapids Police Department. The team also includes a Wadena EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) who doubles as a dispatcher for the squad when she's not riding in ambulances.
The two-hour long exercise is one of several staged at various locations throughout the year to train the squad.
Hubbard County deputy Shane Plautz played the "bad guy," overpowering two courthouse bailiffs, rounding up hostages and holding Tiffany as a bargaining chip until his demands could be met.
The normally affable Plautz sounded sinister and menacing as he relayed his demands to 911 dispatchers until a hostage negotiator could take over. That negotiator was Wadena police officer Naomi Plautz, who calmly practiced discussing the situation while the SWAT team assembled.
The drill mirrored the tedium and stress of a real-life hostage situation. Tense laughter could be heard outside the judge's chambers as "hostages" nervously tried to predict when the stalemate would end - and how.
Dep. Plautz, no relation to his negotiator, became increasingly irrational and threatening as time wore on.
SWAT team members conferred in another room, meticulously mapped out where they believed the hostages were being held and eventually stormed the cordoned off area of the courthouse where the clerks were cowering, mounting a multi-pronged attack to save the day. "Snipers" were called in for backup. The situation was resolved without further incident or injury. One bailiff was shot during the initial takeover.
Hubbard County brought its K-9 dog, but this time Vulcan had to wait in the car. His handler, deputy Jeremiah Johnson, said Vulcan will eventually be able to participate in future exercises, but it will depend on the situation.
Hubbard County Chief Deputy Frank Homer said he was impressed that the SWAT team was able to assemble amid tough conditions - subzero temperatures, a crowded space and training when the day-to-day court operations had to continue.
Homer said he was also impressed with Naomi Plautz's soothing voice on the phone, keeping the dialog with the suspect open, while maintaining a low-key tone throughout.
"She was very effective," he noted of the negotiator du jour. Homer said sometimes suspects respond better to a female voice during a hostage situation; other times the authoritative voice of a man works better.
SWAT team members met after the situation was resolved - with the suspect's eventual arrest - to debrief and critique their own performances. Homer said the team will tweak its procedures, update what needs to be done in the future, and learn from the overall experience.
Meanwhile Judge Tiffany and the clerks returned to their crowded dockets. The "wounded bailiff," Phil Stuemke, got stiffly up off the floor, aided by court clerks and fellow bailiff Al Bruns and the drill ended peaceably.
And that may have been the lesson of the day. The situation abruptly began during a peaceable lull in the daily routine of the court and gradually escalated to the boiling point. That's why the SWAT team invests such efforts to train.