By CLINT FOSTER
Meet the Palo Pinto Sheriff’s Office Tactical Team.
This elite, 10-member group – which was present at Tuesday’s emergency preparedness exercise at Mineral Wells High School – responds to high-risk situations throughout Palo Pinto County, including narcotics entries, search warrants, barricaded subjects and hostage situations.
They are the local version of a Special Weapons And Tactics unit, which Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer calls “the tip of the sword.”
“The Tac Team is definitely the elite bunch. If you’ve got to put some rubber on the road, that’s who I’m going to send,” Mercer said. “They’re a specialized unit. They can be in a house and have it cleared in 30 seconds. So, they have capabilities that a regular street cop might not have.”
The Tac Team boasts an impressive arsenal, complete with three types of automatic weapons, door-breaching guns, tear gas, less-than-lethal weapons that shoot bean bags and other projectiles often used for riot control and a 40 mm grenade launcher.
Mercer said the team is required to go through an exaustive training process to legally allow them to use these weapons. They practice every Wednesday for continued education and techniques that train them in all aspects of entry.
Mercer said it costs about $4,000 to dress out each member of his team. In all, he said he has spent in the neighborhood of $50,000 on training and equipment to get his team ready.
“We’ve spent a bunch of time and money putting them through all those different kinds of schools,” he said. “I spent a little bit of taxpayer dollars on this, mostly on training, but most of it came from drug forfeitures. That’s one of the main things they do is drug warrants, so I feel like that’s legitimate.”
Deputies interested in joining the “Marines” of the Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Department do so on a volunteer basis. They then go through an interview process with Mercer, who makes the final decision whether to admit them to the team, based on their qualifications. Mercer said many of the Tac Team’s original members had already had some high-risk training before joining the squad.
Mercer first established Palo Pinto County’s Tac Team in the wake of the Briones Case in 2010, when 4-year-old Salvador Briones Jr. was kidnapped from his bed at his parents’ Mineral Wells home on July 16 of that year. He was found tied up and dead in a hot, vacant house on U.S. Highway 281 North that night. Two days later, Briones’ kidnapper, 23-year-old Arturo Pacheco-Barrera – a fugitive who had escaped FBI custody – was shot and killed by a Mineral Wells police officer when he refused to comply with the officer’s orders and reached for his waistband. The case was closed, but Mercer was left feeling frustrated by his department’s inability to better handle the case.
“The Briones case was the catalyst that got me started thinking that we needed [the Tac Team],” he said. “We were searching houses and I didn’t have a Tactical Team to do it with. We didn’t have the resources to deal with our own situation. Parker County came in and did it for us. I just felt like it was necessary, at this point in time, for us to have something that we could utilize to deal with those type of situations.”
Mercer made his Tac Team a reality. Now, he said his team regularly runs high-risk search warrants throughout the county where, previously, that need was not met. Since its inception, Mercer said the Tac Team has performed between 20 to 30 high-risk warrants of this kind. He added that when the City-County Narcotics Unit has a warrant, they call his tactical specialists to take the reins, clear the houses and take down dangerous criminals.
The Tac Team seems to be quite the source of pride for Mercer. They have even received specialized training from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
“We really do have what has been described to me by the instructors as one of the best teams in this part of the state,” Mercer said. “We’ve got a cool little team, we really do. They’re pretty impressive when you see them work.
I hope we don’t ever have to use them, but I want to have them if we do need to use them.”
Follow Clint on Twitter @Clint_Foster55