It all comes down to the next eight days.
For the seven Mesa police officers vying for two open spots on the department’s highly regarded SWAT team, these days will be some of the toughest of their careers.
They’ll be shot at with stinging paint bullets, screamed at, worked to exhaustion and even gassed with the lung-searing chemical SWAT teams use on barricaded suspects. They will be drilled on explosive entries, covert surveillance, room-clearing techniques, hostage rescue and firearms tactics.
Each must prove that he, above all the others, has what it takes to be a special-ops cop. The grueling 80-hour basic SWAT school includes 53 other police officers from around the Valley and state who are paying $350 each for top-rate tactical training.
But no one has more to lose than the seven Mesa SWAT wannabes.
At 46, Mark Cormier is the oldest. He spent all year gearing up for this moment, knowing he will have to outdo officers nearly half his age.
He trained every week at the shooting range, sweated six days a week at the gym and went on a rigid low-carb diet that cut out bread, pasta and rice.
"I wanted to be strong, have plenty of energy and have no problems carrying gear," he says. "I guess I planned for the worst."
Cormier has been a cop for only 3 1/2 years, since he was forced into early etirement after 20 years as a mechanical engineer. He hopes his age is viewed as a strength, and not a weakness.
"The maturity part of it would help me keep a cool head under fire, versus just freaking out," Cormier says. "Personally, I think some of the age and life experience would help in heated battle."
Cormier is just one of the men — there are no women candidates — being given a shot at a spot on Mesa’s elite team, one of the most respected in the nation.
Most of the unit’s 41 officers are patrol cops, motor officers or training officers in their regular assignments. They come together as a unit whenever called. Last year, that averaged about two calls a week. They train another 20 hours a month.
Each year, the team conducts this basic SWAT school for the Valley’s law enforcement community.
Patrol officer Ken Moushey, 29, who a few years ago was driving an airport shuttle, has no reservations about trying out for the SWAT team. He is eager for the tactical training and experience of being part of the subculture that is SWAT.
Phil Bates, 25, was drawn by the elite nature of special-ops.
"They’re the most physically fit, they shoot the best, and they have the most ongoing training," Bates says. "I’d be using those tactics on traffic stops, building searches. I wanted that training.
"You watch movies like ‘S.W.A.T.’ and they always seem to pick the bad boys and guys who cut corners, but that’s so far from the people I’ve met in Mesa with the standards that seem to be set. I thought, ‘I really want to be a part of that group.’ "
This is 26-year-old Greg Loewenhagen’s third try for the SWAT team.
Les Portee, 28, an ex-Marine and the son of assistant police chief Lester Portee, is on his first.
Eighteen Mesa officers initially applied for SWAT. But 11 didn’t pass the tough preselection process — a SWAT obstacle course, shooting tests and oral boards.
But police skills alone will not get them on the team.
"They can be an A shooter, but if they’re hardheaded, are they going to be able to absorb everything we want to teach them?" says Sgt. Mike Bellows, who heads the sniper team. "They’re obviously exceptional officers or they wouldn’t be here otherwise. We want the best tactical officer down the road, and just because you’re an ace of a shot doesn’t make you a good tactical officer."
Instead, it’s about whether they have what it takes to stay composed in extremely stressful training situations.
They will have to prove that they are able to work well within the team and are willing to learn the tactical skills that will keep them and their teammates alive. By the end of the long grueling week, only two will be chosen.
"This is new to them, even though they’re experienced police officers," says Lt. Bob Gervasi, who heads the SWAT team. "Not everyone is cut out for this. Just like a motor cop or detective, it takes a special person to do this job."
THE ISSUE OF TRUST
Moushey, a wise-cracking street cop, and Chris Withrow, a former Navy SEAL medic, sweep into the room of the plywood house with guns blazing before they realize their mistake.
They may be shooting at the target in front of them, but neither has noticed the bad guy hiding in the corner, gun already drawn. Lucky for them, it’s just a paper target with a bad guy staring back at them.
Before SWAT officers enter a house, they have to trust that each teammate will take care of his responsibility and cover each other’s back. It can be one of the hardest things to learn, and, like Moushey and Withrow show, can be deadly if the trust isn’t there.
The relationship of trust among a SWAT team is one that most of us will never fully understand. They are each other’s eyes and ears in situations most of us will never have to face — like storming into a dark room where a crack maniac is holding a gun in one hand and a baby in the other. Or stepping into a hallway only to see a gun aimed at the back of another officer’s head.
They trust that their teammate will make the kill shot if he has to.
It’s a trust that takes years to build.
Teamwork is almost a foreign concept to patrol officers who are used to flying solo on the beat. It’s one of the reasons why Ryan Park, a 6-foot-4 cop nicknamed "Biceps," is here.
"I do a lot of individual work with the (community action) team to take care of this problem or that," says Park, 30, who is making his second try for the SWAT team. "Not a lot of teamwork. This is one of the good ways to do that. It’s a different skill set for me."
And on the first day, the recruits demonstrate their abilities as a team to the entire school. They turn in the fastest time on the SWAT obstacle course — carrying a 175-pound dummy on a stretcher while running through the desert course, scaling a 7-foot wall and climbing to the top of the fire tower.
But by day two, during room-sweeping exercises, it becomes clear that seamless teamwork is not going to come overnight.
Their movement is clumsy and unsure, nothing like the fluidity that the real Mesa SWAT team demonstrates.
In a live-fire drill, one recruit steps too far into the center of the room and
almost into his partner’s line of fire.
"There was a point where I thought, ‘Oh geez, we’re going to get somebody shot,’ " an instructor says that night.
They quickly learn that they have to do everything as a team — everything. An instructor even chews out a recruit for not waiting in the same line as his teammates.
"It’s hard sometimes," Park says. "There’s a lot of dominant personalities among us."
Working as a team is even harder when you’re trying to eliminate your teammates as competitors. Every one of them knows that, somehow, he has to rise above everyone else and get noticed.
Cormier, soft-spoken and inquisitive, gets his opportunity one night at Skyline High School when he is christened team leader.
His team, with the help of a police dog, has to find a suspect hiding in a dark and cluttered boiler room.
Their seemingly thorough search turns up no one, even though the dog continues to bark.
Turns out the suspect is stuffed completely out of sight into an air duct high overhead.
"You did fine," Park consoles Cormier afterward. "We were set up to fail on that one."
BETTER SWAT THAN NOT
Ask any SWAT cop about the dangers of the job, and he’ll tell you it’s more dangerous to be a cop on the street.
"There’s more wildcards doing a traffic stop on patrol than going to a barricade," says Sean Truelove, who has been on the SWAT team for four years. "By then, we know the violence potential and why this guy is so keyed up."
SWAT teams find safety in numbers — there are usually at least eight of them on an operation — and they are highly trained to work together and in potentially violent situations.
And they are better protected, with 40 to 50 pounds of body armor, helmets and other tactical gear. They have an arsenal of tools and weapons to choose from, everything from explosives and gas grenades to battering rams and body shields.
"The risks we take are calculated," says Gervasi, the team’s lieutenant. "We stack the odds in our favor. But we don’t do it foolishly. It’s a heck of a lot safer than the unknown. The unknown is what will get you."
The threat of danger is constantly in front of them as they go through the school. One day they practice rescuing a downed officer while under fire, another it’s how to recognize the deadly potential of a homemade drug lab or how to kill if a suspect is winning the struggle over your gun.
"It only takes one knucklehead with an AK-47 to spray down a hallway and someone eats it," officer Bob Nesbit, a SWAT team member and Army special forces captain, warns a room full of cops between drills.
And, yes, SWAT cops get scared, too.
"When there’s gunfire coming out of a window, you’re lying if you’re not a little rattled," says SWAT officer Joel Anderson, one of the newest members of the team.
Police officers are trained to be good shots, but SWAT officers have to be the best of the best.
They often don’t have the luxury of missing.
So it’s no surprise that some of the toughest parts of the school involve rigorous handgun and rifle training.
For three days, they practice again and again the tactics that will eventually save a life — whether it’s resolving a hostage situation or protecting their team.
"Some guys shoot well at the range, but when they get adrenaline in them, they can’t do it. They shut down," says Bellows, the sniper leader.
They slide on the rocky dirt underneath desks to take shots from 100 yards away with an assault rifle. They shoot from shaky scaffolding and sprint from cover to cover in a race against time.
Sweat drenches their T-shirts under the 40 pounds of black tactical gear they wear.
"We’re putting stress on you to get you out of standing straight and shooting at paper targets," yells SWAT Sgt. Warren Solomon, the school’s closest thing to a drill sergeant, as the recruits scramble to fire off shots downrange.
"Don’t be the last to shoot! Pick up your gun! Hurry, go, go!" he barks in their ears.
Withrow, the baby-faced ex-Navy SEAL, handles his weapons with comfort and ease.
But Moushey feels the anxiety of putting the bullet through the little circle every time. "It’s the shooting, hitting the little hole part," he remarks as he reloads his Glock .40-caliber pistol.
He’s not the only one of the seven recruits who’s feeling anxious. Bates confides that he’s stressed by the instructors standing over him. He tries hard not to make the same mistakes twice.
"It’s what’s keeping me motivated, every day," he says.
Their bodies are beat up, they’re operating on little sleep and the pressure is rising as the end of the school approaches. So the idea of getting gassed seems easy at this point. On the last full day of the school, everyone has to brave a dose of the skinscorching, lung-searing tear gas often used to flush suspects from a house. They will need to know what it feels like, so they won’t be paralyzed the next time they have to rush into a gassed filled scene with a gas mask that may get knocked off or won’t work. Inside a fogged-up shed, they are ordered to flood their masks with tear gas and then, between choking fits, clear it and breathe normally before leaving. One by one, officers stumble into the clean air, their eyes watering uncontrollably and their faces on fire. Snot flows freely in long strings to the ground. Bates is back to normal about 10 minutes later.
"I’ve had the most fun these past few days," he says. "The first few days I was fouling stuff up and learning it all, but these past few days have been fun. It’s all come together. But I’m relieved it’s over."
AND THE WINNERS ARE
Exactly one week after the last day of the school, Bates is restless for news. "There was only so much yard work I could do today," he says. "I finally broke down and called somebody." But the recruit he calls, Withrow, has not heard anything either.
Then, hours later, it is Bates and Withrow who get the good word. "We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected for the SWAT team," the e-mail from Gervasi says. Moushey gets the same e-mail. Gervasi has decided to pick three recruits instead of two, his eye on an upcoming opening that has become more firm.
"I’m excited — for more training and to get to be part of that team," Moushey says. "I thought everybody gave it their all. It could’ve been anybody."
Now, Moushey, Bates and Withrow have already started training with the rest of the SWAT team.
But it may be two or three years before they even make their first entry into a house.
Each will be assigned a tactical training officer, who will take them through their first probationary year on the team.
They will be summoned to every single call-out the SWAT team has in the next year — last year there were 104 — to observe, learn and do the grunt work. They will carry the equipment, drive the trucks and just observe how things are done.
When they are deemed ready, they will start by guarding the perimeter of the house, breaking windows so a more experienced officer can stick a gun inside and beating down doors with a battering ram so the team can rush inside.
"We expect them to come in and be sponges," Gervasi says. "Guys start to look solid after two to three years. We have enough people (on the team) that they will not be thrust into the limelight at the front end."
For those who didn’t make it, there is always the off-chance that another spot on the team will open up during the year, and the next on the list will get a call.
Gervasi says part of the reason others weren’t chosen is because they simply put too much pressure on themselves.
"Consequently, they start secondguessing themselves instead of simply relaxing. Some became very tentative and became afraid to make mistakes," Gervasi says.
Park for one says he’s ready to leave the lure of SWAT behind. He says that after two years of going through the school and not being selected, he’ll focus on other things such as testing for promotions in a few years.
Cormier says there’s always a possibility he will try out again next year if family obligations and time allows for it.
"I put a lot of time and energy into it. I feel like I got a lot of good training out of it and the chance to go through a school not a lot of cops get to do. For whatever reason, I wasn’t one of the top two choices," Cormier reflects.
"They pick who they think is the very best, which I understand. They have to deal in life and death scenarios."