Law enforcement agencies unite to form Special Response Team

Suzette Lowe
Jackson County’s Special Response Team trains to deal with real-world scenarios.

In a cooperative action, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, Ripley City Police and Ravenswood City Police have joined forces to create a certified Special Response Team.

Twelve highly trained officers from the three departments will be available to assess and address major crimes, terroristic threats, school-related incidents or any other emergency.

“No one wants to think that these types of serious situations can touch our county,” said Sheriff Ross Mellinger. “We don’t have the option to turn our backs and hope for the best. We have to be prepared for the worst.”

Prior to the formation of this group known as the SRT, any backup had to be provided by the Kanawha County response team and at times the West Virginia State Police.

“We have a great relationship with them,” said Mellinger. “But they can’t get here at a minute’s notice and that is the heart of the problem.”

The foundational planning for the SRT program began with former Sheriff Tony Boggs and Mellinger, who was then chief deputy.

“We started forming the plan but due to the election campaign and the COVID situation, we were never able to get it off the ground,” Mellinger said. “So when my chief deputy Eric Cullen and I had the chance, we took what Tony and I had started and got it up and running.”

Under the tutelage of a Jackson County officer who has extensive military special weapons and tactics (SWAT) training, each officer who qualified had to undergo 40 hours of class and tactical operations training. Each will be required to have 16 additional hours of training each month.

Hand-to-hand combat, vehicle deployment, situational awareness, planning and intelligence gathering are some of the areas of focus.

The lead trainer says that no topic is less important than any other. Each team member must excel at every category.

“We have some of the best officers in the state,” said Mellinger. “This will make us even better. Our instructor is qualified to teach pretty much anything. We have high expectations and significant goals to reach.”

The standards being taught are equal to those on a state and national level. Mellinger said these local officers are equivalent to the West Virginia State Police Swat Team.

“Most people don’t realize that we have to treat any public event attracting a large crowd as a high threat level,” explained Mellinger.

One prime example the sheriff pointed out is the Fourth of July celebration for which Ripley is famous.

“It’s great being known as the ‘largest small-town Fourth of July celebration,’" he said. “But we can’t treat it like the wonderful event it is. We treat it as a potential threat. Thankfully, we have never had to deal with a major confrontation, but we are prepared if necessary. We will have the best of the best in every situation.”

Something as relatively simple as a search warrant will also be a focus of the SRT.

“Search warrants can be tricky situations at times,” said Mellinger. “We’ve always just handled those the best we could, but with this trained team, we will be more efficient and safer.”

The tactics being taught deal with real life situations. But as with every operation, the officers are trained to use the least lethal options.

“We are there to take care of possible dangerous situations,” said Mellinger. “We are not there with the intention of taking a life.”

The cost of outfitting and training each member of the SRT is expensive. Each agency is contributing to that cost, along with the two cities. The sheriff’s department is using funds from the asset forfeiture program. Mellinger said that while the SRT program is being built ‘from the ground up,' he hopes that it will be self-supportive in the future.

Mellinger said that there are mutual aid agreements with law enforcement agencies in the surrounding counties.

“Our belief is that the smaller counties who cannot afford a task force such as this will be able to utilize us when they have a need,” he said.

What gives Mellinger and the team’s instructor the most satisfaction is the protection the SRT will give to the community.

“This is an extra blanket of security for our county,” said Mellinger.

While no one wants to think there is a need for this type of task force, the team’s instructor said it is one of those situations where no one wants it until it is needed.

“We can be more proactive than reactive,” he said.

Another source of satisfaction for Mellinger is the level of cooperation between the three law enforcement agencies.

“This really piggy-backed off the task force that Ripley and Ravenswood had going,” he said. “Many things could be handled but for some things we had to wait for assistance from other counties. Now we can take care of things. Our people pay taxes so that they do not have to worry about their safety. That’s a responsibility we all take very seriously.”