Thursday, March 21, 2013

Victory of SWAT Officer Cut Short, Unit May be 'Disbanded'

by Mark Albert

Just hours before a Minneapolis SWAT officer shot his way to victory on a national television reality show, his unit learned of preliminary plans for it to be "disbanded" in its current form and "refocused to a part-time unit," leading some to question whether the reorganization would lengthen response times to critical incidents and impact safety in the state's largest city.

The proposal for the department's Special Operations Division (SOD) is contained in a three-page internal memo titled "SOD Division: Refocus and Refresh," that was obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

The document outlines a broad reorganization of the division's SWAT, Special Operations Patrol, Bomb/Arson, and Traffic units. Currently, several dozen SWAT officers are assigned to the Special Operations Patrol, based at the division's north Minneapolis headquarters, to respond as a team to shootings, standoffs, and other critical incidents.

Under the proposal, 25 of the most highly-trained response officers on the force would be re-assigned to the city's five precincts to respond to the 911 calls that are the bread-and-butter of a beat officer's shift, with "SWAT refocused to a part-time unit."

A dozen officers would form a new, "Northside Neighborhood Beat," the memo said.

The changes began Tuesday when the Special Operation Division supervisors were briefed about an "announcement of openings in Traffic Investigations and Precincts," according to a "timeline" spelled out in the document and confirmed by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. Those supervisors then informed the SWAT operators.

The city's new police chief, Janee Harteau, has moved swiftly in her first official three months as head of the force, changing all but one member of her top command staff and shuffling some unit commanders and all precinct inspectors, while introducing a plan called "MPD 2.0" to "focus on core values and set clear expectations for new level of accountability and service," the department said in an announcement last month.

Harteau declined to comment on the "Refocus and Refresh" memo since she said it was in draft form and could still change.

People inside the department familiar with her thinking, however, say it's a way to put more officers on the street targeting crime, as more than 70 officers become eligible for retirement this year, potentially stretching the city's street coverage.

The reorganization proposal, and the discord it swiftly created within the division, threatened to overshadow SWAT officer Tony Caspers' triumph Wednesday night on the reality show "Elite Tactical Unit: SWAT" on Outdoor Channel.

The 45 year-old, who's spent two decades on the MPD SWAT team, beat other SWAT operators from around the country on national television, winning a $10,000 cash prize and a $100,000 bonus for the department.

After a watch party crowd of more than a hundred in New Hope gave him a standing ovation as the season finale ended, Caspers said the outpouring "just kind of chokes you up."

"It's not a normal feeling for me."

"I'm representing the boys I work with, the men, the women of the police department," explained Ofc. Caspers. "And the last thing I want to do is come back and not represent well. So that was my big concern."

The department said it did not yet know how it would use its portion of the winnings.

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