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The Maine State Police's Tactical Team

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

George Orwell

Many times when there is a crime that hits a lot of headlines you'll read the line, 'The Maine State Police Tactical Team also responded to the call.' But unless it's a huge call, you might not hear much more than that. And that is generally how most current and former members of the Maine State Police Tactical Team like it.

The Tactical Team is made up of specially-trained members of The Maine State Police. They are called to high risk situations, like a barricaded person or hostage situation. The team members in Maine are situated across the state, and all are cross-trained so that whoever arrives at the incident first can fill any role required. Being a member of the Tactical Team is a secondary responsibility, meaning that each trooper who is a member has full-time responsibilities outside of the Tactical Team (road patrol, detective work, etc.). 

'Basically, we're defined as a part-time team. Maine doesn't have a full-time Tactical Team,' said Sgt. Nicholas Grass, commander of the current Maine State Police Tactical Team. 'The other unique aspect is based on the geographic size of the state; we are all pretty much cross-trained and don't have [specific] assignments. Everyone [on the team] is capable of doing whatever they are tasked with.'

The current team consists of tactical operators, two tactical K9 units and two tactical medics. Team members live in various parts of the state so wait time is minimized as the team organizes.

The secrecy is a result of a desire to help agencies that request them without stepping into the limelight and a need to not educate the criminally-minded about their use of tactics.

'It is inevitable that the Tactical Team is going to be on the news; it's beyond our control. We don't have a gripe against the media, but we're dealing with real guns, real bullets, real explosives and we really have to be in a secured environment,' said Grass. But at the same time, Grass said that it is important to not advertise the presence of law enforcement to a barricaded suspect who in all probability is watching the news either on television or on his phone. 

'If you educate future suspects, that puts more risk on [law enforcement] and more risk on the public,' he said.

The Beginning

The Tactical Team has evolved since it first formed in 1982 and was formed by Captain G. Paul Falconer (retired). Falconer is legendary with the state police (he was, in fact, named a Legendary Trooper), having created not only the Tactical Team, but nearly every specialty team in existence today, including the bomb team, the crisis negotiations team and the dive team.

The need for a coordinated Tactical Team came to light after the tragic shooting of Westbrook Police Chief Pierre Harnois, who was killed by a Limerick man who had barricaded himself in the basement. A Maine State Police detective was seriously wounded and another trooper was wounded in the hand. Hundreds of shots were reportedly fired in the hours-long standoff.

'It occurred to all of us [the responding law enforcement agencies] that we need to evaluate our response to barricaded felons,' said Falconer. 

Falconer then began developing training on how to deal with barricaded felons and attended trainings in Houston, Texas. And in 1980, he received approval to form a Tactical Team. He put out notice to all of the field troops and garnered 11 volunteers. 

Training jointly with agencies out of state has become standard with the New England State Police Administration Conference (NESPAC). Training together means they would response to similar situations in a like-minded way, regardless of where the trooper was from.

One of the initial team members was Lt. Gerald Coleman (retired).

'As the team evolved, the training and equipment evolved with it. It wasn't overnight and funding was scarce,' said Coleman. 'We started out with a lot of donated equipment BDU uniforms from the national guard. We had some hunting rifles and scopes that were leftover from the anti-sniper team.'

After training with other agencies, they were able to bring back recommendations from other teams in the country and were able to improve their equipment over time.

But Maine also had unique challenges when it came to high risk incidents.

'Being in the state of Maine, we also know that things can happen and barricaded felons can escape into the woods,' said Falconer. With connections with the Navy, Falconer and his team were able to participate in a four-day, three-night survival course in the mountains of Maine. The training scenario involved dealing with a barricaded felon with hostages while living off only one freeze-dried meal per day and whatever food they could catch off the land.

'On the last night we were there, we had 11 inches of snow. We learned a lot. We had plenty of water, but lacked food and it stymied some of our thinking process,' said Falconer. 'It was a very good confidence builder.'

Other early training involved hostage situations on air planes. Around that time there had been an airplane crash at Loring Air Force Base, and it was determined that they should learn about some of the mechanics and construction of air craft if the Tactical Team was needed to secure a crash site. 

Falconer said that over the course of his career he attended trainings at Northwestern University, Houston, Texas (hostage negotiations), Nashville, Tenn. (Tactical Team Operations), the FBI Academy and the FBI National Academy. He has also taught NESPAC courses on Tactical Team operations.

Over the years the team has changed dramatically.

'This Tactical Team that they have [currently] in the State Police, in my opinion, is second to none. They are awesome,' said Falconer.  'They train a lot and are very good. They have good leadership and some really dedicated members of that team. They have good equipment you compare our Tactical Team to this one and it's like comparing a typewriter to a computer.'

But Falconer helped establish some aspects of the Tactical Team that are still in effect today.

'I think we were ahead of our time,' he said.

'It's ever-evolving. It doesn't stay the same. It can't.' said Coleman. 'It's an awesome team.'

The Evolution of a Team

The Tactical Team has undergone several changes in leadership over its three decades in existence. Sgt. Richard Golden (retired) came on the Tactical Team in 1985, and had the benefit of many of the original members. After the shooting death of Katherine Hegarty in her cabin in 1992, the Attorney General ruled that the Maine State Police Tactical Team be automatically activated for situations after they reach a certain level of risk.

'There was a dramatic increase in the number of calls over the years,' said Golden.

Training has been a constant, but the amount of training the Tactical Team receives has steadily increased over the years.  But Grass noted that as calls for service increases, the violent nature of the calls has also increased, underscoring the need for more training. 

 'Tactical work is a perishable skill that you need to training constantly. You need to rely on experience and the more calls you participate in will increase your experience dramatically,' said Golden. 'There's a level of value when you are in that line of work when you base a lot of your decisions on past experience.'

Golden said that the training regimen increased from a week-long annual training to training three days every other month.

'That's a minimum for a team like that. The administration has realized the worth and value of having a trained team, that under pressure or stress will fall back on what you trained to do,' Golden said. 

Many agencies around the state began using the State Police Tactical Team as a tool for the high-risk incidents. And one of the reasons you don't hear much about the Tactical Team is because they are content to be used as a tool. Over the course of 30 years, the Maine State Police as a whole have been involved in close to 40 incidents in which deadly force has been utilized. Over the past few years, the Tactical Team has been called to approximately 50 calls of service per year, the majority ending without utilizing deadly force.

'[Not using deadly force] doesn't make headlines. I can tell you unequivocally, there have been dozens and dozens of people saved because situations were resolved peacefully, and that includes people who wanted to harm themselves. They were talked out of killing themselves,' said Golden.

One of the reasons deadly force can be avoided is the close working relationship the Tactical Team has with the Crisis Negotiation Team.

'The whole purpose of any event is to successfully negotiate that person out without using any force whatsoever. If we don't use any tactics perfect,' said Grass. '[The Crisis Negotiators] talk them out and he or she gets put where they need to be. My whole purpose here is to do it the safest way for the public, police and suspect.'

And this philosophy is important when choosing possible team members. Grass doesn't necessarily want the biggest and the strongest.

'The biggest thing we look for in members is the ability to think and perform under pressure. You can teach [members] tactics, but you have to have someone who can think on their own,' he said. 'We have a fairly difficult tryout process.'

One of the biggest things Grass is looking for in a potential team member is that trooper excelling at his regular job. All applicants must have been a trooper for three years prior to becoming a Tactical Team member.

'The most substantial attribute we look for in new Tactical Team members is how they perform their primary duty functions. I don't have the time or the patience to deal with a marginal employee in his or her primary job,' he said. 'Think about the enormous sacrifice it takes to be on this particular assignment. Someone who is doing marginal work on their primary assignment will not do well here. We look at their whole attitude: professionalism, how they operate day to day, how well they keep their car clean.'

And that's all before the trial phase.

'We have a fairly difficult tryout process it's fairly stressful both physically and emotionally. There's a physical fitness test. [The Tactical Team] has a higher standard than the other specialty teams,' Grass said. 

Once the team member is chosen, training begins immediately with basic training with the prospective team member sent to a NESPAC basic school as soon as one becomes available.

But the call ratio for the Maine Tactical Team is higher than many of the surrounding states, and team members on the Tactical Team often arrive at the basic school with 'on the job training' (OTJ) and tend to perform well in the basic courses due to that, Grass said.   

This level of commitment is necessary due to the demands that being on the team involves.

 'They may have worked a full shift before being called out,' said Lt. Coleman. 'They may have just gotten back to their families for dinner and been called out. It's a huge commitment and responsibility. The public should be proud of the people who step up and do it.'

Gadgets Don't Make the Team

When thinking of how the Tactical Team advances over time, one can't help but focus on the gear. When the Tactical Team was first formed, cell phones didn't exist. The internet didn't (really) exist. And technology has been a boon to law enforcement and the Tactical Team.

Now, photos of a suspect can be disseminated from the command post to every team member via cell phone. Perimeter maps can be viewed and distributed virtually instantaneously. But if they have a piece of equipment, it has to serve a distinct tactical purpose.

But technology also poses challenges.

'Before [cell phones], if we had a suspect on a phone at a barricaded incident you could pretty much rest assured that you knew where he was,' said Grass. 'Now, people don't have land lines. They have cell phones. And that is a bit of a tactical disadvantage.'

But as high-tech as things are, all agree that it isn't going to be gadgets that define the team. Devices can fail, batteries can die, connections can be lost. When that happens, the team needs to function, and that's where the cohesion of the team becomes critical. Grass said the team strives to be 'brilliant at the basics.

'What we take pride in, is being really good at and continually refreshing our basic tactics,' said Grass.   

Working with Others

One of the major duties of the Tactical Team is to work with other agencies that don't have a team of their own. There are several agencies in the state that do maintain a team, but due to the extreme expense of equipment and training most don't. This explains the high volume of calls that the unit responds to annually compared to other states in New England.

'[The MSP Tactical Team] is a very small team that services a huge population. We have to develop good relationships with other agencies,' said Lt. Coleman. 'We don't go into town and take over. We respect the agencies that are there. Our team is concerned with the mission and isn't concerned with promoting what the team does.'

When they respond to the call of another law enforcement agency, they are basically there to assist. 

'I think other agencies have been very responsive. When I was commander and responded to the scene, I was there as a tool of that agency,' said Golden. 'Once my job was done and the situation was resolved, everything was turned back over [to the primary agency]. We were there to do a job and not steal any thunder. I kept a very low profile. There were some interviews after some situations, but most were referred to the requesting agency and rightfully so.'

This is a philosophy that carries through to the current team.

'There's a high percentage of our requests that come from agencies other than our own. Our philosophy is that we're assisting them,' said Grass. 'This is their call, their investigation, their incident and they're just utilizing a resource.' 

Remembering the Fallen

In 1994, the Tactical Team lost Jeffrey Parola when his car left the road in Sidney as he responded to a domestic violence incident. His death is still keenly felt by his team and coworkers. Parola is remembered fondly by all who knew him as a dedicated and motivated trooper. In the five years he worked for the state police he was nominated five times for Trooper of the Year and was awarded Trooper of the Troop at his barracks in Troop J. He had been awarded the Maine State Police Award for Bravery earlier that year for a Tactical Team call that had occurred in York, Maine.

Son of Gerald Coleman, Lt. Christopher Coleman, who currently is the head of the Maine State Police Major Crimes Unit North, was a member of the Tactical Team in 1995, becoming commander from 2001 to 2002. He left the unit for 13 months and returned from 2003 to 2006. Coleman trained with Parola in the academy.

 'It was something we talked about on the team. I think it's fair to say everyone thought of him on the way to subsequent calls. It was a tragic accident that should never have happened,' Lt. Coleman said. 

To this day, the Tactical Team gives an award to a member that best exemplifies what Jeffrey Parola stood for. 

The Jeffrey S. Parola Foundation was formed to give assistance to the families of Maine law enforcement personnel who have experienced work-related injuries, illness or death in the line of duty and to provide donations to Maine law enforcement agencies for safety training and to provide the purchase of safety-related equipment.

Grass said that Parola's memory is very much alive today. Monthly meetings begin with a moment of silence for Parola. After the silence they take a moment to address driving. And when the Tactical Team included ball caps as part of their BDU uniforms, Parola's patrol number 326 was embroidered on the back.

The safety equipment that has been purchased with the money donated from the Foundation has saved lives. 

'Jeff's memory and dedication is definitely alive and well with the Tactical Team in 2013,' said Grass.

The Bonds of a Team

Being on the Tactical Team involves sacrifice and hard work and a dedication that goes beyond what many people invest in their daily jobs. But all the members have described a bond that is formed with their fellow members that is incredibly strong. And it's built up throughout the entire history of the team to the present. Each member carries the cumulative experience of the members that came before.

 'While on the team, there were many shared experiences, some dangerous, which forged unbreakable bonds and established lifelong friendships,' Lt. Coleman said in a follow-up email after the interview. 'The knowledge that the Tactical Team had to resolve the situations it faced, that there was no one else to call, was a source of satisfaction unmatched in my career. I felt like we were called in when things were at the worst, most severe and highly volatile. This caused a mental state of having to be ready for anything, any time, so [I would] not let my teammates down. As a young leader, I felt accepted. By that, I mean that the team had my back and would not let me fail. There was an environment of mutual respect. On the team, I witnessed courage under fire. I saw outstanding leadership and felt true friendship.

'I am proud of my time with the team and feel I had an extraordinary opportunity to work with the most dedicated, courageous and skillful group ever assembled.'

Sgt. Nicholas Grass: 'I would like to say that everyone has heroes. My heroes are my teammates. There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not honored, humbled and grateful to be part of such a cohesive group of solid operators who consistently place themselves in danger to protect the citizens of Maine. Their judgment, dependability, courage, enthusiasm, loyalty, dedication, sacrifices and strong work ethic is endless. And for that, I am truly blessed to be part of it. I know we spoke of different aspects of the Tactical Team; however, the most important component is the warriors who make it just that: a team.'

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