"You can come along - if you can keep up."
Lodi Police Detective Sierra Brucia gave me the friendly challenge about six weeks ago, when I expressed an interest in seeing the department's SWAT team from the inside.
Five months ago, I put on a protective sleeve and let a police dog-in-training bite me. A year ago, I let the police officers zap me with a 50,000-volt Taser gun.
People still talk about that Taser incident, but it was time for my next police challenge.
When Brucia said I could join the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team for a half-day of training, I began to hear comments from employees in the police department.
The comments weren't negative, but it was clear that people wondered how on earth a female reporter could even attempt to keep up with the SWAT team made up of 12 men. I'm not one to back down from a challenge, so I began running before work nearly every morning.
I did draw more comments, though, when I said I would not be doing things like pull-ups due to rather painful tendonitis that sometimes flares up in my writing arm.
"Oh, sure, now the excuses start," one SWAT team member had said, despite my protests that writing is more important to me than most things.
|With notebook in hand, Lodi News-Sentinel reporter
Layla Bohm runs with the Lodi Police Department's SWAT team as
members begin training Thursday morning along Hutchins Street.
On Thursday morning, I found myself wearing running shoes and carrying a reporter's notebook as I set out with 10 members of the SWAT team.
A deputy public defender arriving for work saw me and called out, but I couldn't stop to say hello because the SWAT team had already begun running.
Before we had gone a block, we stopped at Emerson Park, where the team had to do a total of 100 pull-ups. They were the hard kind, too, with the palms facing outward.
Keeping up with the team
Soon we were off again, running south on Hutchins Street. I was determined not to be at the back of the pack, and I wasn't - two officers were behind me.
Though we were running, that didn't keep the team members from making occasional jokes. They quipped about a lawn mower being operated nearby, and more than a few references were made to the recent baseball playoffs.
"Careful, Layla's writing down everything," Sgt. Chris Piombo said jokingly.
We arrived at Legion Park on the corner of Vine and Hutchins streets, where most of the team
members took one look at the tall fence around the tennis court and decided to scale it. A few of us saw an open gate, so we took the common-sense path into the tennis court.
|At the end of the Thursday morning Lodi Police
Department SWAT team training exercise, penalties need to be paid.
Chris Jacobsen and Mike Oden take the first set and do three
push-ups each as the other unit members waits to do theirs.
Penalties can be for shooting or training infractions, or lagging
times. (Jennifer M.
Near the jungle gym, the officers dropped to do 25 push-ups, and then we were off again.
Though the run was a total of a mile-and-a-half, my lungs gave out about halfway back. The newspaper's chief photographer was following in her car and offered me a ride, but I refused; I had said I would run, and I was determined to do so.
I trailed the team by about a block, but caught up as the officers were still climbing over a wall at the police station.
"While you're up there, can you find my tennis ball I lost?" Detective Dale Eubanks called to the team as he walked past.
That wall was another exercise I passed up because of my arm, but I later learned that several court employees were watching out the windows and would have cheered if I'd gone over the wall.
Trying it all out
The running was over (I hoped), but the day had only just begun. Soon the team members were putting on heavy vests and gear.
|Lodi News-Sentinel reporter Layla Bohm carries a heavy
shield back from the Lodi Police Department's SWAT training
exercise Thursday morning at Salas Park. (Jennifer M.
I tried on Cpl. Jose Nuno's vest and instantly felt 30 pounds heavier.
"That's the purpose of the run. If we have to run in these vests for a short distance, it feels like what we just ran," Nuno said.
The last time the SWAT team was called out for a full-scale operation in Lodi was in late June, when they were searching for a homicide suspect.
Twice in 24 hours, the team received a full "call-out," meaning that each member was paged and told to report for work as soon as possible, Piombo said.
In that incident, the weather hovered near triple-digit heat as the SWAT team wore their full gear. Standing in Nuno's vest Thursday morning, I couldn't imagine wearing it for hours at a time in the middle of summer.
We proceeded to the shooting range in the basement of the police department, where each officer had to shoot 15 rounds from a handgun at a target 25 yards away.
When they were done, Officer Chuck Fromm let me put on his gear and shoot his gun.
Though I grew up in an area where hunting and fishing were a way of life, the only guns I'd ever shot were the kinds filled with water.
Now here I was, wearing a heavy vest, a large helmet, kneepads, elbow pads, a large belt with more gear, earplugs and goggles. When Detective Scott Powell has all of his gear on, it adds a total of 50 pounds to his weight. I believed him.
Though the officers had shot at a round target, they decided to have me shoot at the outline of a man's upper body. I believe Powell said something about thinking of ex-boyfriends, but I was soon distracted by the fact that I was holding a loaded gun in my hands.
Fromm is left-handed while I am right-handed, so that's my excuse for doing a rather bad job at shooting. I'm still not sure which eye I was supposed to close, and I also need new contacts, so those are also good excuses.
This much I do know: If someone ever sees me with a gun in my hands, they will probably survive.
As officers swept up bullet casings and cleaned their guns, Brucia told them their next assignment involved a staged carjacking.
We piled into the team's large, armored car and were on our way to an empty lot on South Stockton Street.
"Patrol responded to an armed carjacking. They chased the car to a parking lot south of here, and the car went through a gate. Patrol stayed behind the gate and set up a perimeter," Brucia told the team, adding that one suspect ran from the vehicle while another one stayed inside.
The officers loaded their guns with "simunition" that looks like a small paint ball stuck in a bullet casing and then stood in a line for a weapons check.
"This is the part we check and double check," said Lt. Gary Benincasa, who has been on the SWAT team since it was formed in 1986.
Twice, the weapons were all examined to make sure there was no lethal ammunition that could harm the officers. Then they got back in the armored car with some riding on the outside as they approached the scene.
Benincasa stood in front of the others, holding a shield in front of him and wearing protective guards on his legs, in addition to his vest.
"There's a rifle barrel sticking out of the driver's side," one officer said as they got closer to the "suspect" car.
Some of the team members split into smaller groups and began making their way through thistles and weeds.
"OK, cover them. We've got guys on the move," Benincasa said.
Picking up a megaphone, he began talking to the "suspect" still in the car.
"This is the Lodi Police Department. Put down your weapon and come out with your hands up," he said several times.
The "suspect," better known as Detective Mike Kermgard, finally emerged from the vehicle, wearing camouflage and holding a large semiautomatic weapon. In reality, the weapon was just a paint ball gun.
Benincasa finally convinced "suspect" Kermgard to set the weapon down and then walk toward officers, who then took him into custody and pretended to cuff his hands behind his back.
Because the scene was fake, I couldn't help but smile when officers asked Kermgard which way the other suspect ran, and he said he couldn't point because his hands were cuffed.
Meanwhile, officers moved forward, carefully getting into place before searching the vehicle. They then continued moving forward, some crouching behind gravel piles and in thistles.
The search seemed to take forever, especially because they had to look behind mounds of gravel and chunks of asphalt.
Under normal situations, the search would have taken even longer, but the exercise was cut short. The detectives on the team were needed to conduct a real search warrant in an unrelated matter, so the SWAT team gathered in a circle to discuss the good and bad points of the exercise.
I carried Benincasa's shield back to the group, and though it didn't seem too heavy at first, I was more than willing to give it back to him after about a minute. The idea of holding it for hours - while wearing 50 pounds of gear in triple-digit heat - was a bit too much for me.
Soon we were back at the police department, where it was time for "penalties."
"You know, we could have a penalty-free day," one officer said, but the idea hadn't even crossed Brucia's mind.
All 12 team members got down on the ground in a circle, where they had to do push-ups based on how well they did at the shooting exercise.
One pair only did three push-ups and another pair did 36, but all team members stayed in the push-up position until they were done.
An important part of the SWAT team is the camaraderie and the ability to work as a group, Piombo said, and it's obvious that the team members all get along well. Even on their days off, I've seen small groups of them having lunch together.
"This is the tightest-knit group in the department," Piombo said, adding that it makes a difference when they're in a dangerous situation and must rely on one another.
Each team member must be up to both the physical and mental challenges. They're also always on the job, as they wear a pager at all times, Piombo said.
"We're like a family," added said. "I've been on the team for 10 years, and I still love it."