Members of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office emergency response team train regularly and provide services to communities outside the El Paso city limits. (Photo courtesy of El Paso County Sheriff's Office)

An “emergency response team” of law enforcement officers from smaller agencies in El Paso County is raising questions about need and liability from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department and a national law enforcement organization.

The Socorro Police Department is spearheading the development of the regional emergency response team, which includes 12 of its officers. The team would also include three police officers from the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Police Department, one from the Horizon Police Department, 12 from the Socorro Independent School District and three from the Canutillo Independent School District Police Department, the participation of CISD is still pending.

The team says it will train threats from transnational criminal organizations, response to active shooters, protecting soft targets and crowded spaces, and responding to other regional threats and hazards.

Sheriff Richard Wiles said the new emergency response team is unnecessary.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me (based on) the statistics,” said Sheriff Richard Wiles. “It just doesn’t make any sense and I think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

David Burton

Socorro Police Chief David Burton, who was hired at the beginning of 2019, said one of the driving factors to develop the team was the Aug. 3 mass shooting at Walmart where a white supremacist allegedy killed 23 people in what authorities have described as a racially motivated attack. 

That put (the need for) a tactical operation type capability on the radar,” Burton said.

Burton said other factors led him to create the team, including gang and organized crime activity that are beyond patrol officers’ ability to respond. 

The El Paso region currently has at least four active SWAT and emergency or tactical response teams that include the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, the El Paso Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, or BORTAC.

“We had one incident within the city that we used both El Paso (police) and sheriff SWAT teams for and we still needed additional resources on top of that,” Burton said.

Burton did not elaborate on the incident, but said that there are instances when multiple facilities or residences need to be responded to at the same time.

Question of need and liability

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team already serves areas outside of the city limits, including the Town of Horizon City, the City of Socorro and unincorporated areas of El Paso County.

It has been deployed to assist the Horizon City Police Department three times in the last four years — once in 2019 and twice in 2020. The SWAT team has not been deployed to assist the Socorro Police Department in the last four years, according to the department.

Wiles said the SWAT team would currently take on the financial liability if the department was sued after an incident. But a new team — and the multiple agencies and taxpayers involved — would have to foot the bill for future potential lawsuits.

“They would take on the liability and the cost involved is going to be tremendous,” Wiles said.

Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, said developing emergency response teams is expensive and requires a significant commitment for proper training.

Thor Eells

“For three operations in four years, it might be a little bit difficult to rationalize the expenditure of that resource when you have two very capable teams there with the city and in the county,” Eells said. “I know a lot of the people on the teams that currently exist and they are very, very capable teams.”

Burton said part of the agreement between the agencies requires that the majority of the funding  is provided through grants, but each of the participating departments will be responsible for  supplying officers with body armor and other equipment.

In fiscal year 2021, the agency received $60,477 through the State Homeland Security Program – Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Activities project.

The list of equipment on the application included explosive entry equipment, direct impact reloadable shot training kits, training pistols with fixed sights, simulation marking rounds, a tactical training door, binoculars, tactical gas masks and canisters and ballistic shield protection against small arms among other items.

The team is currently requesting $166,783 in grant funding for equipment for fiscal year 2022, which includes $100,000 for police radios, $36,000 for ballistic shields and other equipment including protection against small arms, a negotiation throw phone system and ballistic helmets, among other items.

Not a “SWAT team”

Burton said the primary function of the team will be to conduct rescues and ensure that residents and officers are safe.

“We’re not a SWAT team, we’re an emergency response team and the reason why there’s a delineation on that (is) we don’t have all the capabilities that SWAT has. (An) emergency response team is a little bit at a lower level, but it does allow us to do a tactical operation, which is above the level of the patrol officer,” Burton said.

Members of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, since renamed the emergency response team, prepare for a mission. (Photo courtesy of El Paso County Sheriff’s Office)

The grant document summary states the project will enhance the Regional ERT’s capability to prevent an act of terrorism and protect citizens and visitors against potential terrorist attacks through specially trained and equipped “tactical officers capable of responding to high-risk emergency incidents.”

Wiles, who has been in law enforcement for 40 years, said that is exactly what a SWAT team is.

He said the purpose of the teams is to rescue hostages or others held against their will. He said the secondary part is to rescue the subject without having to harm him or her.

“It’s a step above the average patrol officer to respond to incidents that require additional officers with additional training and equipment. That’s exactly what SWAT is,” Wiles said. “If the patrol officer can’t handle it, that’s when they call SWAT and SWAT can handle a wide variety of incidents in different levels of response.”

Wiles said many law enforcement agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office, have started switching to the name “emergency response team.”

“People are getting away from SWAT because it sounds too militaristic, (but) it’s exactly the same thing.” Wiles said.

Eells said that based on the equipment being requested, such as explosive entry equipment,  training requirements will need to be met.

“If you believe that you need explosive breaching capability, then you probably better be training to the level of the SWAT team as we define it,” Eells said. “To mince words and play around and say, well, we’re not really a SWAT team — we’re just this is, is doing exactly that. It’s mincing words, and it’s dancing around the issue.”

Eells said the real issue becomes justifying the need to expend those types of monetary and personnel resources when those capabilities already exist. 

Training commitment 

Eells said part of the issue with preparing a new team is the time commitment involved.

“You’re pulling personnel from their regular assignments,” he said.

In order to be trained to respond to a hostage rescue, which is considered the gold standard, a minimum of 16 additional monthly training hours are required, he said.  That means officers are pulled from their regular assignments to train every other week. Additional training is required if more complex operations are involved. 

Burton said the ERT is currently training twice a month.

Socorro Independent School District Police Chief Jose Castorena said the force has 50 officers and 12 are training with the ERT, but only four of those officers would likely respond to any events that may require it. He said the school board approved participation.

Joe Castorena

Castorena said the training for the officers would likely occur on a rotation where they would pick days that students are not in school. He said that could be on weekends, so that they are not necessarily leaving the campuses alone, or unmanned.

“The thought process behind this is that if we’re training together, we know how we’re going to react and that will allow for a better response in the event that something happens in our schools. So this way, everyone’s speaking the same language, and they know exactly how we’re going to react and we build support after that,” Castorena said.

A spokeswoman for the Canutillo Independent School District said Police Chief Carlos Carillo wanted to clarify that “Canutillo ISD officers are not on a city SWAT team. The city of Socorro Police Department invited our Canutillo ISD PD and other small police departments in the El Paso region to participate in an inter-agency emergency response team. We participated in specialized training to assist each other in critical incidents at a school, should they occur.”

The Canutillo Independent School District Police Department has seven officers. Grant documents show three officers from the district may participate on the ERT. Carillo said in an email that participating officers will train during their regular shifts.

The Canutillo police department has not sought approval from the school board for the memorandum of understanding with the other agencies, a district spokesperson said in the email. 

Cover photo: Members of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office emergency response team train regularly and provide services to communities outside the El Paso city limits. (Photo courtesy of El Paso County Sheriff’s Office)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...