Welcome to our new quarterly feature wherein we’ll spotlight a special operations team from somewhere in the United States (to start). In our inaugural issue of OFFICER Magazine, we’re launching this effort... so welcome to the inaugural issue of it as well! We’re going to start in the mid-Atlantic region, in southern Maryland, shore of the Chesapeake Bay—in Calvert County.
Calvert County, Maryland is less than a one hour drive southeast of Washington D.C. and sits on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s still a largely agricultural county (as this is written) and has a population of approximately 93,000 people (2019 estimate). With the Patuxent River on its western edge, it’s largely a peninsula split lengthwise by Maryland’s Route 4 which, if you follow it north and west far enough, turns into Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. The location of the county and its still-rural feel make it a desired location for folks who have to work in D.C. but don’t want to be quite so close to “city life.” Parts of Calvert County couldn’t even be referred to as suburbs.
The county law enforcement needs are served by the Maryland State Police barracks located in the county seat of Prince Frederick and the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office also headquartered in Prince Frederick. Sheriff Mike Evans is himself a retired Maryland State trooper and former special operations member of the State’s S.T.A.T.E. (Special Tactical Assault Team Element is what Maryland State Police call their SWAT teams) team, as well as being an Army veteran. We were appreciative when he and his Special Operations Team Commander, Major Steve Jones, made time to talk with us about the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Team (CCSO SOT), its history, missions, capabilities and more.
Both men credited the founding of the SOT unit to the late Lieutenant Tommy Buckler who, from what I understand, generally harassed the Sheriff in 1990 about creating such a team until the then Sheriff finally relented. At that time, with limited manpower, the team was stood up with personnel being assigned part time only. Whatever their full-time assignment was with the sheriff’s office, they had to do that as well as the additional training and assignments/call outs for the SOT. It wasn’t until 2006 that there were deputies assigned to SOT on a full-time basis. As of this writing, CCSO SOT has grown to have eleven full-time members and ten part time members. The part time assignments allow for additional training time and juggling other duty responsibilities. More on that in a bit.
Calvert County faces a few unique challenges that provided not only the need but the justification, and in some ways indirect funding, for the Special Operations Team. Sitting in the southern half of the county on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay is a nuclear power plant; the closest nuclear power plant to Washington, D.C. Not far from the nuclear plant is the largest Liquid Natural Gas storage/import/export facility in our nation. It regularly sees deliveries from the Middle East; ships carrying thousands of tons of liquid natural gas (LNG) sailing up into the Chesapeake Bay. Across the mouth of the Patuxent River from these two facilities sits the Patuxent River Naval Air Station or “PAX River” as it’s known to the locals. This is a shared military facility where aircraft and related equipment is researched and tested. To say that Calvert County contains a few unique challenges for national security related issues would be an understatement.
Part of the reason that the CCSO SOT went from purely part time to mostly full time in 2006 was due to the expansion of the LNG plant. Prior to that, the LNG plant was just an import and storage facility. However, when the ownership decided to add on exports, it had to increase the size and capacity of the facility and new security concerns existed. The Coast Guard held/holds primary responsibility for securing the waterway (Chesapeake Bay) around that facility but did not have the manpower to manage those responsibilities 100%. As a result, the Coast Guard entered a working relationship with CCSO to train and empower the SOT to manage the waterway security concerns. The LNG plant’s ownership provided additional funding to the county to cover the cost of necessary equipment and the additional training. Because of the expanded security and enforcement needs created by a commercial expansion, CCSO SOT grew from a part time team to a full-time unit with mixed full-time and part time personnel. The skill set for the team had to expand to include maritime operations as well.
Major Jones also pointed out that part of the reason the SOT was able to grow and expand in 2006 was due to the direct support of Sheriff Mike Evans. While many other Special Operations commanders or team leaders have to fight an uphill battle to get support or budget from their chain of command, since Sheriff Evans had spent twelve years on a special operations team himself, he understood the value and need before ever being elected. That kind of intuitive understanding motivates support and enables the leadership of the growing team to focus their energy elsewhere—rather than having to fight for basic needs and budget.
Located where it is, and with such varied responsibilities, CCSO SOT’s Basic SWAT School is longer than many at three weeks. One week is dedicated to maritime operations and that training was developed in conjunction with the Coast Guard’s Maritime Special Response Team (MSRT—we did an article about them in March 2016 issue of Law Enforcement Technology). Because of the SOT’s variety of responsibilities, greater training than basic is necessary for any full-time team member. CCSO SOT uses the part time positions as support and training positions meaning that while deputies are in the part time slots, they continue to be trained both by the team in its own protocols and at other schools for the necessary skill sets. Once a part-time SOT member has successfully completed all the training, which typically takes about three years, they also have three years of operational experience and can be moved into a full time slot.
Most special operations teams have some common duties they perform. Service of high-risk warrants, civil disturbance control or back-up, hostage rescue, barricaded suspects and more. The CCSO SOT has some duties that are a bit out of the ordinary. For instance, CCSO SOT serves all Emergency Psychiatric (EP) Commitments in the county. It’s probably a good idea and it’s a fair bet that the patrol deputies certainly appreciate not having to do it. Such EP commitments are exceptionally unpredictable and having SOT members with higher levels of training and potentially more options in less-lethal tools are better equipped to handle the unexpected.
The duty assignment that truly took us by surprise was that of substance abuse counseling and follow up. Wearing plain clothes and driving non-police vehicles (sometimes even their own personal vehicles), members of the CCSO SOT visit identified recovering drug addicts to follow up with them. The SOT members make sure the individuals have all the necessary information on recovery programs, support groups, medical treatment availability and more. It is a direct compassionate duty performance that almost completely contradicts the image of special operators.
For all that, the CCSO SOT members usually have a bit more training than the usual SWAT newbie. With a longer basic SWAT school than many areas and years spent in part-time positions as they continue to train, by the time a member makes the team full time, they are accomplished operators in both normal and abnormal (HAZMAT and Maritime) environments. Oh, did we fail to mention that every CCSO SOT member is HAZMAT certified? As such, they respond to all HAZMAT incidents in the county. The county fire department has some certified HAZMAT firefighters but SOT holds primarily responsible for all HAZMAT incidents in the county. That makes sense given that they might have to perform “normal” SOT duties in an environment related to the nuclear or LNG facilities.
Even with 21 SOT members in a county of 93,000, there are times where they need extra manpower, and they need the manpower to be trained to the right standard. In the high risk situations that require more than they can manage with the staff at hand, CCSO SOT has a mutual aid agreement with St. Mary’s County which is located across the Patuxent River. (Look for a future spotlight article about SMCO’s Special Operations section). What does that mean? It means that the CCSO SOT still needs to grow and holds that as a goal. Two dozen full time members wouldn’t be a bad accomplishment given the special challenges that exist in the county.