March 14th, 2009


Police riot force trains for St. Patrick's Day

The Wolf served as an officer on both the Chatham County and Savannah Police Departments between 1977-1980, working three St. Patrick's Day Parades. Both departments are now combined as the  Savannah/Chatham Metropolitan Police.

(Arek Sarkissian Savannah Morning News)

"Nothing says cease and desist better than a crowd of officers in riot gear pounding their shields while slowly marching forward.

There isn't a science to it either, Savannah-Chatham police Mobile Field Force Unit commanders said during a Tuesday morning training session. Their goal is to scare people into submission.

"It's one of the few occasions where we can intimidate people," said metro Lt. Harry Trawick, commander of the unit. "And that's the biggest part of what we do."

The field force unit met at the Coastal Empire Fairgrounds in Tatemville to brush up on crowd-control skills just in time for St. Patrick's Day, Trawick said.

The unit trains six times each year. The training includes marching in formation while wearing torso and leg protection equipment similar to that of a baseball catcher. Each member also wears a Kevlar helmet outfitted with a projectile-resistant face mask.

On Tuesday, the group members used batons to pound their clear plastic shields while marching, creating a deep, commanding drone.

As the unit moved forward, other officers ahead of them hurled smoke bombs and tennis balls, creating a rough simulation of what an unruly situation could look like.

Although the force hasn't gone against a disorderly crowd, it received plenty of training before the 2004 G8 Sea Island Summit.

"We trained so much then that now it's kind of like second nature," said metro Sgt. Henry Brown as he placed his riot gear in the trunk of his cruiser. "A lot of the officers who were there for the G8 Summit are still with us, so we're fairly strong."

At least 52 officers from across the department make up the unit. Applicants are evaluated to make sure they have a calm temperament, said Lt. Don Lee, who is also a unit commander.

"We take a lot of verbal abuse from time to time and we need to make sure they can handle that," Lee said.

Trawick said the unit has a variety of tools used to subdue a crowd, from tear gas to 12-gauge shotguns firing less-than-lethal ammunition.

Each situation is different and physical contact is a last resort, he said.

The unit has a trailer designed and constructed by officers to house things like protective gear and first-aid supplies. Most weapons and ammunition are held elsewhere, he said.

After taking on the flurry of smoke and tennis balls, the marching group pushed its mock offending officers from the large fairground parking lot.

"Notice how we were able to herd the crowd any way we wanted," Trawick said. "The key here is that they didn't say anything. Verbalizing won't work."

The group then took its bullying to the street, running a training convoy across town to the Savannah Mall."