Local Crowd Management Team ready and waiting
Published: Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 8:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 9:53 p.m.
Meet the team responsible for restoring order in Alachua County during its most critical moments, whether it be a riotous crowd or a devastating storm.
The score of Alachua County sheriff's deputies known as the Crowd Management Team has served as the foundation of a multi-agency response to thousands of University of Florida fans celebrating victories on West University Avenue. The sheriff's team also was deployed in 2012 to the former Dove World Outreach Center when pastor Terry Jones burned copies of the Quran in protest.
Don't be fooled by the name of the team. From tough standards in fitness and firearms accuracy to proficiency in handling a chain saw, the group is ready to lead the county from turbulent times to the inevitable calm that waits on the horizon.
“We've expanded our responsibilities over the last 15 to 17 years, although we still handle crowd control,” said Sgt. Eric Hester, a supervisor for the team. “You've got guys here who can handle a wide variety of issues that the county as a whole may face.”
The Crowd Management Team is the county's top response to acts of civil unrest and other large crowds that show signs of becoming unruly. All officers in Alachua County — from the University of Florida to Gainesville police departments — are trained to enforce rowdy droves of people, but the county is generally looked on as the base effort to regain control.
“The CMT, consisting of deputies with special skills, training and equipment, are trained to resolve these situations with a minimum of force, personal injury and/or property damage,” Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell wrote in an email. “The CMT is also utilized in searching for missing/lost persons and during state of emergency situations.”
Long ago, local agencies resolved to provide a carefully calculated response to growing crowds where force is a last resort. A first line of officers will observe a crowd and then decide the most effective way to maintain control. The “gentle touch” tactic is vastly different from images of heavily armored police officers on military vehicles prowling the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, as protesters turned out in response to the Aug. 9 officer-involved shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.
The results of a national survey released last week by the Pew Research Center showed that of 1,000 adults, 65 percent of African-Americans felt police went too far in responding to the shooting's aftermath. Whites were divided, with 33 percent saying law enforcement went too far while another 32 percent felt the response was about right. Another 35 percent of whites in the survey offered no response.
The Crowd Management Team responds to unruly gatherings in waves. A first line of deputies marches forward with shields, and another behind them will arrest the top few aggressors normally encouraging the most rebellious behavior. Other groups will follow in all-terrain vehicles or work to deploy less-than-lethal munitions such as rubber or beanbag bullets, tear gas or smoke under the direction of command staff on scene.
No ammunitions are fired without careful consideration, Hester said.
“Just about anything we fire is called out so everyone knows what's out there,” Hester said.
Like other North Central Florida law enforcement, Alachua County deputies first work to make contact with groups planning demonstrations. Previous UF national championship celebrations and the Dove Outreach Center were good examples.
“We pretty much knew what to expect,” Hester said. “And that's generally the way we like it.”
The team meets monthly to train on a long list of tasks it might be called upon to complete. For instance, the group spent Tuesday morning testing an array of chain saws that could come in handy if the county is faced with a storm during this year's hurricane season.
“We actually had someone from (Gainesville Regional Utilities) come out to train them on how to clear branches,” Hester said. “This is important if we need to clear a road, or even clear a deputy's driveway so he can get to work after a storm.”
The demands of the Crowd Management Team are tougher than those for a regular deputy. Each member is trained to withstand miles of marches wearing protective gear that weighs 25 pounds. Also, each teammate must be able to fire a gun with 90 percent accuracy, which is 10 percent higher than a regular deputy.
“I want these guys to be trained to handle it all,” Hester said.
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