In the mid-70s, the ABC television network had a show called “S.W.A.T.” that popularized the work of special tactical teams. In 1976, when the Columbia Police Department formed its own tactical team, it used the acronym STAR, standing for Special Tactics and Response team.
Now, 31 years later, the STAR team has been renamed the Special Weapons and Tactics team to comply with the Department of Homeland Security’s classification for civilian police teams. The change, however, is only in name, according to a Columbia Police Department news release.
The STAR team was established after a series of incidents in which three suspects, two citizens and three police officers were injured, according to the Columbia Police Department’s Web site. The team was first used in 1978, when a murder suspect barricaded himself in a public housing building. The first hostage situation came in 1984 when a 59-year-old man took a 19-year-old woman hostage and threatened to kill her and burn down the apartment they were in. Both incidents were safely diffused.
The philosophy of the STAR team has undergone changes over time. In the beginning, weapons like the M-16 and semi-automatic guns were considered much more firepower than police needed, said Capt. Mike Martin. Now, they use high-powered sniper rifles and submachine guns.
The team is divided into four subunits: rescue, arrest, sniper and containment. Each subunit is led by a sergeant who reports to Capt. Tom Dresner, the commanding officer. They are trained to handle precarious episodes, but because these situations do not happen regularly, the team is not a standing unit.
“It is a part-time team,” said Dresner. “All members have other full-time assignments.” The team is composed of detectives, school resource officers, patrol and community action team officers. All Columbia SWAT team members are volunteers because of the dangerous nature of the job. They are issued a cell phone and a pager through which they are contacted when situations arise.
Detective Bryan Liebhart, one of six detectives on the team, said the team responds to high-risk situations that are too timeconsuming for day shift officers.
“We do five to 10 searches a month,” Liebhart said.
The STAR team regularly serves narcotic warrants, said Martin, because they have the potential to become confrontational.
Among the qualities sought in SWAT team members are good eyesight, non-smokers, and firearm proficiency. Along with their division training, SWAT members train for an additional eight hours each month.