FILE PHOTO. West Covina SWAT, Police along with other local agencies surround a home on East Cortez St. where gun fire was heard in the early morning and a suspect was found dead inside the home on Thursday, April 9, 2014 in West Covina, Calif. (Photo by Walt Mancini/Pasadena Star-News)
By Mario Boucher
A young police officer had just joined the newly formed Special Problems Detail for the West Covina Police Department in 1968 when he was thrown into the line of fire.
Now a lieutenant, Jim Elroy and his fellow officers answered the call of a gunman holding a woman and her child hostage in El Monte on Aug. 19. Unfortunately, the new Special Weapons and Tactics Team — only the second such unit after LAPD at the time in Los Angeles County — was short on vests protection.
“At the time, we had two surplus M16 rifles and two surplus U.S. Marine body armor,” said Elroy. “That meant you have a five-man team, but only two can have body armor, and we had to decide who gets it.”
The team managed to free the woman and her child using tear gas and advanced to flush out the suspect, who ended up firing on them.
“He hit me in the chest and knocked the fire out of me,” he said. “I thought the bullet had been stopped, but then I saw some blood running down my arm,” said Elroy, who thought he had only a couple of minutes to live. “What happened was the bullet hit the ceramic plate in my vest, and a piece of it went off into my arm, and it turned out to be a superficial wound.”
Elroy was one of the lucky two. Thanks to the protection, he didn’t even go to the hospital.
“Back then, for a medium size police department to even have a tactical team was unheard of,” Elroy said. “I look at the equipment the team has today and it’s just light years ahead.”
By comparison, today’s officers are well equipped with top tier safety and rescue weaponry, including a new Lenco Bearcat armored rescue vehicle designed to protect police and residents during incidents. SWAT now includes:
- A hostage negotiation unit.
- A robotics unit.
- The SKIDDS (SWAT & K9 Interaction During Deployment School) unit.
The robots are often used to enter homes, as was the case last year during an incident at the 1300 block of West Roxbury Street. A man with a gun allegedly threatened other residents, then barricaded himself before shooting himself in August 2017. SWAT used a robot with a camera to break a window and look into a room. The man was found with a gunshot wound.
Over the years, the department has refined how it works with the dogs in coordination with the SWAT team.
“They can’t be too aggressive, but they have to be aggressive enough as we want them to be,” said Lt. Tommy Garcia, who was part of the team for 27 years, starting in 1984. “There are certain techniques to get the dogs to do the job the right way.”
SWAT has kept the community safe dealing with a number of incidents over the years, including a standoff on Badillo Street in February 2010 that ended with a SWAT member killing a suspect who was holding hostage a family of four.
“Our SWAT sniper did exactly what he was trained to do,” then-chief Frank Wills said at the time. “He saved the life of a citizen.”
Months later, facing severe budget problems, West Covina city leaders axed the SWAT program. The officers themselves worked out a way to make their team cost-neutral so they could keep the unit alive. The force was reinstated months later with those concessions.
“When you get a group of individuals that are on SWAT they just want to do what’s right for the team,” Garcia told this publication at the time. “It’s something the department personnel and the team themselves want to see succeed and remain.”
Interviewed recently, Garcia said West Covina police chiefs have helped make the department a leader in the valley and throughout the state.
“It’s always been that way in West Covina that leadership expected us to be ahead of the curve and we always had the people to do that,” he said.
Lt. Pat Benschop, the current SWAT Commander, said West Covina officers train at least 16 hours each month sometimes with assistance from the LAPD, LA Sheriff’s Office and SWAT teams from other cities in the country.
“Despite being the exactly same amount of personnel in SWAT (16 officers, two sergeants, and one lieutenant), there is a bunch more support personnel that are provided for the success of any mission,” Benschop said. The team recently won first place honors and individual awards in the Baldwin Park CHP shooting competition.
“It helps keep the community safer and that is invaluable,” Benschop said. “I can’t imagine this department operating without a SWAT team.”