By Magen McCrarey
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
In the event of a hostage situation, bomb threat or high risk traffic stop, Laurel County Sheriff John Root and his staff will ensure the public’s safety at all times with a specialized tactical response unit (SRU), which formed officially in late 2011. This Wednesday, six Sheriff’s officers met for training at an outdoor shooting range.
The sun set over the dirt-covered shooting range as Lt. Rodney Van Zant led the SRU through five tactical drills. All SRU members were certified in night operations.
“The worst thing to hear is a ‘click’ when you need a ‘bang’,” Van Zant said, regarding heavy tactical situations that involve the exchange of gunfire.
Detective Daryl Zanet is at the front lines of operations as a hostage negotiator. Meanwhile, Sgt. Chuck Johnson and Van Zant serve as snipers, laying low at a distant range to observe the overall situation, and Deputy John Blanton stands nearby as a 12-year paramedic and sharp-shooter along with Deputy Brett Reeves.
“What we do is beyond the scope of regular police activity,” Detective Jason Back said.
Sheriff Root initiated the SRU program to further service the citizens of Laurel County. On average, there are approximately six to 10 emergency calls or planned operations that occur each year that deploy the unit. The sheriff’s office has utilized their SRU over the past year to serve numerous narcotics warrants, warrants for felonies for wanted persons, and hostage or injured citizen/officer rescue with their team tactics and precision weapons.
“These are situations that must be dealt with a great degree of training, planning and experience,” Van Zant said.
Van Zant stated, often times, the SRU is called upon to assist a deputy who feels they need more manpower to accomplish a desired task.
“The deputy may find himself at a tactical disadvantage due to any situation that may fall outside the realm of ‘average daily patrol activities’ or because of the lack of deputy experience or training in any particular scenario,” Van Zant said.
The SRU is indefinitely on call to support law enforcement 24/7.
“It is a lifestyle. I enjoy the aspect of precision shooting and it doesn’t really seem like a job. It is a serious business but it’s enjoyable,” Johnson said.
In addition, their title as a SRU member does not override their everyday service to the department as a lieutenant, sergeant, deputy or detective.
“Being a deputy for the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office is being a member of the team. Being a part of SRU is no different. We are a tight knit group of deputies that have a strong desire to conduct law enforcement operations with an exceeding level of professionalism,” Van Zant said.
“Failing to plan is planning to fail. When I or any of our deputies are in route to a complaint, no matter how serious the circumstances, we begin to play different scenarios in our mind and what steps may be required to take in order to de-escalate the situation,” he said. “This pre-planning is based on experience and our continued training.”
Continual training is what enables the SRU to quickly act without delay or as Van Zant said, “Figure things out on the fly.”
When Laurel County Sheriff’s Office narcotics detectives procured a search warrant last year for a local residence in reference to the sale of prescription medication and the possession of stolen property, SRU was contacted to survey the situation. The unit gathered information on who was living at the location and followed their suspicious activities. It was determined there were approximately eight adults — in addition to one or two children present.
The SRU’s first goal was to plan and brief other law enforcement before stepping foot on the property to conduct a search warrant. With help of the patrol deputies as a containment team, a perimeter was secured to deny egress to suspects that may have tried to run.
“The warrant was executed swiftly with no injuries to suspects, children or deputies,” Van Zant said.
Located at the scene were numerous weapons, drugs and stolen property. The SRU was able to make entry, secure seven of the eight adults and children safely while the containment team located and secured a suspect who opted to run while SRU made entry.
Deputies within the Laurel County Sheriff’s Officer see themselves not only as servants sworn to protect the public, Van Zant said, but also sworn to protect each other.
“We all know and understand that if one of us are in harms way, all of us are in harms way until the potential is nullified,” he said.
Protective gear is worn by all officers at all times, and items special to the SRU include .12 gauge less lethal shotguns, less lethal tasers, smoke and gas grenades, .40 caliber handguns, a negotiation throw phone, thermal imaging, and entry tools such as a barricade ram among many others. The designated Special Response Unit is made up of Lt. Rodney Van Zant, Sgt. Chuck Johnson, Detective Daryl Zanet, Detective Jason Back, Deputy Brett Reeves, and Deputy John Blanton.
Of the six SRU member, two are snipers and one is a designated marksman.