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Another SWAT team for Harford County may not be needed [Editorial]

That Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace are considering pooling police agency resources to form a single SWAT team is an idea with some merit insofar as it would be less expensive than having each of the three municipalities form its own special unit for dealing with dangerous situations.

Then again, the taxpayers of Harford County — including those in the three municipalities — already pay for a police tactical unit, the one that's under the command of the Sheriff's Office. Similarly, Maryland State Police have some pretty specialized units that can be called in to deal with unusual situations.

Unfortunately, over the years, the need for specially trained officers with skills ranging from sniper shooting to hostage negotiation, to tactical assault has been demonstrated across Harford County. Sometimes their services are called for within the municipalities; sometimes they're needed elsewhere in the county. Always the situations are harrowing.

The subject of establishing a unified municipal SWAT team was first broached in Aberdeen at a recent meeting of the city council, and the leaders of the other two municipalities gave some indication the idea has merit. Certainly it does, as it would have the advantage of giving the local agencies direct access to specially trained personnel, without having to pay the full cost of establishing and maintaining a full SWAT team.

Then again, an even more cost-effective solution may have been hinted at when Bel Air Police Chief Leo Matrangola noted that a town police officer already serves as a hostage negotiator for the Sheriff's Office's Tactical Response Team. Considering that there wouldn't be a strong response-time advantage for the municipalities in forming a three-part team, as its members would have to respond to emergencies from their home agencies, possibly the better solution would be to take advantage of what's already in place within the sheriff's office, by augmenting that team with representatives from each of the three smaller agencies.

It's not a particularly far-fetched idea, and there's already a model in place for having such an arrangement in the county's narcotics task force. Over the years, the county drug task force, which has had different names, has had members from the Sheriff's Office, the state police and the three municipal agencies.

Sometimes there is substantial representation from the various agencies; sometimes one or another of the agencies pulls back its officers. This reality of how the drug task force has waxed and waned in terms of agency participation over the years highlights the key problem with any agency that has mix and match membership from a variety of police agencies. Invariably, people in one or another of the communities involved will conclude that it is giving more than it is getting, and decide to scale back its involvement or pull out entirely.

There's good reason for such evaluations: Paying to put an officer on the street is an expensive proposition, costing tens of thousands of dollars, and a single officer from one of the municipal agencies represents a lot of the available personnel hours available in given week.

Given that there are substantial police tactical resources available through the Sheriff's Office and the State Police, the leaders of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace would do well to consider a closer alliance with the larger agencies before doing what could amount to reinventing the wheel.

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