When Deputy Sheriff James W. Plum runs across people who wonder why Stafford County possesses a special weapons and tactics team--otherwise known as a SWAT team--Plum said he tells the doubters that the county is no longer a backwater.
"The problem that Stafford has is that it's urban and rural, and we have everything from stills to drug smugglers," Plum said. "I don't think people really realize what's going on down here. We're not backwards any more."
Stafford, with a population of 43,000, has had a SWAT team since 1974, and Plum, now its commander, has been a member since 1976. Plum was in charge May 5 when a distraught, gun-wielding man held SWAT members at bay for more than six hours while firing random shots from a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle and claiming to have plastic explosives and grenades.
When the man finally emerged from the house, Plum said his years of training kicked into play almost as if by instinct.
"When he came out, he was pointing the gun at different people," Plum recalled. "When he stepped off the stoop we were getting ready to go in. Then he came toward me. I'm the one that shot him. I could have been killed, yeah, if I hadn't had the training.
"If we had sent just a regular deputy, he might have gone to the door and gotten shot," he said.
The role the SWAT team played in that incident and others like it is dictated by "Standard Operating Procedures" that the team members practice monthly. Plum said that, under those procedures, when two SWAT members respond to a disturbance, they will find when they arrive an oversized van-like truck containing their camouflage clothes, protective vests, automatic rifles and other equipment.
The SWAT operation in Stafford County is similar to Prince William County's, except that Prince William has four times as many regularly sworn officers in addition to its 10 SWAT members. Loudoun County also has a SWAT team, but similarly rural Fauquier County does not.
Prince William Chief of Police George T. Owens said that, out of a force of about 200 police officers, the county has two five-member SWAT teams whose officers also double as regular patrol personnel.
Plum said that, while there are costs to Stafford County for the SWAT team, they are minimal--less than $2,000 a year, he said. But eyes were raised when deputies from the 50-member sheriff's staff went before the Board of Supervisors last year asking for $10,000 to buy a used fire truck. They wanted it to be a special SWAT team vehicle.
"We had been looking at different trucks, but we bought it from the Falmouth Fire Department so the money would stay in the county," Plum said.
"Of course, it was a big laugh," said Supervisor Lloyd Chittum, who put the purchase request on the agenda. "A lot of people just shrugged it off. A lot of people thought it was too much money. I thought it was a very good expenditure."
Although chief Owens in neighboring Prince William says his county got a truck for less than $1,000, Chittum said he doubts that Stafford's northern neighbor has as good a vehicle. "We didn't want something that when you go down the road the damn thing falls apart," Chittum said.
Board chairman Charles Wandrick was one of the two supervisors who voted against the request.
"At the time, the money hadn't been allocated and I simply could not justify the expense," he said. "I wasn't convinced we needed the truck , and I'm still not convinced. There's nothing wrong with having the team. It's a nice thing to have. But I'm just not sure we need it. You know, that's the kind of thing they have in the larger cities."
Plum said that, in addition to being used by the SWAT team, the truck is often used by deputies on the county's scuba team, which stores its equipment inside a compartment on the truck. For every one time the vehicle is used for incidents needing SWAT participation, Plum said, there are one or two times it is used by the sheriff's department because of its features. It has a generator and floodlights, he said.
Incidents for which Stafford's SWAT team is called into action occur about once a month. That's compared to the three times a month Prince William's SWAT team responds and the four times a year Loudoun County's is needed.
SWAT members attend FBI Academy classes at the Quantico Marine Base and receive training from the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Plum said the deputies who volunteer for the SWAT team do not receive any increase in pay nor are they given special promotions.