Delaware State Police Special Operations Response Team to be full-time

DOVER — For the most dangerous and delicate situations, Delaware State Police call members of one specialized small group: the Special Operations Response Team, Delaware’s equivalent of a SWAT team.

Its troopers handle a wide variety of incidents, from ending shootouts to protecting foreign officials to serving warrants to high-risk subjects, and they do it while responsible for other policing duties.

Now, the SORT, currently a part-time squad, is poised to become a full-time group after lawmakers on Tuesday agreed police operations would run more smoothly if members of the team were dedicated solely to the kind of high-risk operations SORT typically handles.

“In short, it is time,” said Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican who once served as commander of the team.

While the Joint Finance Committee has not officially settled on the details yet, the money for the team will come from the Fund to Combat Violent Crimes, which receives funding from civil and criminal fines.

Legislators are expected to draft the relevant language for the budget bill next week.

Tuesday’s discussion follows a conversation budget-writing lawmakers had in February with officials from the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, when several members of JFC advocated for reforming the SORT into a full-time team.

“There’s a lot of special missions out there the state police need to do,” Rep. William Carson, a Smyrna Democrat who broached the issue Tuesday, said during the initial discussion more than three months ago.

According to state officials, the team has responded to an average of 111 incidents a year over the past eight years, at a cost of about $225,000 in overtime last year.

Members may be in the middle of their other duties when the call comes, and so police sometimes have to bring in other troopers to handle those duties while those on the team respond. They may also be off the clock, meaning overtime is still required even though no replacements are needed for patrol or other responsibilities.

According to Sen. Lawson, responses can be delayed by more than an hour in some cases “because you had to draw folks from all over the place.”

Secretary of Safety and Homeland Security Robert Coupe told JFC in February officials have considered creating a full-time 10- or 15-person team. A 10-member squad would cost about $1.2 million in the first year and less than $1 million per year thereafter.

Mr. Coupe suggested using the Fund to Combat Violent Crimes to bankroll the group.

According to the Delaware State Police annual report for 2016, SORT assists with “hostage incidents, armed barricade incidents, high risk warrant service, high risk vehicle stops, dignitary protection, surveillance assistance and any crisis situation deemed appropriate by the executive staff.”

Most deployments are for executing warrants or vehicles stops, with the latter often involving suspected drug cases.

The team trains on a monthly basis, focusing on hostage situations, forced entries, weapons training, covert operations and specific hypothetical scenarios. Its members include snipers and bomb disposal experts.

It was called 89 times in 2016, down from 143 the year before.

Senate Majority Whip Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, noted Tuesday the part-time nature of the squad makes it harder for members to train and said making it full-time is a “no brainer.”

The Department of Safety and Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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