The Foothill communities’ protective force.
by Justin Davis-Battle
photography by Cameron Barr
The tenacity of Samuel L. Jackson, the strength of LL Cool J and the brains of Colin Farrell. Is this the star-studded Hollywood cast of “SWAT”? No, but even though the Foothills Special Enforcement SWAT Team (FSET) might not be as famous, it is just as tough. FSET is a regional special weapons team whose members come from the La Verne, Glendora, Irwindale, San Marino and Monrovia Police Departments. They are charged with saving lives.
Sam Gonzolaz, former Marine and current FSET long rifle, has been an officer for 12 years and a member of FSET for seven. “What sets us apart from other SWAT Teams is that we are comprised of five agencies with five different personalities,” Gonzolaz says. FSET is the first and only regional SWAT Team within Los Angeles County, and the members are proud of that distinction. Currently on FSET from La Verne are four operators, plus one long rifle, crisis negotiators from the La Verne Police Department and tactical medics from the La Verne Fire Department. “With us being a regional team, it gives guys in the area a chance to become SWAT Team members,” team Lieutenant Nick Pas says. “It also costs less for the city police departments, being that we split the cost.”
For an officer to become a member of FSET, he must first pass a series of tests, including a physical examination and shooting proficiency with rifles and handguns. Prospective members then face in-person interviews with the team lieutenants. “To be a member of FSET, you have to be able to work as a team, be in great shape and have a good shot,” Pas says. “Also, it is required for them to pass the physical test every quarter.” Being in great physical shape is critical for these men. FSET officers have a 40-hour week coupled with training plus extended summer training. “The physical conditioning is the hardest part of being on FSET,” Corporal Chris Fenner says. These officers, referred to as “operators,” handle any situation while wearing more than 80 pounds of gear. Each operator has a first aid kit to treat a teammate. The gear they carry includes gas masks, body armor, helmets, an M4 machine gun, a breaching shotgun and water. “These officers are physically able to work a 12-hour patrol shift and go straight to a call and be on duty for another eight straight hours,” six-year officer Corporal Shawn Dinkle says. “They must be physically and mentally tough.”
The primary purpose of FSET is to save lives. This is accomplished through the deployment of carefully selected, well-trained personnel who have the appropriate tools and tactics to handle different high-risk situations. “The idea of working with a group of guys who are specialists is very exciting,” Pas says. “You get to use different equipment than normal police work, and you can venture out to more cities.” FSET members handle everything from barricaded suspects to hostage situations to serving high-risk search warrants. “I’ve had to handle a situation with a guy wanted for attempted murder as well as guy with a bomb in a bank,” Pas says.
Unlike normal officers who train every few months, FSET trains every two weeks, and each member has attended various SWAT schools offered by L.A. County Sheriff SEB, LAPD SWAT and FBI SWAT. During training, they prepare for a wide range of conflicts, including breaching techniques, reaching suspects who are barricaded, rescuing a downed officer or victim and working with a K-9 partner. They also have a day devoted solely to hand-to-hand combat training, so in the event they are unarmed, they can still take down an assailant. “I like to get knowledge from being on a tactical unit and bring it back to my patrol shift,” Dinkle says. Because of their extensive training, there is always one FSET member on patrol, and he is expected to take the lead when incidents emerge. “You need to be able to be in the state of mind and know that people are counting on you to do the right thing and be that tactical officer,” Dinkle says. “That’s the type of discipline that it takes to be on this team.”
Throughout their training and on-call duties, FSET has become a close-knit group. And many of these men are living their dreams through membership. “I’ve always wanted to be a member of a SWAT team since I was a kid, and this is a dream of mine; when we roll, we all roll together,” Fenner says. They also convey strong team camaraderie and know each other well. This bonding and knowing each other’s personal traits makes the team strong. “There’s not one guy that you wouldn’t want to hang out with on this team,” he says.
Because of their training and expertise with weapons, FSET members are authorized to use weapons that a patrol officer is not. “Our rifles are smaller and fully automatic, while others are semiautomatic and longer,” Fenner says. FSET also has three robots that aid in tactical operations such as surveillance, inspection, negotiations, equipment delivery and object retrieval/disposal. All of FSET’s massive trucks are filled with specialized equipment. “We have a camera we can throw through windows, cutting torches, distraction grenades and a million other things,” Fenner says. FSET has multiple weapons to handle any situation, and with their training, they can handle all of them like a professional. The foothill communities can take comfort in knowing that FSET is on hand, ready to put their lives on the line for the citizens they serve.