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2014 Niagara Falls police budget includes funds for SWAT vehicle

NIAGARA FALLS – The Niagara Falls Police Department’s 19-member Emergency Response Team, also known as ERT or SWAT, are the city’s elite – a highly trained unit called upon regularly to handle potentially volatile situations.

But Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto says they were lacking the proper equipment, which must be updated on a regular basis. Most importantly, they needed an armored vehicle.

“They are called in primarily for narcotics, high-risk raids,” DalPorto said. “They are called in for hostage situations – which happens more often than you think – any type of barricaded building or if we are unfortunate to have an active shooter. They are specially trained and equipped to handle emergency situations.”

DalPorto said the Niagara Falls unit is one of the busiest teams in Western New York and added, “In my opinion they are the best.”

The commander of the ERT unit is Capt. David LeGault and the deputy commander is Lt. David Cook.

“It also incorporates two snipers – if we need them,” DalPorto added.

DalPorto said the department is constantly attempting to upgrade equipment to be prepared for these emergencies, but when the city was strapped for cash awaiting its casino revenue, it had to hold back on some needed updates.

“They work under such dangerous conditions. We want them, as a city, to have the most advanced equipment,” said DalPorto, noting that since the Falls is an international border crossing, it needs to be prepared for cases of terrorism at the bridges.

In the Police Department’s 2014 capital budget, more than $400,000 will be spent on upgrading the unit, including new bulletproof tactical vests and a $250,000 specially outfitted armored vehicle, which has been ordered and will arrive in eight months to a year.

DalPorto said this will be the city’s first armored SWAT vehicle. Up until now, the department has had to rely on the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, which is a half-hour drive away.

“These situations are fluid and if we need this at the bridge or at a school, half an hour doesn’t cut it for us,” he said.

DalPorto said the shelf life on a SWAT vehicle is 15 to 20 years.

He said the department is well trained and an experienced ERT is already called upon to assist other communities in Erie and Niagara counties, as well as the Drug Enforcement Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“It’s really long overdue,” DalPorto said of the new vehicle. “Certainly with the volume of work these guys do, we probably should have had one long ago and didn’t want to take chances by not having one. It’s really a safety factor for the officers and the community.”

Cook said the standard armored SWAT vehicle, which includes armored windows, also will offer protection from improvised explosive devices and will have the capacity to detect for explosive gas and radiation, as well as a detachable ram unit, which will assist in reaching doors.

“In different situations – when someone is threatening to shoot you – you can get to the front of the house,” Cook said of the vehicle.

LeGault said there have been a number of situations where officers wish they had had an armored SWAT vehicle.

“Three years ago, we had a guy who said he had a bomb strapped to his body and he ended up putting himself in the trunk of a car,” he said. “It was very difficult to negotiate with this guy because he did threaten to have a bomb, but we needed to be close to him,” LeGault said of negotiations. “We reached out to the sheriff department and they did bring out their truck. It ended up with a peaceful resolution, but we don’t know how it would have ended up had we not had that truck.”

LeGault said that last year, shots were fired at officers and citizens at a large gathering in a city nightclub. He said the people being shot at, both police and citizens, were pinned down until they could fully evacuate.

“In a similar situation, we would have that truck available where we could get over to them and get them out much more safely,” LeGault said.

He said that in a past hostage situation, the unit had to get a mother and a child out of a house, but had to put them into harm’s way to lead them away from the house.

“If we had this vehicle available to us, we could have driven right up to the point where the people were at and then driven them out, to safely get them out of there,” LeGault said. “There’s an awful lot of applications and we will be using it more and more.”

The new ballistic tactical vests for ERT and narcotics officers, who also execute search warrants and quick entries, are upgraded vests with more protection for the arms, shoulder, groin and throat.

In addition, they have purchased a hostage-negotiation phone, which is more durable and advanced than a cellphone, and can be thrown through a door or window where a person is barricaded, allowing police immediate contact.

Other new items being purchased for use by the detective bureau are an updated lie detection system and new facial recognition software.

“When you see those obscure pictures on the news where nobody can make out the face – this has a database of facial recognition features and we are better able to put together suspects from those pictures,” DalPorto said of the new software.

He said the department also will purchase an explosive/gunshot residue tester, a handheld device that immediately detects gunshot or gunpowder residue in an area or on a person.

“They don’t come cheap,” DalPorto said of the new high-tech equipment. “But to make a safer community, that’s the price you pay and we will do anything we can to combat crime.”