The Martha’s Vineyard Tactical Response team, a highly trained group of police officers, was created to quickly respond to emergencies on a geographically isolated Island. But last week the team was called to join officers from around the state in a large manhunt for one of the suspects in the Boston marathon bombing. The search united local police teams in a strong show of force, and brought events closer to home for Vineyard police officers and their families. Island police officers attended Wednesday’s funeral for MIT police officer Sean A. Collier, a police academy classmate of a Tisbury police officer.
The Martha’s Vineyard team was called to assist with a massive manhunt Friday in Watertown for Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Eight members of the tactical team arrived in Boston around noon on Friday, when Watertown and surrounding communities were on lockdown and officers were searching for the suspect.
“It will probably turn out to be one of the biggest manhunts in history, Oak Bluffs Lieut. Timothy Williamson, commander of the tactical team, told the Gazette. “I’ve never seen so many police officers. It was just incredible . . . I was proud to be a part of it.”
The team consists of members from five of the six Island police forces: Lieutenant Williamson and Edgartown officer James Craig, Aquinnah officer David Murphy, Chilmark Sgt. Jonathan Klaren, Chilmark officer Sean Slavin, Edgartown officer Nicholas Phelps, Oak Bluffs Sgt. Steven Conley, Oak Bluffs Det. Nicholas Curelli, Oak Bluffs officer Jeffrey LaBell and West Tisbury officer James Neville.
Last Wednesday, the tactical team also was called to Boston for an overnight shift securing hotels and a hospital.
On Friday, after checking in at a command post at the Boston Common, the team headed to a staging area at Watertown’s Arsenal Mall. They were paired with the Cape Cod Tactical Team and were taken to the inner perimeter of the search area.
The group was given a map and assigned to search Prentiss street and Keenan street.
“So we got our marching orders and headed out,” Lieutenant Williamson recalled. The Martha’s Vineyard team took one side of the street and the Cape Cod team the other. They were told to go house to house looking for the suspect, and told to look “anywhere a body could hide.” They also were told the suspect was likely injured, and to look for blood. An armored vehicle accompanied them.
“We all had certainly a heightened sense of awareness, alertness,” he said, noting the suspect had “shown his propensity for violence.” The lieutenant gave the team a pep talk in the van. “Hey, this is a real deal, guys, get your game faces on,” he recalled saying.
The team was on edge, he said. “I wouldn’t say scared. This is what we train for.”
The search was methodical. “You name it, wherever you thought someone was hiding,” Lieutenant Williamson said.
While the team conducted their searches, officers back at home followed their progress. “I think knowing you actually had police officers up there in the middle of it makes it even more nerve-wracking,” Edgartown police chief Antone Bettencourt told the Gazette. “We were all hoping for a good conclusion.”
The tactical team’s off-Island work created staffing problems in some police departments, Mr. Bettencourt said, but others pitched in to help. He said Edgartown sent an officer to Chilmark. “We all adapted,” he said.
After about five to six hours and about 30 houses searched, the Martha’s Vineyard team was relieved and headed back to command to get some food. At that point the search was called off and the group got in a van to be taken back to Boston Common. A police officer directing traffic stopped the van, Lieutenant Williamson recalled.
“We were like, why is this guy stopping us?” he said. The officer told them that a body had been found in a boat, at that point believing the suspect was dead. It turned out Mr. Tsarnaev was hiding in the boat about a mile and a half away from where the team was searching, but was captured alive.
“We were happy to hear that they had located the suspect,” he said. The group listened to the story unfold on the radio. “It was exciting, I tell ya.”
“We were all happy to be a very small part of it,” he said. The group sat and listened to coverage on the way back towards the Cape. “It was kind of surreal. We were all just happy they got this guy and the nightmare was over.”
After a bumpy ride through wind and rain on the Oak Bluffs police patrol boat, the tactical team was home by 11 p.m. on Friday.
“It was amazing, especially Wednesday night. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more appreciated as a police officer in my entire career,” Lieutenant Williamson said.
The tactical team was created in 2006 to allow quicker response to incidents on the Island. Prior to this, the Island relied on the state police tactical team, which could take two or three hours to arrive on the Island. “A lot of bad things can happen in two or three hours,” Lieutenant Williamson said. He and Officer Craig started the team which receives the same training as SWAT teams from the rest of the state — one week of SWAT training, one week hostage rescue school and SWAT commander school.
“We’re just as trained as they are,” Lieutenant Williamson said of other teams. Beyond the 10 members, the team has three FBI trained hostage negotiators and tactical medics. The team has had some calls on the Island, he said, such as for high risk search warrants, but “nothing of this magnitude.”
The group is partially funded with federal Homeland Security money, so it is expected to provide help for incidents such as these.
At the Oak Bluffs selectmen meeting Tuesday, Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake said Watertown is a community “not unlike” the Vineyard, with about 30,000 people. “Can you imagine this happening on the street with bombs going off,” he said.
“I couldn’t be prouder of them,” he added. “Some people said, why would we need this here?” he said of the tactical team, but noted that not only did the Vineyard team provide help, but other teams would come to the Island if needed. “I was proud to be their chief.”
This week about 20 Island police officers attended Wednesday’s funeral for Officer Collier, who was shot last Thursday while on duty. It is believed he was killed by the marathon bombers.
“It was probably one of the biggest police events that I’ve ever attended,” West Tisbury police chief Dan Rossi said, recalling the 15,000 people who paid tribute, including Canadian Mounties and members of the military and police officers from San Diego and Tacoma, Wash. “It was an incredible send-off for Officer Collier,” he said. “It was pretty emotional at times.”
For Vineyard Haven police officer Jeremy Rogers, the loss was more personal. He was a police academy classmate of Officer Collier and MBTA traffic officer Richard Donohue Jr., who was shot when police exchanged fire with the suspects. The class of 27 was hit especially hard by last week’s events, with two of the small group injured or killed. “Odds are incredible that that could happen,” Officer Rogers said.
He said he hasn’t been able to see Officer Donohue, but has heard updates about him through another classmate. “He’s doing much better,” he said.
Officer Rogers attended private funeral services and the memorial service for Officer Collier with the rest of his police academy class.
“He was a fantastic guy,” he said. “He was always there to help someone. He was funny, incredibly intelligent. A great guy.”
“It was nice to be able to be with everyone and to be there and have a good showing for our class,” he said.