Sunday, January 21, 2018
News Roundup

SWAT team is ready for duty in Pasco

Chief James Steffens ushered me quickly out the back door of the New Port Richey Police Department, past a group of federal agents investigating what had become the talk of the town.

He had just met with those agents. He had just wrapped up an interview with CNN. Other national media wanted to set up interviews. They wanted all they could learn about Roy Antigua, the mystery man whose traffic ticket had led the city police to his house and a hefty collection of phony military uniforms and CIA, Homeland Security and U.S. Customs credentials.

Steffens wanted more, too. He was personally offended that Antigua had fooled him at a Memorial Day ceremony, dressed as a Coast Guard lieutenant commander with a chest full of ribbons. He said the imposter had disrespected war heroes.

But for now, Steffens had to leave this mystery to his detectives. "We're going on a house call,'' he told me.

Moments later, about 3:45 Wednesday afternoon, I found myself wearing a protective vest in the library at Fox Hollow Elementary School. A few dozen heavily armed men in olive drab fatigues sat in chairs made for little children and listened carefully as their team leader walked them through their latest mission.

Narcotics detectives had called on the Pasco Sheriff's SWAT team, concerned that a planned drug bust in Port Richey might involve weapons. I sat nervously a few feet from a panting German shepherd named Thor, who would get a piece of the bad guys if they ran. The team leader flashed pictures of the suspects and videos of the house on a large screen near a large poster of a bear holding a sign that said, "The letter R is for Reading.'' The chaplain led a prayer asking for wisdom and safety.

The team assembled in the library because their usual meeting place was occupied and the school was only a half-mile from the target. It seemed odd to watch a briefing about criminals in a place where signs encouraged children to behave. Fox Hollow teachers preparing their classrooms for the new school year must have been alarmed to see so many men with rifles and an assault vehicle.

Steffens wanted me to see the SWAT team in action because he is so fiercely proud of how it has advanced in the year since Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco made it a priority and did something that must still surprise law enforcement veterans who know most departments are hopelessly territorial. He included New Port Richey police in a "unified team'' and made Steffens the commander.

Understand: In this county, the Sheriff's Office is the Big Dog. The cities are small and lack the same resources. Nocco reached outside his own department last June to find his leader, and at the time Steffens was only a lieutenant. He became chief in December after Jeff Harrington left the department for a command position at the Sheriff's Office.

Steffens, 43, understood the challenge. He ran the Clearwater police SWAT team six years before retiring as a lieutenant in 2009. Nocco admired Steffens and wanted him to model the Pasco department after the one he led in Clearwater.

Steffens still had to prove he belonged. He organized intensive training for his volunteer force at Camp Blanding, recruiting Pinellas County SWAT instructors. He blended his own city officers with deputies who had to qualify for the team, which now numbers close to 50. He set up a demanding set of qualifications, mainly physical, for candidates.

"We're the 911 for the 911,'' Steffens said. "The best of the best. It didn't take long for these guys to size me up. They can spot bull---- a mile away. Being a member of special operations is what defines me. It's a privilege. The men know that now.''

The mission last week was the 59th since Steffens took charge. He has been at 55. Two ended with a suspect being shot, one in Dade City fatally.

This marked the first preplanned mission that ended without the team taking action. The main suspect left the house before detectives could serve their warrant. Six hours of waiting ended with Steffens, dressed in his New Port Richey blue, standing in the middle of his men.

"We're going home,'' he said, "and that is good.''

They reached into the circle and touched hands, much like a football team. In unison, they yelled, "Pasco SWAT!''

Steffens, whose week started with calls about stray dogs, stopped back at his office at 9:30 p.m. His wife had prepared a nice dinner. He would have to heat it up. He didn't seem to mind.

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