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St. Petersburg tactical police unit honors fallen officers at family barbecue

When the St. Petersburg Police Department's Tactical Apprehension and Control team gets together, an emergency usually awaits.

An armed suspect barricaded inside a home. A raid on a drug house.

But after the city lost three police officers in the line of duty in recent months — including a member of the TAC team — Lt. Greg Schwemley realized that had to change.

The team needed to be more of a family. So did their families.

"I thought it would help if we committed to a day for everyone to meet each other," he said.

They did just that Saturday at an extended family barbecue at Countryside Country Club. Officers brought their spouses and children and spent the day poolside, grilling and hitting the inflatable water slide.

There are 43 police officers on the team, and 13 SWAT paramedics from St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue. But, as their commander said, "a lot of these people have never met before."

That's because the city doesn't have a full-time SWAT team. They train together once a month, but spend most of their time in their full-time jobs, like patrol and canine. They work all kinds of shifts.

That makes it hard to bond, Schwemley said. It also makes it hard for their families to develop the kind of social network they can rely on in tough times.

"There were some things that happened during our call-ups," he said. "I heard about some wives who were really distressed. Well, who do the wives have to turn to when we're leaving out the door?"

The team spent part of the day off honoring the three fallen officers: Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger, Officer David S. Crawford and canine Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, who was on the TAC team.

Lorraine Yaslowitz, the officer's wife, was there with her three children. So were his parents, Harvey and Janice Yaslowitz.

The team presented them with framed photos of Yaslowitz posing with the TAC team.

"We loved him, and we love you guys," Schwemley told the Yaslowitz family, his voice breaking. "We're not over it yet."

The commander also told the family that they had renamed the team's command vehicle — known simply as "the command vehicle."

From now on, the command vehicle will be known simply as "Yaz."

"The thought was, wherever the team goes, Yaz goes," Schwemley said. "He'll always be there on every operation, every training … He'll always be with us."

Framed photos were also handed out to TAC officers who took part in the Jan. 24 gun battle that led to the deaths of Yaslowitz and Baitinger. Members of the TAC stormed the house where both officers had been shot and, under fire, carried out Yaslowitz.

The team also honored their "newest" member: Dr. Steven Epstein, medical director of trauma services at Bayfront Medical Center. He attended to all three fallen officers this year. He also was the surgeon who saved the lives of two undercover officers shot in 2008 and 2009.

Epstein was given an official TAC pin: it's pewter with a sword over an AR-15 rifle over an eagle.

"Really it's been my honor to be around these guys," Epstein said. "It's not the pin that counts, it's the sentiment."

The pin is given to rookies after they finish probation. But the doctor has been the team's unofficial surgeon since 1985.

"I'm off probation," Epstein said.

Schwemley hopes to have these gatherings once a year, especially because of the reality every TAC officer must face.

"Life is so short," he said, "and time is precious."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg tactical police unit honors fallen officers at family barbecue 05/03/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 7:09pm]
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