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Valley News Dispatch

Local SWAT team to help northern Westmoreland County communities

Mary Ann Thomas
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Courtesy of New Kensington Police
The New Kensington/Lower Burrell CERT team’s armored vehicle helps deploy heavily armed and trained police officers.

Upper Burrell is the fifth community to join in a SWAT-like team covering northern Westmoreland County to respond to high-risk events such as active shooters, barricaded gunmen and serving drug warrants.

This new multi-municipality Community Emergency Response Team (CRT) is a team bound by a mutual-aid agreement among New Kensington, Lower Burrell, Upper Burrell, Vandergrift and Washington Township, with invitations still pending to Murrysville and Allegheny Township.

The new group adds to the exiting New Kensington/Lower Burrell CRT, which New Kensington started about 20 years ago.

They always wanted more communities involved but previous efforts never got a foothold, according to Tim Weitzel, Lower Burrell police chief and one of the administrators for the New Kensington/Lower Burrell CRT.

“Pennsylvania has lots of small police departments for whom it would be tough to support a CRT team,” he said.

Having a number of communities involved defrays costs for everyone and allows for just a few officers needing the special training.

But the big appeal for the smaller towns is the speedy response time — minutes instead of the hours it sometimes takes for the state police CRT team to assemble and travel, according to Upper Burrell Supervisors Chairman Ross Walker.

Walker and Weitzel agreed that a local CRT team is a way to provide better protection to residents by more quickly handling a “higher level of threat.”

The problem is that it can take a couple of hours for state police to deploy its CRT team with some of its members coming from as far as Erie, according to Weitzel. While waiting for the state CRT team, local police are faced with holding the perimeter of a crime scene until the state team arrives.

“But when state police come, they are well-equipped and trained,” said Weitzel, who added they still will be called upon.

Rapid deployment

Just last year, the New Kensington/Lower Burrell CRT team and its armored vehicle de-escalated a barricade situation involving two suspects and four guns, including a fully loaded AK-47 behind the front door of a Victoria Avenue home in New Kensington.

Two suspects from an armed robbery fled to the home. Uniformed police set up a security perimeter and the CRT team was deployed, parking its armored car in the front yard where the two men were barricaded, according to New Kensington police Chief Bob Deringer.

When police in the armored car asked for the suspects to surrender, the front door cracked open and a white flag was thrown out.

The armored vehicle and CRT team’s show of force brought a “peaceful end to an incident that started with obvious threats of violence with those firearms,” Deringer said.

Events requiring a CRT team are uncommon. In New Kensington, the joint team had seven call-outs in 2016, then just a few in 2017 and six call-outs in 2018, according to Deringer.

Good deal

The mutual-aid agreement provides for CRT team coverage to all municipalities that join. Each member municipality must provide at least one police officer who will be specially trained for CRT. That municipality is responsible for paying its CRT team officer when deployed, regardless of where an incident takes place.

Most, if not all, expenses for equipment and training are being taken care of.

“We have delivered a CRT team at a bargain-basement price,” Weitzel said.

New Kensington already has an armored vehicle donated by the federal government, which was decommissioned by the military. Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck is providing special vests valued at $3,500 each and other equipment. Deringer is working on the training and plans are for that to be free as well.

There are 10 members of the New Kensington/Lower Burrell CRT. The new municipal team could have up to 20 CRT officers, providing a larger pool of officers.

Recently Upper Burrell Police Chief Ken Pate worked with a local business, Versa-Fab Inc. of Upper Burrell, to provide custom seating for the CRT’s armored vehicle. Then, a second business, the Valero RV dealership in Delmont, provided lights for the vehicle at a deep discount.

“That is stuff we would have had to work into our budget,” Pate said. “It’s nice to get that pro bono and the lights discounted.”

Correction: The location of Versa-Fab Inc. and the spelling of New Kensington police Chief Bob Deringer’s last name have been corrected.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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