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Area SWAT teams converge at South Coast Plaza — not for trouble but for training

SWAT team members enter the former Sears building during a training exercise on Thursday at South Coast Plaza.
Members of the Buena Park and West County SWAT teams enter the former Sears building Thursday during a training exercise at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Police officers — rifles drawn and K-9s at the ready — descended upon Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza Thursday, not for trouble but for training as the West County and Buena Park SWAT teams conducted drills at the site’s vacant Sears building.

The scene may have looked menacing to the untrained eye, but getting teams together to practice coordination, communication and tactical strategy helps keep skills sharp, according to Sgt. Donald Farmer of the Fountain Valley Police Department, one of five member agencies that make up the West County SWAT team.

“Each and every day you’re not training is a day your skill set is not as strong as it was before,” Farmer said Thursday. “You’re working with people from different agencies with different tools and equipment, different communication, but we all have to be on the same page when it comes to SWAT,” he continued.

A K-9 police officer participates in a training Thursday with the West County SWAT team at Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza.
A K-9 police officer participates in a training Thursday with other members of the West County SWAT team at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Often, unoccupied commercial or industrial buildings may serve as training grounds for different units, who convene from multiple agencies and must work together on a common mission. Operating from an actual scene, as opposed to a training campus, helps give the lessons a real feel, Farmer said.

Officers Thursday began their training day sharpshooting at a range set up at the Westminster Police Department, part of a required monthly qualification course, before they loaded up their respective armored vehicles with heavy equipment and made tracks for South Coast Plaza.

Buena Park and West County SWAT teams held a training exercise Thursday in the former Sears building at South Coast Plaza.
Members of the Buena Park and West County SWAT teams held a training exercise Thursday in the former Sears building at South Coast Plaza.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

There, participants practiced clearing out a building and worked across teams on different scenarios SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team members might encounter while working in the field. Such drills help acclimate police officers to specialized scenarios they might not otherwise face on duty.

Recently, the two teams practiced at a college campus where a structure was slated for demolition — a rich opportunity to break down doors and engage in acts that might otherwise damage a building. Farmer said the former Sears site, which closed a few years back, was an ideal spot.

“We don’t have the permission to break anything, but they were gracious to let us train here,” he said of the building’s owners.

West County SWAT team members draw arms Thursday upon entering the former Sears building at South Coast Plaza for training.
Members of the West County SWAT team draw their firearms as they approach an entrance to the former Sears building during a training exercise on Thursday at South Coast Plaza.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

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