"Wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all the time?" commented a pleasant middle-aged gentleman as the two of us contemplated the large gathering of armed men in camouflage who had materialized in Payette’s Centennial Park. "I feel really secure with these guys around."
"Actually, I’d feel much more secure if the guns were in the hands of people who aren’t government employees," I replied, prompting a puzzled look from my new acquaintance. Centennial Park is located just inside the Snake River boundary separating Idaho from Oregon. For reasons I’ve yet to learn, every time I visit the park to do calisthenics and sprints — regardless of the hour of day — I’ll receive a visit from at least one police officer, who will typically do a very slow pass by my little exercise area while I’m huffing and sweating.
On this particular afternoon, however, the park was literally swarming with camouflage-clad "police" from the Malheur County Sheriff’s Department Emergency Response Team, in the company of at least one Payette County officer. They arrived in a caravan of more than a half-dozen vehicles, one of which was pulling a trailer carrying a large motorboat.
"Are you guys doing a training exercise?" I inquired of one fellow as he unpacked what appeared to be an AR-15.
"We’re just playin,’" he replied with a perfunctory smile.
That response was quite similar to the description offered by SWAT team member Michael Hale of a training exercise conducted just a few weeks earlier just outside of Vale, Oregon.
"This is fun," the second-year officer told the Argus Observer. "This is what I did in the military. I get to shoot guns and play in the dirt. It is what I did as a kid. I just get paid for it now."
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Although the Malheur County SWAT team did play a backup role at a police roadblock during a recent carjacking episode, they spend most of their time arresting marijuana plants. On two occasions last summer, SWAT operators — armed with assault rifles and with support from a helicopter crew — were deployed to barren locations in rural Oregon to clear out marijuana grows, thereby doing their part in the federal government’s "drug lord" price support program.
An August 29 SWAT raid on an abandoned marijuana grow near Gold Creek harvested some 1,000 forlorn, desiccated plants, "It was not a very big garden," commented Malheur County Undersheriff Brian Wolfe (who, as it happens, was in Boy Scout Troop 453 with me as a youngster). "A lot of the plants had already died out," Wolfe explained, emphasizing that the operation was a success because the plants that had been seized wouldn’t end up "on the streets."
Why was the involvement of a SWAT team "necessary" here? Wolfe insisted that this was necessary for "public safety," since hunters and campers occasionally stumble across marijuana farmers, some of whom "have been found with multiple firearms in the past."
I’m not confident that "public safety" is enhanced by this use of paramilitary operators. "Officer safety," on the other hand, probably is. During the August 29 operation the SWAT team advanced under cover of pre-dawn darkness. In such situations it’s important to exploit every advantage, marijuana plants being notoriously violent when cornered.
This odd and pointless exercise in rural landscaping became a federally subsidized, multi-state enforcement action when agents of the Bureau of Land Management (yes, those folks are armed as well) arrested a couple of people in Idaho "in connection with" the abandoned marijuana garden.
Malheur County is a huge and beautiful swath of territory in eastern Oregon that runs parallel to western Idaho all the way to the Nevada border. Vale, the tiny town that serves as the county seat, is located along the Oregon Trail and attracts many tourists eager to yank trout from nearby Bully Creek Reservoir or snag a few pheasants. Neighboring Nyssa proudly calls itself the "Thunderegg Capital of the World," a reference to the volcanic geode that serves as Oregon’s state rock. Another product of the region’s turbulent geologic past is the Malheur Butte, an extinct volcano that presides over the western section of the county like a brooding ursine sentinel.
When Daryl Gates created the first SWAT team in 1968, its advertised purpose was to deal with hostage situations, bank robberies, insurrectionary urban crime, and other high-risk incidents.
Malheur County, Oregon (pop. circa 31,000) is possibly the last place in the country where a SWAT team is needed — apart from the role it plays in federally subsidized counter-narcotics operations.
The same is true of Payette County, Idaho, which is located on the eastern side of the Snake River and forms part of the bi-state Treasure Valley. Yet federal seed money is being spent to build SWAT teams in both of these thinly populated rural counties as part of the "war on terror."