SPARTANBURG - Spartanburg County jail employee Jeremy Thomas hopes he never has to resolve problems with inmates by going into their jail cells again.
He described the traditional means of extracting disorderly and noncompliant inmates from their cells as dangerous and a liability.
Having five officers in black body armor with riot shields and batons inside an 8-foot by 10-foot concrete cell isn't the best practice, he said, compared to how incidents are now handled at the Spartanburg County Detention Facility.
Thomas is one of the seven Special Operations Group operators inside the jail that has seen its use of force reports drop by more than half since the group's inception, sheriff's officials said.
Those in the group wear light brown uniforms with outer armor vests, carry radios, video cameras and flashlights, and are equipped with a variety of weapons including Taser stun guns, pepper spray and Kel-Tec KSG 12-gauge shotguns that fire less lethal ammunition.
The program, created and run by Virginia-based U.S. Corrections Special Operations Group, came to the sheriff's office's attention earlier this year. The team began working while training within jail walls by March.
According to detention facility reports, the jail handled six use-of-force cases in March. July had 18, though June and May had six and five respectively.
Prior to the SOG team operation, most months saw use of force totals in the upper 20s. February had 27, according to detention facility reports.
Incidents of use of force involve any physical contact officers make with inmates for compliance including drawing and pointing a weapon.
Under the new team's direction, a cell extraction no longer involves going into a cell and holding an inmate to bring them down. Members of the team known as operators use a type of rope to pull open a cell from a distance, firing a rubber shotgun round at an inmate and potentially deploying a Taser on the person if necessary.
Maj. Neal Urch, director of the facility, said for the most part, intimidation alone has brought down the numbers.
"Just the show of force has actually created more of a calm in the facility," he said.
Sheriff's officials said the fewer use-of-force cases has made the investment into the team worth it. It costs the sheriff's office about $10,000 per operator for equipment and training.
The Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston is the only other facility using a SOG team in South Carolina, Urch said.
Urch said the inmates are not used to seeing personnel walk around in tactical gear and carrying shotguns.
Operators also carry special ammunition to fire a flash bang in the event of a large fight or jail riot.
The loud bang is enough to make most inmates go back into their cells, Urch said.
"If I could go every day and not have to use any force, that's all right," Thomas said. "I'm worried about the safety of other people more than anything else."
The Spartanburg County jail on California Avenue houses about 800 inmates. About 280 deputies are assigned to the jail.
Urch said the safety improvements are a huge benefit - he described an incident involving a sergeant who fell and injured his knee during a cell extraction and was out of work for a year.
"Any time we have a use-of-force incident, there's opportunity for an inmate or arrestee to be hurt," Urch said. "We don't have the staff or the funding to get hurt all the time."
The sheriff's office began seeking a better means of handling inmates in July 2013 after officials investigated an inmate's complaint of being assaulted and four jail officers were fired.
The sheriff's office was not sued in that incident, but Urch said the SOG team will help keep the county free from litigation since the new tactics are more of a hands-off approach and the training dictates the operator's actions.
The operators in the group already have the same training as any other jailer in addition to their specialized training, so when not responding to disturbances, they oversee inmate pods.
The jail also uses the operators for escorting high-risk inmates, conducting pat-downs and searching cells for contraband.
"I wouldn't want to operate a jail without them," said Capt. Alan Freeman regarding the safer tactics associated with the team. "And inmates probably wouldn't tell you this, but they're glad they're here too."
Len Longe, another SOG team operator, said they also patrol the outside perimeters of the jail looking for anything out of the ordinary. In addition, the operators also travel to the jail annex in Spartanburg.
"We're well utilized," Longe said.
Thomas added that he may walk about 12 1/2 miles on any given day.
"We stay moving," he said.
The team hopes to expand in the future. Capt. Joseph Garcia, the creator of U.S. C-SOG who has been dubbed an honorary captain within the sheriff's office, hosts quarterly trainings. Other jail officers have the opportunity to apply to join during the trainings.
Freeman said they would like to have eight operators to give them two-person teams at all times. He added that the three-week training is extensive - about 10 others outside the group of seven signed up for the training but dropped out.
A Giant Schnauzer specially trained for corrections also has been requested. Freeman and Urch said they could benefit from a canine in the facility if policies and funding allow.
Information from: Herald-Journal, http://www.goupstate.com/