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SWAT Team Leader of the Year

Lt. Rodney Stearns with the Eau Claire, Wisc. Sheriff’s Office has been selected as the SWAT Team Leader of the Year.

The editorial staff of

Tactical Response


The Police Marksman



recognizes exemplary performance by SWAT team leaders in the form of an annual competition. This annual competition is open to law enforcement personnel who are currently active with the team, and currently in the position of Team Leader or Team Commander. The Team Leader can come from a full-time or part-time team. For this recognition, while team accomplishments and achievements may be worthy, we look for individual leadership accomplishments.

Here are some thought prompters: improved training frequency; improved training safety; implemented more realistic training; arranged for a larger training and equipment budget; expanded the scope of tasks that the team can handle; improved the image of the team to the administration, media or public; successfully formed a regional team; successfully separated from a regional team; successfully started a new team; improved the tactical decision-making process; implemented national SWAT standards; demonstrated true leadership in an inspiring way.

For this inaugural year, we received dozens of applicants from virtually every state and region in the U.S. Applicants were from full-time and part-time teams, from small cities and counties, large cities and counties, universities and the federal government. The large pool of applicants was narrowed down to the four finalists, and then to the single, final choice for Team Leader of the Year.


Lt. Rodney Stearns

Lt. Stearns is a 32-year veteran of the Eau Claire County, Wisc. Sheriff’s Office. He has served in both the United States Air Force and United States Army prior to starting his law enforcement career. Lt. Stearns has served as the Team Commander for the Eau Claire County Regional SWAT since 1998.

As the Team Commander, Lt. Stearns has played a critical role in forming, equipping and implementing all eight regionalized SWAT Teams in the State of Wisconsin. Lt. Stearns is the driving force for their regional SWAT Team and has taken on the role of advocacy for funding, equipment and training hours for all regional teams in Wisconsin. He has accomplished many multi-agency training events even though local budgets have been reduced.


In his leadership role, Lt. Stearns has improved the training frequency and set higher standards for monthly training, defended the team with administration in the event of a controversy, and demonstrated true leadership in an inspiring way.

When Lt. Stearns took over as Team Commander, the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team consisted of a six person team. The team was equipped with a van, mismatched uniforms, outdated weapons and equipment, no allotted training time, and wavering departmental support. Lt. Stearns immediately acknowledged the team’s vast deficiencies and set his plan into action.


Today, the Eau Claire County Regional SWAT Team’s allotted training time is in excess of 144 hours a year and consists of 22 operators

from seven jurisdictions within the region. All of these operators have specialized and/or instructor certifications. This specialized training involved a vast variety of SWAT disciplines including crisis negotiations; mechanical, ballistic, thermal and explosive breaching; ballistic shield; advanced marksmanship; close quarter battle; chemical and less lethal munitions; land navigation and hostage rescue just to name a few.

Lt. Stearns has secured a vast array of equipment including armored vehicles (BearCat/MRAP), tactical robotics, and advanced tactical weapon systems. Lt. Stearns has also successfully coordinated with the U.S. Army to provide Blackhawk helicopters as a platform for team transport, should the need arise.


Keep Moving Forward

Through hard work and dedication, Lt. Stearns has worked his way up through the ranks and currently holds the position of Field Services Division Lieutenant. In his typical, “keep moving forward, never settle” attitude, Lt. Stearns furthered his own education and now holds a Master’s Degree in Family Studies and Human Development.

Lt. Stearns has the ability to push, motivate and inspire people to reach their fullest potential. In the SWAT community, Lt. Stearns is highly respected for his knowledge, experience and leadership. Within the team, whether on a mission or in training, he will not ask or direct an operator to do anything that he could not do himself. His leadership style is unique in that he can lead from the front and has.


His team leaders are allowed to speak freely while he actively listens to their suggestions. During this time, you can see he is thinking to determine what course of action will be taken and the directives to be given. Lt. Stearns manages crisis situations by leading his operators to find successful resolutions.

Lt. Stearns put in countless hours searching for and writing grants that would be used to purchase equipment. Lt. Stearns also sought out other SWAT Team Commanders from whom to learn. What grant funds are available? What issues are other departments facing and how are they being handled? What resources do other departments have and can they be shared? This reaching out to other departments and SWAT teams resulted in a valuable network.


Unified, Regional Team

Lt. Stearns identified the need to look outside of his own agency for prospective operators. Operators make it onto the team after being watched, groomed and tested by Lt. Stearns to ensure they were the right choice for the team. Some of those operators chosen for the team did not come from the Eau Claire Co. Sheriff’s Office.


Today, the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office Regional SWAT Team consists of operators from the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office, Altoona Police, Fall Creek Police, Wisconsin State Patrol, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Police, Dunn County Sheriff’s Office and Menomonie Police. Even though the team functions under the authority of Eau Claire County, each operator is allowed to wear the patch of his/her respective law enforcement agency.



For the past eight years, Lt. Stearns has been the driving force behind conducting a 40-hour Basic SWAT course in the region. He developed and wrote the training manual and curriculum, posted the training notice, collected the registration paperwork, acquired the training venue, performed as the lead instructor, organized assistant instructors, and issued completion certificates. All of this was done while still maintaining all of his responsibilities as the Sheriff’s Office Field Services Lieutenant and Regional SWAT Commander.


Madeline Island Training Scenario

In the fall of 2013, Lt. Stearns began to develop the plans that would eventually be the largest multi-agency training mission to occur in the State of Wisconsin. Objective of this training mission was to neutralize a heavily armed and fortified drug smuggling Sovereign Citizen who has close ties to the community where he lives. That community—where the training mission was to take place—is Madeline Island, a 3-mile by 14-mile island in the middle of Lake Superior.


A total of 17 city, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies were involved including Wisconsin Parks Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, United Stated Coast Guard, United States Parks and Forest, and the United States Army Air Wing Division. Lt. Stearns put in the long hours to navigate mountains of the red tape in order to make this training mission a reality.

It is training of this nature that prepares each operator for that day when all the training and experience is put into action and the result is a successful mission, i.e., the suspect is in custody and all operators return safely to their families. After more than nine months of meetings, planning and preparation, this training mission went off as planned and with much success.


Lt. Stearns provides training, promotes learning, and allows the operators to grow. He is a teacher and a mentor. He understands his team and what needs to be done to make them perform at their very best.


When Lt. Stearns steps into a mission brief; all chaos subsides and there is a sense of calmness among the operators. When Lt. Stearns finishes speaking, the objective will be clear, directives are understood, and it is time to go to work. One of Lt. Stearns’ favorite quotes is, “Luck favors the prepared mind.”


SWAT Team Leader of the Year Finalists


Lt. Matt Merony

Ingham Regional Special Response Team

Michigan State University Police

Lieutenant Merony is the Team Commander for the Ingham Regional Special Response Team. He was instrumental in transforming the East Lansing Special Response Team into a Regional Special Response Team.


This team is comprised of Michigan State University Police Department, East Lansing Police Department, Ingham County Sheriff’s Office, and the Meridian Township Police Department.


Since that time, Lt. Merony has enhanced the capabilities of IRSRT with the acquisition of specialized equipment and personnel.


A Tactical Emergency Medical Support (TEMS) element was added to the team through a series of MOU’s.


In addition, an ARV, MCV, and several other utility vehicles were added in support of the IRSRT mission.


A tactical K-9 team was added and the existing negotiator team was enhanced with the addition of personnel and equipment.


Lt. Merony has reached out to the local National Guard and established a collaborative relationship in which they participate in, and support enhanced training.


Two new buildings were acquired and later remodeled to serve as a SWAT locker room, mobilization and briefing room and garage for all the related support vehicles, which greatly enhanced the ability of the team to respond more quickly and efficiently to emergency call-outs.


In June 2014, IRSRT responded to Meridian Township reference a robbery suspect that had also made a bomb threat.


Both suspects were barricaded inside residences. As Team Commander, he took control of the situation developed an operational plan and the suspects were apprehended without incident.



Since Lt. Mernoy took command, the team has a renewed sense of esprit de corps and their capability to effectively, efficiently and safely handle an expanded list of critical incidents has been significantly expanded.



Lt. Jorge Suarez

Special Operations Unit

San Antonio, TX Police

During his four years as Lieutenant of the Special Operations Unit, Lt. Suarez has been able to push forward programs of officer safety for all officers. Under his guidance the SWAT Unit has been utilized to develop curriculum and teach other officers within the San Antonio Police Dept. and outside agencies. Through this training Lt. Suarez’s desire was to bring patrol officers and detective’s skill sets to a higher level. Under his guidance, a Tactical Medic program was launched. Officers are trained as Emergency Medical Technicians, and then put through training in Care Under Fire and Advanced Life Support Techniques. Topics taught department-wide include Basic SWAT, Advanced Patrol Tactics, Patrol Room Clearing, Ambush Response for Patrol, Crowd Control (Mobile Field Force) and Self-Aid / Buddy Care.

Lt. Suarez obtained private grant funding to purchase an Avatar III Tactical Robot. He has also obtained the SWAT Unit and Negotiators three LRADs (Long Range Acoustic Device) for use during barricaded and crowd control situations. These units help to increase the standoff distance to a hostile location or threat as well as make sure that any persons receiving communication from SWAT or Negotiators understand clearly what is being said. All this new equipment has made handling critical incidents safer for all persons involved.

In 2010 Lt. Suarez was seriously wounded by gunfire while executing a high risk warrant with the SWAT team that he had recently taken over. Over the next several months, every member of the SWAT Unit watched as Lt. Suarez fought his way back to full capacity. Every San Antonio SWAT officer knows that they work for a man who leads from the front with his word and deed.


Capt. Doug Watson

Winchester SWAT Team

Winchester, VA Police

Captain Doug Watson has been on the SWAT Team for 11 years and has held the Team Commander position for 5 years. Captain Watson implemented a rotating training schedule for the SWAT Team. The team is allowed to train two days a month and normally spends one day on the range and the other day depends on the topic for that month, which rotates between barricaded subject, Hostage Rescue, Vehicle Assault, and High Risk Search Warrant. Captain Watson’s motto is “The Beauty is in the basics.”

Captain Watson has been an organizer and lead instructor for the Basic SWAT School for the Northern Shenandoah Valley Region for several years. He successfully negotiated the local police academy and local law enforcement jurisdictions to extend the school to two weeks.

Captain Watson applied for and was granted training in New Mexico for a week long training course for the entire SWAT team. He also gained approval to take the team to Charlotte, NC to assist in providing security to the Democratic National Convention. The team members were able to be a part of a large scale event/operation and be involved with VIP security issues. Captain Watson has also found funding to send a few operators each year to the NTOA conference.

Captain Watson fights for enough ammunition so the team can train on the range; conducts two NTOA standard physical fitness tests each year to ensure that the SWAT team members are physically ready for any challenge; makes an attempt to form relationships with other local and state SWAT teams to plan training; has obtained replacement rifles; and obtained an MRAP armored vehicle for the team through the military and a new rapid response vehicle for the team. Captain Watson does all this while filling the full time position of Patrol Captain for the patrol division.

Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2014

Rating : 1.2

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Posted on : Jan 9 at 3:03 PM By Jim Massery

Congratulations to all participants. We've had the privilege here at Lenco of working with several of the candidates through the years, and they are exemplary leaders in the SWAT community.

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