Northwest Regional SWAT team members stood outside the abandoned casino hotel, just a few feet away from an entranceway. They braced themselves as the countdown could be heard through police radios.
“Five, four, three, two, one …”
At that eerily quiet moment, the tactical team’s explosive device detonated, blowing away the hotel door. It was loud. It was powerful. It echoed across the hotel parking lot.
“Jesus!” an observer exclaimed.
“That was louder than I thought it would be,” another person said.
The SWAT team, dressed in full gear with weapons drawn, followed each other into the hotel.
“Someday we may have to enter a building this way if it’s barricaded by a suspect,” SWAT team commander Matt Djukic told me before the blast.
SWAT operators conducted their two-day training at the Majestic Star Casino hotel at Buffington Harbor in Gary. It’s permanently closed, an ideal location for the unit to conduct simulated training for real-life situations. Regular trainings like these are crucial for public safety and for evolving skill sets of the team’s handpicked officers.
Each department is required to provide at least one officer and pay an annual fee of $4,000. Officers are selected for the team after a testing process including a fitness test, range qualification and oral interview. These officers then go through SWAT training from May through October of that year. Eligible officers serve a one-year probationary period before being assigned to a team.
Their training includes a lot of book work and studying. I watched a 121-slide PowerPoint presentation, “Less Lethal Recert.” The last page states: “Failure to train and deliberate indifference can result in massive lawsuits.”
Cops are always in the crosshairs of public scrutiny. And they know it. This is why I was interested to show what they do behind the scenes to protect and serve the public.
On Wednesday, this region’s Special Weapons and Tactics team continued its training with live-round sniper shooting, hostage rescue, and drone escorts through multiple simulated scenarios. On Thursday, SWAT operators performed “less lethal” tactics including flash-bangs, pepper ball and bang pole.
Inside the team’s mobile command center in the casino parking lot, operators planned for their next training tactic at that deserted site near the lake.
“It’s ideal for us because it’s slated to be demolished,” Djukic said.
The training demonstration, which was not open to the public, included a news conference hosted by the city of Gary and the office of U.S. Sen. Mike Braun. The media event took place on the second of six days of training exercises for law enforcement and military personnel from Indiana and Cook County in Illinois.
“What you’ll see today is how collaboration works,” Gary Mayor Jerome Prince told guests. “This is another example of the many ways we continue to make public safety our city’s top priority.”
Anthony Ferraro, regional director for Braun’s office, told guests that this demonstration is a reminder of the importance of training opportunities for military and local law enforcement personnel to protect Hoosiers. He read a statement from Braun, who was in southeastern Indiana as part of a 92-county tour.
“Our law enforcement and military put their lives on the line to defend us, and I’m committed to making sure they have the resources and training they need to do their jobs and come home safe,” Braun said in the statement.
The Northwest Regional SWAT team started in 1992 after a hostage situation at a Red Lobster in Merrillville.
“My district partner and I were dispatched after a security guard at a local hotel saw the Red Lobster manager being accosted and forced back into the restaurant at gunpoint,” former Merrillville police Lt. Robert Morgan told me.
“When we arrived, the hostage-takers were seen wearing masks and holding guns to the head of the victim. We requested a local SWAT team for assistance, but before their arrival the victim had disarmed one of the suspects and ran out a side door. Our administration arrived and contacted the suspects by phone and talked both suspects into surrendering.”
Morgan was fairly fresh out of the U.S. Army. He pitched the idea of a Merrillville SWAT team to his department’s administration and received approval for a five-officer team.
“We had minimal funding and got our initial training from the FBI,” he said.
The SWAT team slowly grew to 12 Merrillville police officers, prompting then-Police Chief John Shelhart to suggest allowing Crown Point and Hobart to join the team in exchange for providing SWAT coverage.
“We kind of grumbled and told Shelhart that we felt we would lose control of the team,” Morgan recalled.
Shelhart told him: “I appreciate your input, but we’re gonna do it anyway.”
“Thanks to his foresight, this was the birth of the Northwest Regional SWAT team,” Morgan said.
He began arranging meetings with other local police chiefs to expand the team.
“As we became more experienced, we began hosting a basic SWAT school for law enforcement officers. We charged a fee, which helped buy some small items of equipment, mostly tear gas and distraction devices,” Morgan said.
He served as team commander until his retirement in 2022, although he serves as a volunteer while performing quartermaster duties, along with others.
In 2012, the team began hosting an annual fundraiser at the Halls of St. George in Schererville. Last year was their most successful, with more than 1,100 guests. The fundraiser, in addition to the annual department dues, allows the team to purchase vehicles, equipment and munitions and to send officers to costly specialized training.
“We’re very proud of our team and the road it took to get to where we are today,” Morgan said.
As a team of SWAT operators trained inside the casino hotel, Djukic told me that not of it would have been possible without Morgan’s foresight nearly 30 years ago.
“His fingerprints are everywhere,” he said.