The ’70s: Special police units form

This month, local law enforcement and fire personnel will spend thousands of cumulative hours performing highly specialized duties and training for some of the many special units operating throughout the county.

Officers will use K9s to track drugs. Fire personnel will practice water rescue maneuvers on the Ohio River. Sheriff’s deputies will be subject to mock crises as they train for the Special Response Team. Detectives will dig for clues in old crimes.

These hyper-trained segments of law enforcement are a far cry from what was in place 40 years ago, especially in small communities where crime was less frequent, drugs less common and focused units of enforcement less necessary.

In fact, the focus on special training was so secondary that even the sheriff himself wasn’t a very good shot four decades ago, recalled John Miller, who served as a special deputy under Washington County Sheriff Richard Ellis in the 1970s.

When Ellis became sheriff, “He couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle,” Miller joked.

But that was before the sheriff was introduced to legendary firearms instructor John Dean “Jeff” Cooper, the man who pioneered the modern technique of holding and firing a pistol.

Understanding the importance of better trained deputies, Ellis petitioned Cooper to hold one of his on-the-road training camps in Washington County.

Cooper did in the spring of 1976 with Miller-an army and Ohio National Guard veteran-in attendance.

“The origin of special training probably came when Sheriff Ellis sponsored that Cooper’s school,” recalled Miller.

Deputies, local police, and even civilians attended Cooper’s classes at Marietta College and training sessions at a local firing range. Cooper, a Marine who served in World War II, used actual combat training scenarios to foster better preparedness, said Miller.

Still, it took a tragedy 15 years later for Ellis to implement a more rigid and regular training process. Washington County Deputy Rodney Kinsey was shot and killed responding to a shooting in Noble County. Kinsey’s sacrifice was the driving force behind the birth of the sheriff’s office modern day Special Response Team, said Miller.

“After that they really got serious. The upped the quality of radio and communication. I believe they got some night vision capability,” he said.

Today the team, which trains monthly, includes members of the Marietta and Belpre Police departments in addition to sheriff’s deputies, said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

The team is one of the sheriff’s office’s longest running specialty units. Joining it in 1992 was the Crime Scene Unit, and in 1993 the department’s K9 unit was born. The office also operates a crisis negotiation team, detective bureau, and oversees the multi-county Major Crimes Task Force.

While all these units stood the test of time, many special units have come and gone over the years due to lack of funding or interest. A bicycle unit used to give deputies the advantage of stealth, but interest petered out and the bikes were sold, said Mincks.

A mounted horse unit similarly faded from existence as fewer deputies had horses to be used in the line of duty. An arson investigation unit, aviation unit and illegal dump site unit have also gone by the wayside, said Mincks.

At the Marietta Police Department, the Crime Scene Unit is the oldest specialized sector and still boasts the largest staff of any special unit, said Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite.

Like the Special Response Team, the crime scene unit developed sometime in the 1960s or 70s, as a response to growing crime, said Waite.

Today those on the unit receive additional Ohio Peace Office Training Academy instruction. The team was recently used to inspect the scene where a Greene Street resident was reportedly stabbed near his parking space, said Waite.

“(The Crime Scene Unit) is extremely important because you only have one chance to collect your evidence,” he said.

The department’s K9 unit came into existence in the late 1990s after much lobbying by Patrolman Matt Hickey, said Waite.

Hickey and Patrolman Glen McClelland handle the department’s two dogs, which have been a driving force behind drug arrests by the department, added Waite.

One of the oldest specialized units in the area is the Marietta Fire Department’s boat patrol, which dates back to the 1940s or 1950s, according to Lt. Mike Dietsch.

Having a water presence in a city founded at the confluence of two major rivers is a “no brainer,” said Dietsch.

But that presence has improved significantly in the past 18 months with the acquisition of the department’s fire boat.

“This thing is unbelievable. It’s a lot easier to perform water rescues…It’s got a water pump on it with a water gun that is instantaneous,” said Dietsch.

Unlike the department’s previous boats, which were simply driven by whoever is available, the new boat requires specialized training. Dietsch is among those trained on the department’s boat patrol.

At the same time the fire department received its boat, the Marietta Police Department received a boat through the same Huntington Port-Tristate grant.

The boat marked the police department’s first water presence, which was a long time coming, said Waite.

“We needed to have that ability…to patrol and also to help individuals in the water,” he said.

Another way first responders help those in the water is through the use of special dive teams.

The Marietta Fire Department formed a dive team six years ago at the behest of firefighter Steve Hill, a Navy diver who befriended firefighter Marc Warden at the Fire Academy and began planning the team.

“He couldn’t believe we didn’t already have this with two rivers on the edge of the city,” recalled Warden.

Since its inception, the dive team has been able to save lives of those in distress on the water, bring closure to families by retrieving the bodies of drowning victims and help solve crimes by finding evidence discarded in the river.

“It provides a really good service to this area,” Warden said of the team..