Peabody’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team hopes they never get called.
But if they do, the 35-member unit will be ready.
The shuttered J.B. Thomas Hospital on King Street and the former Sears store at the Northshore Mall have become training grounds for the specialized division and the bomb squad.
“This kind of police work is super specialized and we’re dealing with situations that rarely come up, but we must have the capability, especially in hostage rescue situations,” said Patrolman Mark Saia, member of the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, a consortium of police and sheriff departments in Middlesex and Essex counties. “Having the ability to train in these buildings is invaluable.”
Earlier this year, Sears Holdings revealed plans to close 188 unprofitable stores, including one at the Northshore Mall, as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy. While the decision was bad news for employees and customers, the closing was an unexpected bright spot for police when mall management agreed to allowed them to use the 175,000-square-foot property to hone their skills.
The same is true for the former J.B. Thomas Hospital. Hemisphere Development Group LLC, which bought the vacant three-story brick campus one year ago, has given police keys to the 77,932-square-foot property.
“I keep in touch with the building department and find out when a building is scheduled to be demolished so we can use them to train,” he said. “It’s all about collaborating with City Hall so we know.”
The empty properties make it possible to simulate real life hostage situations.
“The state’s team are able to blow doors or walls open in these buildings with explosive charges so we can get in,” he said. “If we had to get in there and the door is barricaded, that’s how we would enter.”
He likened it to a controlled burn firefighters employ at a home that is slated for demolition.
Saia knows a little about crisis situations. He was part of the team that captured Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He recalled hearing the 19-year-old bombing suspect’s screams as he was pulled from the boat he was hiding in a Watertown backyard in 2013. He joined the effort after Sean Collier, an MIT police officer, was killed in his cruiser. A shootout and manhunt ensued in Watertown for the Tsarnaev brothers.
Still, in 18 years on the job, Saia has never had to fire a weapon.
“Just our presence often diffuses a situation,” he said. “When a suspect looks out the window and sees us, they are likely to say to himself ‘I’m done.'”
Peabody Police Chief Thomas Griffin praised mall management and the owner of the former hospital for making the buildings available.
“There’s not a lot of opportunity to sharpen skills, and we take advantage of it when we can,” he said. “It’s a way for us to be prepared for the unexpected.”
Given the amount of school and other mass shootings, Griffin said he worries all the time if it could happen here.
But Saia disagrees.
“I don’t worry; we train for it,” he said.