FARGO – The Red River Valley SWAT team was called to a difficult, but not unfamiliar, situation earlier this week when a man threatened to commit suicide in his north Fargo home.
Wanting to check on the man's welfare, Fargo police officers introduced themselves at the door and then heard a gunshot inside. Once the SWAT team arrived, entering the apartment became the job of the team's shortest member-its robot.
For years, a small robot with an extendable arm has tagged along with the team to help with missions ranging from communicating with a suspect to removing explosives from a home. It is particularly useful in suicide situations, which the Fargo-Moorhead area has seen two of in the last two weeks.
"If somebody's suicidal, there's obviously some psychological issues going on," said SWAT Team Commander Ross Renner, a Fargo police lieutenant. "We don't trust those individuals to not want to harm us as well."
So they send in their robot. Before they had the machine, officers would take more time to contact suspects or victims in danger, usually by phone.
The robot used to explore possible hostile scenarios is smaller than the department's two other robot-like machines, which are typically used for bomb-related situations.
Many of the team's 30 members can operate the robot, but Renner is one of only three or four considered proficient in it.
SWAT team members typically break open a door to get the robot inside a home or apartment so they can get a sense of the environment before entering. It feeds video footage to the remote control so team members can watch and assess the situation from a distance.
The team won't use the robot in cases like hostage situations or in cases where it would prolong progress.
One of the team's previous robots was shot by a suspect a few years ago, said Fargo police Lt. Bill Ahlfeldt, SWAT team leader.
"That would have been the operator if it weren't for the robot," Ahlfeldt said. "This is huge for us."
The team has had its current robot for two years, Renner said, and has deployed it five or six times.
The battery-operated machine costs $44,000 and was funded by a grant from the Department of Emergency Services.
Grand Forks police count drones among their crime-fighting technology, but for now Renner says the SWAT team doesn't have good reason to use one. As technology develops and the drones can be flown for longer, he said, the team could eventually adopt one.