© 2022 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
KSOR Header background image 1
a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Oregon Department of Corrections SWAT team tear-gassed own coworkers during training

WDRPIGBWDNBS3LZFGZR5LERPYE.jpg
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
/
OPB
Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

A hostage training for state corrections workers ended last month when members of the Oregon State Penitentiary’s SWAT team unleashed tear gas on their own coworkers who had volunteered for the exercise, several sources have told OPB.

A hostage training for state corrections workers ended last month when members of the Oregon State Penitentiary’s SWAT team unleashed tear gas on their own coworkers who had volunteered for the exercise, several sources have told OPB.

The incident took place Nov. 5 at the shuttered Mill Creek Prison near Salem as part of regular joint training between the Penitentiary’s SWAT and the crisis negotiation team.

Oregon State Police are investigating the incident. The Department of Corrections placed the head of the penitentiary’s SWAT team, Capt. Thomas Oberfoell, on leave just before Thanksgiving, according to Jennifer Black, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“We are fully cooperating with the Oregon State Police on the criminal investigation,” Black said in an email. “We take misconduct by our employees seriously. After the criminal investigation, we will review internally and make necessary changes to our training for Special Weapons and Tactics and Crisis Negotiation Team.”

Oberfoell declined to comment.

Days before the training, Elena Martinez, who leads the State Penitentiary’s crisis negotiation team, sent out an email to staff requesting volunteers. Several showed up to Mill Creek, early on the morning of Nov. 5 to roleplay as hostages or hostage-takers.

OPB spoke to Martinez and three others who were at the training.

“It was a fiasco and it should’ve never happened,” Martinez said, who was upset over the SWAT team’s use of tear gas on fellow employees. “What if one of my volunteers was asthmatic? What if one of them had COPD?”

Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff /
/
Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

A little before noon, volunteers were in a small room in the basement of Mill Creek. Before the exercise began, several people in the room caught a whiff of pepper spray, which some say tickled their throats and eventually dissipated.

Once the scripted training began, it was supposed to last more than an hour, with someone pretending to be a hostage-taker on the phone with a negotiator.

The person playing the hostage-taker went off-script.

According to Martinez, the volunteer told the negotiator on the phone:

“‘By putting gas in the vent, (you) just got a hostage killed.’”

“That’s when the chaos ensued,” recalled Kristin Atkinson, who works at the State Penitentiary’s office. Atkinson volunteered because she was interested in being part of the crisis negotiation team in the future.

“The first thing, we could see a bunch of smoke coming in the vents from the outside,” she recalled. “Shortly after that, you could hear the SWAT team coming down into the basement.”

Next, there was yelling and a flashbang.

“The whole room was just full of smoke,” Atkinson said. “I just remember not being able to breathe and thinking I had to get out of there.”

Another person in the room who did not want to be named recalled a similar experience.

Though the volunteers were handed safety glasses and earplugs, no one was wearing them because they had expected the simulated negotiation to last at least an hour before SWAT arrived.

“I didn’t know they were going to use any live munitions,” Atkinson said. “I don’t think anyone was expecting that.”

Martinez was livid. She said in her more than 20 years at the Department of Corrections, she’d never seen live tear gas used during a training. The fact a volunteer deviated from the script is not an excuse, she said.

“Even if he goes off-script and he were to trigger a reaction like this, live gas should’ve never been used,” Martinez said. “This is all simulated.”

Civil rights attorney Juan Chavez has represented DOC employees, as well as people in custody.

“If they’re doing this to each other, imagine what they’re doing to the people they’re supposed to take care of?” Chavez said. “That speaks to a culture of violence and dehumanization.”

One volunteer who indirectly breathed in teargas said it was traumatizing and believes “we were treated lower than low.” The person declined to be named because they feared retaliation.

“We do this for our coworkers,” the person said. “That’s why we volunteer because in the case of a real emergency they can save our lives. That’s what they’re training to do.”

Another person in the room, who also declined to be named, echoed a similar reason for signing up to participate. That person said they would not be volunteering in the future.

Members of the SWAT team helped the volunteers outside after they deployed the tear gas. Martinez was there.

“I saw all the volunteers,” she said. “They’ve got snot and tears and their faces are red, they’re coughing.”

Once outside, Atkinson said some member of the SWAT team apologized and offered a liquid for her face to wash off the tear gas.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.