We used to call it a “debrief” in police work. It was standard operating procedure, especially after a particularly harrowing experience. Harrowing experiences often require extraordinary effort. It seems like no matter how much you plan and train for something, you should always be prepared for something unexpected coming along to gum things up. That’s where taking stock comes in handy. Evaluating helps you make adjustments for the next time.
This reminds me of my first SWAT incident. I’d gone to two very comprehensive training schools. The instructors, all veterans of many incidents, cautioned us to be ready for anything. “Nothing goes as planned all the time,” one of them said. “Remember Murphy’s Law.”
Murphy’s Law, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, simply states that “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” I don’t know who Murphy was, but it’s been said he probably was a cop. I’d have to agree.
But let me get back to my first call-out. It started out simply, as most incidents do. A guy was observed shoplifting in a store in a strip mall. As the offender left the premises, the first officer on the scene attempted to arrest him. The offender resisted and a struggle ensued, during which the offender disarmed the officer, knocked him to the ground, and tried unsuccessfully to shoot him. The offender missed two times, and then started running, going across an open field to a row of town houses. By this time, subsequent units were responding and the offender forced his way into the closest town house. Inside was a mother and her two children. Upon seeing the offender forcibly enter her home, the mother immediately ran out the back door, leaving her two children inside. One was a small baby, the other a child of six. The responding units quickly surrounded the house, and demanded the offender surrender. He refused, and advised the police not to attempt entry, or somebody would get hurt. Considering his poor aim before, this might have been debatable, but only fools rush in, as the saying goes.
The call-out went out, and I was activated with the team. I was on my day off when I got the call, and had just finished a five mile run. I didn’t even have time to take a shower. I changed into my SWAT clothes, grabbed my weapon, and headed over there as fast as I could. To the credit of my fellow team members, none of them complained about my sweaty appearance.
As soon as the team assembled, we assessed the situation: one armed offender inside the residence, two hostages, and a total lack of compunction about shooting at the police. To make things worse, in the time we’d taken to get there, somebody had called the newsmaker’s tip line and literally five news vans had arrived and were filming the entire thing. It also provided an afternoon’s entertainment for the rest of the residents in the town houses. They set up lawn chairs and began to watch, yell, and laugh. It apparently was much more entertaining than what was on TV, and there were no commercials either.
We set up a perimeter and let the hostage negotiators go to work. Shades of “The Ransom of Red Chief,” they were able to get the offender to release the two kids. The guy was still inside with a loaded gun, however, and refused to come out. My training told me it had become a waiting game. The offender was trapped in a box, surrounded on all sides, with no way out. Taking stock of the situation, I figured it was just a matter of time, and we had more of it than he did. One thing I hadn’t figured on was that I was completely dehydrated from that run. In my haste to get there, I’d forgotten to grab my canteen. I began to get a bad headache, and felt cramps building in my legs. As the negotiators built rapport with the offender, the poor guy admitted that he was “out of squares.” The negotiators immediately came up with a plan to trade cigarettes for bullets. The only risky part was having one of us sneak up on the porch to make the exchange. It was comically recorded by the ubiquitous news cameramen: the offender opening the door just wide enough to toss out one of the bullets, one of the SWAT guys crawling surreptitiously around the corner to place a cigarette on the porch, the offender opening the door, holding the gun to his head, threatening suicide if anyone rushed him … I was secreted behind a nearby tree hoping that the guy was a chain-smoker. Man, I was thirsty, but things could have been worse, as I soon found out.
He eventually gave up, and we took him into custody. One of my fellow SWAT team members then whispered to me that he’d had to go the bathroom since we’d arrived. And I thought I had it bad. The event played out on the evening news, and we looked like a bunch of keystone cops caught in an old fashioned Chinese fire drill. But we had our debrief afterwards to take stock of what we did right, and what we did wrong. I vowed that my damn canteen was going to be kept filled and attached to my pistol belt at all times. And as for my friend, who needed that bit of personal relief, I slipped an ad from a gag magazine featuring an old fashioned apparatus called a “Traveler’s Friend” into his mailbox. He never mentioned the incident again.