In The Raid Van: May 1999

By Capt. Tom Dresner

The Rules of Engagement

He held the baby like a football, more than with the love that a father should show for his eighteen-month-old son. Like Walter Payton- in one hand, but in the other, a common kitchen knife. The father, unable to solve the problems of his life without violence, now held it to his son’s neck. At times, the baby had trouble getting a breath.

The 911 call came in from his young wife, from a neighbor’s house. He had recently knocked her unconscious as a result of his inability to solve problems constructively. Another casualty in the endless cycle of domestic violence. Now as the police arrived, he saw them and told them to, “Get away or “I’ll kill the kid.”

The responding patrol officers knew to get SWAT on the way quickly. This was a classic hostage situation. Not the kind where a robbery goes bad or strangers take strangers hostage, but far more common, based on a domestic relationship. Some of the SWAT officers were fairly close, having dinner together after a day of training. They began to arrive on scene very quickly.

One of the first dropped down prone near the kitchen window of the trailer. A SWAT sniper, he deployed his long gun only 35 feet away from the window where the suspect held his son without attempt to conceal himself. He knew how quickly this event was unfolding. At the extreme low end of the statistical distance for civilian police sniper events, he dialed his Leupold scope all the way down to 3.5 power to take in the most information that he could. Even then he had more scope than he needed.

The patrol officer negotiated with the suspect through a closed kitchen window. Again in anger, or as if to prove some kind of point, the suspect punched out the window that the sniper was observing him through, removing the last doubt the sniper had for hesitating. Spalling glass moves at the same velocity as the bullet, in this case Federal GM308M, dangerous to the innocent child.

The patrol officer pleaded with the father to drop the knife as the arriving SWAT officers formed a hasty rescue element in the event they were needed. The father answered, pointing to the sniper, “No. Because if I do, that guy will shoot me.” He had it backwards. The 168 grain Sierra BTHP cut a half moon in his front teeth as it removed his brain stem. His legs now no longer had sensory input from his brain to support his weight. He instantly disappeared from view, and the rescue team found the baby, bloody but unharmed, crawling away from his father’s body. Less than 30 minutes had elapsed since the call to 911.

Inevitable Criticism

Whenever the police act to protect the innocent, they will be criticized, especially when it involves taking a life. Here the agency was repeatedly asked why they didn’t negotiate longer. What rules of engagement should police departments follow in critical incidents, where the balance between life and death is so tenuous?

If you stop to think about the function of a tactical team in a hostage or barricade situation, you can correctly assume that a group of heavily armed officers will surround the problem location, negotiators will try to make contact, and reach a negotiated solution. But only in the 90’s has law enforcement been able to describe a proper course of police conduct in life and death critical incidents. A course of conduct that if followed can be defended even in light of a less than desirable outcome.

The method is called “safety prioritization.” Very simple in scope, it provides rules of engagement for police encounters in critical incidents.

The priorities are:

1. Hostages
2. Innocent involved citizens
3. Police Officers
4. The suspect/subject

A “subject” would be defined as the person who is the focus of the police operation, but is not necessarily a suspect because he has committed no crime. An example would be a mental patient barricaded in his own residence, who has done nothing other than to threaten the police if they come in.

For far too long, inadvertently, or at least unintentionally, the police would make the suspect the highest on the priority list, because of an unwillingness or an inability for police managers to make the hard decisions that may lead to criticism of them. The prevailing mindset was that, “We will negotiate, no matter what.” A gamble, a roll of the dice that more often than not ends in a peaceful settlement, about 90 percent of the time. But think about your cherished family members. Would you risk their safety with those odds if they were being held hostage?

The priorities define for us on whose behalf we will act, potentially at the expense of those who are causing their jeopardy. This also removes a popular concept for SWAT in the 70s and 80s, that of “red light/green light” commands by supervisors for dictating when and if snipers may fire.

We allow the greenest rookie on patrol to take a life under clearly defined circumstances without asking anyone for permission. Until relatively recently, however, many departments did not allow a veteran police sniper the latitude to make that call, unless a commander blocks away decided that he had the sufficient justification. Many still don’t allow that latitude. With the dynamics of a hostage situation changing so rapidly, we must trust the judgement of those we have so carefully selected to know when it is justifiable.

In the incident above, the police agency involved in it acted first and only for the life of the hostage child. All other considerations were subordinate, as they should be. Contrary to popular belief, the police do not control the suspect’s actions. Only he does. They may be able to limit his choices, but ultimately, the choices are his to make. The child had no say whatsoever.

The criticism they faced was easy compared to the criticism they would have faced had the father made good on his threat. For them to stand and do nothing, allowing opportunity after opportunity to pass without taking action on behalf of the innocent child, would negate the very reason for their existence. They would then be doomed to a lifetime of wondering how with all their training they had the ability to protect, and instead, witnessed murder. In an instant, he could have disappeared from view, gone into the back bedroom and maimed or killed his son. Instead they clearly knew what to do, because of a well thought-out plan of action. They will act first to save the life of a hostage, at the time when the likelihood of success is the greatest. And that is just what they did. I have chosen not to identify the involved agency, due to the possibility of pending litigation.

It is unfortunate that a life was lost, and worse that the child was deprived of his father. But the father had choices. In the end, he made the wrong choice. Dropping the knife would have spared his life. It might be argued that the mother and the child will be better off, but that is not a choice that is the business of the police to make. We can use deadly force only under very limited circumstances. The father forced their hand. He should be held in the critical light.

If, in any critical incident, the police make their primary mission the protection of innocent life, and are trained and willing to take steps to act, rather than to wait and merely hope for the best, then even if it goes horribly bad, they can defend their actions. For in this prioritization comes the tacit acknowledgment that the police can never guarantee a positive outcome, but only that their actions were based in law, ethics and morality.

Sometimes the mission can be lost in what is called the process. If a madman is walking through a schoolyard shooting children, it is counterproductive to first establish a perimeter, though that may be the “process” for managing most critical incidents. Getting police officers in between the shooter and the children is a wiser course of action. It is also consistent with the safety priorities to risk our lives to protect those of innocent children. There are those who would argue that the life of the police officer is paramount. This is wishful thinking at best. If we really believed that, there would be no reason to leave the police station. Police risk their lives daily and couldn’t do their job if they didn’t.

I said that in my first column that Small Arms Review is a serious publication about serious guns. The readers for the most part are not working tactical officers. Quite the opposite, the reader most likely is a collector and/or enthusiast of Title II firearms. The chances of his ever using one against a human adversary is hopefully nil for all practical purposes.

It is also true that though tactical weapons are bought and used largely by military and police special teams in great quantity, the actual necessity of firing one to save a life or defend a life is in actuality also nil. But all teams across the nation are training for a challenge that may come on a date that they cannot know. They should know that at all times, they must be ready. Thousands of rounds per year in training are expended. We carry a great deal of ammunition on us, when in reality it probably won’t be needed. We by necessity must envision the worst, and be prepared for it. It too can cause criticism, for the very act of being prepared can make a team appear heavy handed or “gunning” for a fight.


That is why the demeanor of the individual team member is so critical to the public acceptance of the team as having a valid mission, and the confidence in them to perform that mission. There is a sentiment out there that there are too many tactical teams in existence and that the average American should be alarmed about it.

A recent network television interview of a tactical team in Arizona gave them just the impression that they needed to make their preconceived point, that tactical operators are “knuckledraggers.” The reporter asked why the members wanted to be SWAT officers. One answered in a boastful, arrogant tone, “Hey the bottom line is, it’s friggin’ fun man.” Another said, “We get to play with a lot of guns. Everyone on this team loves guns.” Point made, handed to the reporter on a silver platter, and all SWAT suffers from the sins of the few. If this were the team that righteously solved the above problem, the validity of public skepticism would be raised by the juxtaposition of that incident with the videotape just described.

In my 14 years of police work, I have had occasion to meet many fine police officers from across the country. It is my opinion that by and large, tactical officers are the most dedicated, professional officers on the streets today, and hold themselves to a higher standard. It may be a combination of esprit de corps born of the higher standards imposed on tactical teams and the nature of the problems that they are faced with. Whatever the motivation, there are very few actual knuckledraggers working on teams today.

I sometimes worry whether our team is ready for whatever may come our way. But our team includes some of the most dedicated officers that I have ever worked with. The equipment comes second, for what resides inside of us is the utter singleness of purpose, to do what is right and moral with whatever circumstances that we are faced with. To protect those who are unable to protect themselves.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V2N8 (May 1999)
and was posted online on May 6, 2016


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