Blue Crush

To outsiders, the Phoenix Police Department's Special Assignments Unit is meant to be an overwhelming show of force. The inside story is much more powerful.

The 38 men and one woman who make up the SAU are a unique subculture of the police department. They are hand-picked after a rigorous testing process, which means they are among the smartest, savviest and most seasoned officers on the force. That also means they're outspoken, even to supervisors. They are passionate and thoughtful about their responsibility as police officers and openly critical of teammates when they screw up. They tease each other endlessly.

"A guy might have all the talent in the world," says Sergeant Brad Burt, another squad leader, "he can shoot real well, he can run real fast.

"But I've got guys here who think real well."

Breakfast is also a  daily planning session for SAU squads.  Jim Kliewer, Skip Roberts and Bob Knapp  get details on probation violators who they will look for during the day.
Breakfast is also a daily planning session for SAU squads. Jim Kliewer, Skip Roberts and Bob Knapp get details on probation violators who they will look for during the day.
SAU Lieutenant Stan Hoover, left, and Sergeant Bob Baker discuss a barricade with patrol Lieutenant Kelly Evans.
SAU Lieutenant Stan Hoover, left, and Sergeant Bob Baker discuss a barricade with patrol Lieutenant Kelly Evans.

Details

Photography by Jackie Mercandetti


On a sunny spring morning in mid-March, Fred Spitler is staking out a west Phoenix home to see if he can pick up a guy the homicide detectives want. Just before noon, a patrol car goes by in pursuit of a stolen vehicle.

"Let's help this guy," Spitler says, and takes off after the marked unit. The suspect ditches the car in a driveway and runs, his escape route a beeline down a row of neatly trimmed lawns and low bushes.

Spitler slows for the briefest of moments and glances at the uniformed officer, who also has gotten out of his car. He, too, is running, gun in hand, after the fleeing suspect who has started pulling small plastic bags of white powder out of his pockets, dropping them like breadcrumbs along the way.

"This is where age and experience comes in," Spitler remarks. "We're just going to drive along here because he's going to collapse here in just a minute."

On cue, the suspect stops suddenly in the middle of someone's yard and Spitler swerves his van onto the curb. He jumps out and instantly has the suspect on the ground; it's quite a few paces before the patrol officer catches up.

Within minutes other police cars arrive. A gray-haired patrol supervisor, obviously a pal, shakes hands with the white-haired Spitler. "Good job for an old guy," the supervisor says.

Fred Spitler is 53 years old, tall and well-built. He has been on the police department for 32 years. He has been on the SAU for more than 20 years, longer than anyone else on the unit.

But, surprisingly, not that much longer. Bob Olson has been on SAU for 19 years, Jerry Kilgore for 17. Jan Dubina, the detail's only woman, has stayed more than 16 years.

A couple years ago, someone figured out that the average age on the SAU was about 42.

On Spitler's squad alone, five of the eight guys have been together close to 15 years.

For more than a decade, Skip Roberts and Fred Spitler have held their squad's "point" and "point cover" positions. That means when the squad needs to make what they call a dynamic or crisis entry -- which they do dozens of times a year -- Roberts goes in first. Spitler is right at his back.

Gil Arredondo and Jerry Kilgore have been a step behind them, in rear guard positions. Jim Kliewer has been their sniper, although he often takes a rear guard position in "the stack," their entry team lineup.

It's a relationship of absolute trust and confidence, one that most of us will never experience, let alone truly understand. They don't look back because they don't need to. They are confident each man will do his job, cover his teammates' back, make the killing shot if necessary.

"I've worked with Skip for 15 years," says Spitler. "I just feed off him. I know where he's going to go, what he's going to do."

Dave Haas made the squad three years ago, Bob Knapp two years ago. Rich Shore is the newest, with a year on the unit. Despite their relative youth, all were experienced police officers before they joined the SAU.

They take the most ribbing. And they're still put a little farther back in the stack than they'd like to be. But when Dave Haas was shot by an armed robber two years ago, it was Fred Spitler who watched over him in the operating room while surgeons removed a bullet from his stomach.

Four months later, Haas was there with his squad mates, surrounding a pickup truck they had stopped on an access road off the Black Canyon Freeway in north Phoenix. The man inside, Aaron Gingras, had shot and killed a Phoenix couple merely because they had no drugs or money to give him when he'd knocked on their door, at random, the night before. When the SAU caught up with him, he was wearing body armor and holding a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.

Officers quickly removed several other occupants from the truck. But Gingras stayed inside. He kept his hand on the pistol.

Bob Baker, the squad sergeant, says he picked Skip Roberts to take one side of the truck and cover Gingras while Baker and Fred Spitler talked to him through the other window. "Because I know if and when that guy turns to shoot me -- because I'm the one talking to him so that's where he's focused -- Skip is going to shoot. I trust him to do that. He won't hesitate."

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