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.

According to a detailed report on the incident, witnesses (including a motorist who wasn't paying attention and drove right up on the scene) confirmed what happened next. Baker told Gingras over and over again to put down the gun and get out of the truck.

But he didn't.

"You could just see that look in his eye, that he'd decided what the heck he might as well go for it," says Baker. "He got about a half turn and Skip killed him."

SAU negotiator Jan Dubina and Sergeant Pete Wechsler on  the scene of a barricade in north Phoenix. The man, who'd been armed with a sword and several shotguns, was arrested without incident.
SAU negotiator Jan Dubina and Sergeant Pete Wechsler on the scene of a barricade in north Phoenix. The man, who'd been armed with a sword and several shotguns, was arrested without incident.
SAU officers brief a search warrant.  The team carefully plans each operation, including how it will go into a building  and what tactics it will use.
SAU officers brief a search warrant. The team carefully plans each operation, including how it will go into a building and what tactics it will use.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

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Baker, who keeps track of such things, says Roberts, in the point position, comes face to face with an average of five armed people a year, during search warrants or barricades. Countless times a year, Roberts and the other SAU officers encounter armed suspects who they've pulled over or come in contact with on the street. Last month, Baker's squad alone made 39 felony arrests.

In early May, it is Roberts who is the first to enter a small hotel room at the Les Jardins on Fourth Avenue and Clarendon, where the SAU is helping serve a number of search warrants simultaneously with other officers. The police want to break up what they believe is an ongoing criminal operation -- drug trafficking and other illegal activities. The SAU has been given the task of taking down a couple of the riskier rooms, including the one where a murder suspect is believed to be staying.

At 8:30 in the morning it's already hot, and a dozen guys in 40 pounds of gear -- body armor, helmets, vests loaded with radios and tools, rifles and handguns on the side -- are stuffed in the large transport vehicle used by the SAU on these kinds of operations. It's so crowded that some stand and hang on to an overhead bar for support.

Ten very long minutes later, they're still waiting in a line of other police vehicles, some marked, some not, that have queued up at the staging point, the Park Central Mall.

"What is the hang-up here? What are we waiting for?" A couple of the guys finally pound on the cab window and grill the driver, who replies, dryly:

"We're waiting for Fire. Apparently their GPS system isn't working and they can't find Park Central Mall."

That brings a hoot all around. And the tension that goes with being keyed up and ready to just do this thing is vented. At least until the van starts rolling.

One squad is dropped at the entrance to the hotel, the other continues on and parks at one end of the building, near the bottom of an outside stairway. Within seconds, Baker's squad is up the steps and banging on the door of the end room.

This time, Roberts' command to open the door gets an answer. A woman pulls it open and is immediately taken outside. Inside, a man is in bed, his hands under the covers. A pistol is on the second bed, within easy reach.

"Put your hands up! Do you hear me?" Roberts shouts, more than once. The man on the bed says nothing, but he begins to move around.

One of the squad members throws a "flash bang" diversionary device -- an explosion accompanied by a bright flash of light. The bang is enough to stun the man, who finally lies still and is taken into custody.

He turns out to be the murder suspect they have been seeking. There is much speculation about whether he was thinking about going for the gun or was just another meth freak. But, they agree, he just didn't have that look in his eye.


The SAU of today began life in the mid-1970s as the SEU -- the Special Enforcement Unit. Lyle Rodabough, now the commander of the department's planning and research bureau, joined the SEU as an officer in 1975. Police departments all over the country were creating SWAT teams, following Los Angeles' lead after the Watts riots of 1965.

"We had some good street cops, some tough old sergeants, but training was few and far between," he recalls. "We came up with a sniper rifle for each officer, but it wasn't the right caliber. In the beginning, they struggled."

A couple of tragic incidents here, including one involving a man who killed his wife and daughter after holding them hostage, convinced police administrators of the need for a special squad, Rodabough says.

"When I was a young sergeant, if you had a barricade, it was yours. You had to solve them. On the night shift, the youngest and the newest officers faced most of them and they were pretty trying. We needed some people with real experience to handle them. Besides that, it takes all your resources and then there's no one to handle all the other calls in the precinct."

In the 1980s, the SAU blossomed. A good training sergeant was brought on, operations were briefed beforehand and debriefed afterward. They started getting the best equipment. The squads grew.

Rodabough calls today's SAU "right up among the very best in the nation. I think they're that good."

"They are not the Dirty Harry guys. Sometimes they like to be perceived as that, but they're really not."

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