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.

Unlike the ramshackle detail Rodabough joined nearly 30 years ago, today's Special Assignments Unit is all about training. For these guys, the phrase "practice makes perfect" is not a cliché, it's a lifeline.

"We generally don't get surprised," says Pete Wechsler, the SAU's training sergeant for the past five years. Before that, he spent four years as an SAU squad leader. He teaches officer survival and tactical operations to police departments and other organizations all over the country. He gave firearms training to the bodyguards of the Saudi royal family.

Wechsler's training regimen for the SAU ranges from regular "shoot house" practices to complex scenarios staged in vacant buildings, often based on real-life situations that they think could have been handled better. In the past few months, among other things, they've practiced neutralizing terrorists at a Tempe business park and jumping from the skids of hovering helicopters to rescue hostages from a building at the Phoenix Police Academy.

The SAU frequently picks up people wanted by other police units. Here, SAU officers Dave Haas,  top, Rich Shore and Bob Knapp, bottom right, nab a probation violator who tried to flee by climbing up on his roof.  At bottom left is a patrol officer who spent the day with SAU, "test-driving" the squad.
The SAU frequently picks up people wanted by other police units. Here, SAU officers Dave Haas, top, Rich Shore and Bob Knapp, bottom right, nab a probation violator who tried to flee by climbing up on his roof. At bottom left is a patrol officer who spent the day with SAU, "test-driving" the squad.
SAU officers say their work is in many ways safer than other police jobs because they  
plan things out, have good protective gear and operate in large numbers. They are pictured here moments before jumping from the SAU van to serve a high-risk search warrant.
SAU officers say their work is in many ways safer than other police jobs because they plan things out, have good protective gear and operate in large numbers. They are pictured here moments before jumping from the SAU van to serve a high-risk search warrant.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

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"Seniority and discipline is primarily what makes a tactical team effective," Wechsler says. "Our snipers are very disciplined, our negotiators are outstanding."

Last year, Steve Ecker, a veteran SAU sniper, lay in the bushes 88 feet away, across a small courtyard, from the apartment of Jason Delaware, a man who had threatened to kill himself and one of his mental-health counselors.

Ecker watched Delaware through the high-powered scope of his sniper rifle. Other SAU officers stacked up outside the apartment while negotiators talked to Delaware on the phone.

In the darkness, Delaware apparently spotted the red glow of Ecker's infrared flashlight and fired, striking the building near him. Ecker shifted position but Delaware fired again, this time directly at the partially concealed officer. Ecker shot back, striking Delaware in the bridge of the nose, killing him instantly.

It was the first time since the SAU was formed that a police sniper had taken a shot at a suspect.

They are trained not to miss. Twice a month, SAU snipers must put a 10-round course in a two-inch square within 30 seconds at a distance of 100 yards. They need a 90 percent accuracy rate to qualify.

Jim Kliewer has been an SAU sniper since 1994. He pulls a three-ring binder off his desk and flips through recent targets he's shot -- bright blue heads overlaid with a white grid, their centers punched out by the bullets he's fired. "98, 98, 98 -- oop, 95," he says. "That'd be a bad day."

Most of the time, Kliewer's job involves watching a suspect through the scope and relaying information to other officers. He's fired his sniper rifle during an operation only once in nine years. And even though he likes to joke that he shot a gun out of a guy's hand, the real story says much more about the way SAU operates.

In 1997, patrol officers responded to a burglary from a vehicle near Deer Valley Park. The suspect ran into the neighborhood and was cornered in a backyard. SAU negotiators tried to talk him into giving up the gun, but the man refused to surrender. Instead, he'd get up, walk around, wave the gun at the cops. Still, they waited him out.

Occasionally, the man would put the gun down next to him. "The plan was if he put the gun down, we'd shoot the gun and then converge on him," Kliewer says. "Unfortunately, they said, Kliewer, you're going to take the shot.'"

Kliewer was on a nearby rooftop.

"Bobby Olson was next to me and I said, If I miss, kill me now, 'cause I'm never going to live this down.'"

The guy put the gun down and Kliewer hit it with a single shot. It bounced up and hit the wall, disabled. Another SAU officer fired stun bags at the man and a police dog was set after him. He was taken into custody and treated for a bite wound, otherwise unharmed.

"This is honestly a thinking man's game," notes Jeff Green, who recently left the SAU. "It's not a shooting man's game.

"People have no perception of what SWAT does. They're constantly judging us. But it's really about preserving lives."


The SAU is made up of four eight-man squads. There are four squad sergeants plus a training sergeant and a training officer. With few exceptions, most of them have been on the detail for many years.

One of the relative newcomers is their boss, Lieutenant Stan Hoover. Although Hoover was an SAU officer (rear guard) from 1986 through 1990, he has only been back with the unit for the past year.

He appears perfectly suited for the head job, on a number of levels.

For one, he is instantly likable. "How do you think I keep the body of a dentist, I mean, Adonis," he quips just after an early morning stint on the treadmill.

He will tell you that his people "all know their jobs better than I do," which makes him simply a manager of highly motivated individuals. He encourages open discussion and frank critiques, even of himself, because, he says, their own lives and the lives of citizens depend on it. These are management practices that sit well with the tough guys who work for him.

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