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.

In February, some on the unit were vocally unhappy with Hoover's handling of a hostage-rescue training exercise, staged in a soon-to-be-remodeled Paradise Valley home. The "bad guy" made several appearances at a window, sometimes taunting the cops below, even parading the "hostages" in front of him. The training scenario called for a decision to be made: Take him out early with a sniper shot or let the situation play a bit longer, risking harm to the hostages but possibly saving a man's life.

Hoover opted to let it play out. Eventually, the order for a sniper shot was given, but not soon enough for the tactical team pressed up against the side of the house, watching him hold his gun to the head of a hostage. They'd been told the man had already killed at least one other person.

At a debriefing immediately after the exercise, some argued that Hoover should have given the sniper the green light to fire as soon as the bad guy came to the window, gun in hand. They talked about how they would feel if their own families were in that situation and the police held back. They grumbled that maybe Hoover was concerned about how this would all look in the press. Or perhaps he was worried about what the "Fourth Floor" (the chief and his top assistants) might think, and how a shooting might affect the lieutenant's career.

SAU Lieutenant Stan Hoover on the scene of a bomb threat in downtown Phoenix earlier this year.
SAU Lieutenant Stan Hoover on the scene of a bomb threat in downtown Phoenix earlier this year.
SAU Officer Billy Clark takes a minute to hand out police stickers to neighborhood kids. "He does that everywhere we go," remarks another officer.
SAU Officer Billy Clark takes a minute to hand out police stickers to neighborhood kids. "He does that everywhere we go," remarks another officer.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

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Tough crowd. But Hoover took it with remarkable grace. He sent them all to lunch.

"I don't know how you can do this job unless you're willing to have that kind of discussion," he says later.

"When you're dealing with hostages, barricades and high-risk warrants, the correct decision is usually right there in front of you," Hoover says, noting that the officers who are closest generally make the right call themselves.

"Sometimes," he says, "I have to pull back on the reins, slow things down, make sure we are in control."

His quick humor and ready handshake clearly serve him and the department well. He frequently arrives in the middle of highly charged situations where he must take command away from cops who are often deeply invested in a situation. If SAU is involved, SAU assumes tactical control of an operation, handing it back only when they've decided they're done.

But Hoover and his crew, already tagged as the A-Team of the department, do the heavy lifting and then pack up and disappear. It's those other cops who take down the names, write the reports and spend hours booking suspects into jail.

In April, Hoover is at the base of Camelback Mountain, deploying his SAU troops to look for Alan McMahon, who the day before had shot his neighbor's brother in a dispute over a dog. The homicide happened in Scottsdale, but McMahon's van is parked on the Phoenix side of the mountain. The police think he may have gone up the hill to kill himself.

Hoover moves easily between the Scottsdale police honchos who have come to the scene and the patrol supervisors from Phoenix's Squaw Peak precinct who have been on site for hours. There is much handshaking with the Squaw Peak officers; before returning to SAU, Hoover was their precinct lieutenant.

He respectfully introduces himself to the Scottsdale crowd and immediately includes them in the tactical planning. He sends some Scottsdale SWAT officers out with his own guys. The Scottsdale commanders soon back away to the shade of trees on the other side of the street.

Up the hill, Hoover's tactical teams inch up on McMahon's van only to find that it's empty. They spend the next few hours searching the lower reaches of Camelback, to the edge of the Phoenician golf course. It's still possible, although unlikely, everyone agrees, that McMahon is holed up with a gun somewhere.

Now Hoover's biggest worry has become the desert itself -- heat and dehydration can set in fast when you're dressed in even the lightest of body armor and carrying heavy weapons. A hefty supply of water and snacks arrives with the department's air-conditioned mobile command center. Teams are rotated in and out and a couple hours later they call it quits. (Police will find McMahon the next day, high up the side of Camelback Mountain, dead. He has either fallen or jumped from a ledge.)

It's been a good day for what Hoover likes to call "customer service." He sees the SAU as a major support service for other agencies and units within his own department that are overwhelmed with cases. His people are better suited and more readily available to handle the more dangerous warrants and arrests.

Every SAU officer serves as a liaison to other police units. When they're not training or out on a barricade, they're helping out elsewhere in the department.

Two weeks ago, the SAU lent a hand to Detective Chris Metelski who works crimes against children. She had a warrant for a young man who was trying to buy a baby, the first case of its kind in the state, and she needed it handled carefully. Undercover detectives made the case -- the guy gave them $500 for a one-month-old they told him was out in the car. But it was SAU officers who took the man into custody when he came out to the parking lot.

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